The D.B. Cooper Theory That Would Change Everything

On November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man boarded a plane flying from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington carrying a briefcase and wearing a dark suit, white shirt, a black tie, and sunglasses, per the FBI. His ticket, which was paid for in cash, identified him simply as Dan Cooper. The nondescript man did little to draw attention to himself as the plane boarded, aside from ordering himself a bourbon and soda. However, once the plane was in the air, Cooper signaled for the flight attendant, a young woman named Florence Schaffner, and handed her a note.

At first, Schaffner thought nothing of it, as she believed he was simply a businessman attempting to flirt with her by giving her his phone number. She slipped the paper into her pocket and might have forgotten all about it, until she passed by again, and the man made a motion to get her attention. He leaned toward her and quietly told her she had better read the note because he had a bomb on board, opening his briefcase to show her a glimpse of batteries, wires, and red sticks contained inside.

Cooper demanded four parachutes and $200,000 in cash

Schaffner delivered the note to the plane's captain, with a transcribed list of Cooper's demands: two front parachutes, two back parachutes, $200,000 cash (the equivalent of $1.2 million today), and a fuel truck waiting for them at the Seattle airport to refuel the plane, via Rolling Stone. Cooper demanded the note back from Schaffner after it had been read by the pilot, so its exact wording has never been recorded, although some witnesses do remember that it contained the phrase "no funny business," per Crime Museum.

The pilot contacted air traffic control, who urged the flight crew to comply with Cooper's demands, and the plane circled around the Seattle airport for two hours while authorities scrambled to meet all of the ransom note's demands. Cooper was true to his word, allowing the flight's 36 passengers to leave the plane safely, in exchange for the four parachutes and $200,000 worth of twenty-dollar bills. With the ransom demands met, Cooper then ordered the plane to take off again, en route to Mexico City with only himself, the pilot and first officer, a flight engineer, and a flight attendant left on board.

Cooper leapt from the plane with a parachute and disappeared

Per Britannica, D.B. Cooper also demanded that the pilot fly low and slow, at just 10,000 feet and less than 200 knots. Around 8 p.m., Cooper lowered the rear steps and took a daring leap out of the plane somewhere over southwestern Washington, never to be seen or heard from again. The only trace of the mysterious Cooper appeared years later, in 1980, when a young boy exploring the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state came across packets of cash totaling $5,800, which authorities confirmed matched the serial numbers of the bills that had been given to Cooper.

Some people believe it is impossible that the man calling himself D.B. Cooper survived the fall at all, but despite an extensive search of the area between Seattle and Reno, a body has never been found. Others believe this may simply have been an incredible case of a man who defied the odds and escaped with the money, living out his life somewhere in the world undetected. The FBI spent 45 years trying to track down the true identity of D.B. Cooper, perhaps the world's most infamous skyjacker, before finally officially calling off the investigation in 2016, per History.

Some believe D.B. Cooper's real identity is Robert Rackstraw

However, one documentary filmmaker believes they may know the man behind the alias. In 2016, documentarian Thomas Colbert released a film claiming that the man known only as D.B. Cooper was really an Ohio native named Robert Rackstraw, according to Decider. According to Colbert, Cooper not only survived the fall, he went on to live a long, colorful life, racking up a lengthy criminal record along the way and eventually settling in San Diego, California.

Rackstraw was a Vietnam veteran and paratrooper, so he would have the skills needed to execute the hijacking and subsequent daring escape. He also had a shady past, according to those who knew him. "He had a criminal mind," Robert "Pudgy" Hunt, a former colleague of Rackstraw, told The Oregonian in 2019. In 1978, Rackstraw faked his own death in an airplane crash to evade charges of passing bad checks and stealing a plane, just months after he was acquitted of murdering his own stepfather by a sympathetic jury, per The San Diego Union-Tribune. He was convicted and served time in Folsom State Prison, after which he went on to start his own business and earn an economics degree from the University of San Francisco.

Rackstraw died in 2019

After an analysis of his explosives training, paratrooper experience, and photos, which show a striking physical resemblance to descriptions of the skyjacker, Colbert and his team of investigators determined that Rackstraw was the man behind the crime. Perhaps most damningly, Colbert enlisted codebreakers to analyze letters, allegedly from Cooper, that had been sent to newspapers in the years after the incident, although many investigators believe they were likely a hoax. The codebreakers zeroed in a string of supposedly random numbers in one of the letters, which they determined to be a code, which, when translated, identified the letter writer as "1st LT Robert Rackstraw," per Oregon Live.

Rackstraw himself had even previously hinted that he was the famous hijacker, once telling reporters "I wouldn't discount myself," via The Oregonian, although later he would say that he was simply joking. While he was briefly investigated by the FBI in connection with the Cooper case, they eventually ruled him out as a suspect, believing him to have been too young at the time the crime occurred, per The San Diego Union-Tribune. Throughout his life, Rackstraw never confessed nor definitively denied the rumors that he may have been the real D.B. Cooper. Rackstraw passed away in 2019, at the age of 75, per Oregon Live. And while some people, like Colbert, remain convinced that they have finally cracked the case, the real truth behind the mystery of D.B. Cooper may have died with Rackstraw.