A HOSTAGE aboard DB Cooper’s hijacked flight says he remembers the elusive crook as a suave and level-headed figure who exuded authority.
Then a 31-year-old teacher at Missoula Sentinel High School in Montana, Michael had ducked out of his classes early to make the flight, which first took off from Missoula at 1:13 pm.
The Boeing 727 stopped in Spokane and then Portland, where DB Cooper boarded, took a seat in the last row of the aircraft just behind Michael, and ordered a bourbon and 7UP.
Shortly after taking off for the final leg of the journey to Seattle, a sunglasses and suit-clad Dan Cooper – or DB, as he’d become known – handed a note to a flight attendant warning her he had a bomb in his suitcase.
In exchange for the lives of everyone onboard, Cooper was seeking two things: $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes.
Michael and his fellow passengers remained oblivious to the dangerous situation quietly unfolding in the cabin until the flight touched down at SeaTac airport more than two hours later than scheduled.
But Michael recounted to The U.S. Sun how he’d taken notice of the dapperly-dressed Cooper immediately after he boarded, sensing something unusual about his behavior.
“He was probably in his 40s, and he was wearing a jacket and a tie and he was just real quiet,” said Michael, now 84.
“He had a little briefcase and took the middle seat of the back row, which I thought was kind of unusual, but at that time I had no idea that anything bad was happening.
“Then something else strange happened when we took off: the stewardess came down and sat next to him in the aisle seat, and they were engrossed in a deep conversation.
“He never got up to go to the bathroom, which I had to do at one stage.
“But I couldn’t catch wind of anything he or the flight attendant were saying.
“He was just, I would say, cool. Whenever I looked at him, he just looked right back and stared at me, like he was the boss.”
The only inclination that something was wrong aboard Northwest 305 came when the pilot announced over the intercom that the aircraft was experiencing minor engine trouble and they needed to burn off excess fuel before attempting to land in Seattle.
In reality, the pilot was circling in the sky to buy authorities enough time to scramble together Cooper’s ransom money and parachutes.
The whole situation scared the hell out of me and made me never want to fly on an airplane again.
Michael’s focus on the odd dynamic between Cooper and the flight attendant was temporarily diverted when he realized Flight 305 had passed over Seattle.
“The pilot’s explanation for what was happening didn’t make sense to me,” remembered Michael. “I just kept looking out the window and wondering why the hell we were doing this.
“I had no idea a hijacking was going on but I realized there was probably something special going on between the guy in the back row and the stewardess.
“Occasionally, a stewardess would come from the front of the airplane to the back, talk to the stewardess sat next to the hijacker, and go back to the front of the plane.
“We were totally without knowledge that a hijacking was going on. I was more concerned that the pilot was lying and there was something seriously wrong with the airplane.”
Before landing, all passengers were asked to move up to first class and everybody obliged, except for DB Cooper and another passenger, Bill Mitchell, who was sitting across the aisle from the hijacker.
Mitchell eventually moved too, at the persistent pleading of a flight attendant.
After two-and-a-half hours, Flight 305 finally landed.
The aircraft taxied to the end of the runway and parked a significant distance from the terminal and all other aircraft.
“It all seemed suspicious at that point,” said Michael.
“I was then sitting next to a guy who worked for some government agency who’d recently investigated a hijacking and he thought something unusual was going on too.
“And then, the next thing we know, a fuel truck pulls up alongside the plane and then a few minutes later, a stewardess came walking down the aisle holding a huge sack with the name of a bank written across it.
“You could tell it was filled with money. And then she came back with a couple of parachutes.
“That’s when the pilot came on the speaker and told us to exit immediately.”
The passengers left the aircraft through the door at the front of the plane and crossed the runway to an airport bus.
While on the bus, Michael and his fellow passengers learned for the first time the truth of what had unfolded on Flight 305.
But this would be only the beginning of Michael’s entanglement with DB Cooper.
He explained: “Several burly FBI agents were waiting for us on the bus and one of them had a sheet of paper, and he started calling out the name of the passengers.
“The agent called D. Cooper and nobody answered. He called again and again, nobody answered.
“I thought he’d made some kind of mistake, so I spoke up and said, ‘I’m M. Cooper, Michael Cooper,’ and I saw the guy standing at the head of the bus scratch something off his sheet.
“They then took us to the terminal building, where we were interviewed by a handful of people. I gave them my identification and my information, described to them what happened, and then my sister picked me up and I spent the rest of the evening in Seattle.”
Michael’s sister drove him back to her house and left him for the night to go out to a party.
He would later discover that the agent who conducted the roll call had counted D. Cooper among the passengers on board the bus but not M. Cooper.
M. Cooper, as far as federal authorities were concerned, was unaccounted for and therefore presumed to be the hijacker.
After all the passengers exited, Flight 305 was instructed by DB Cooper to take off again in the direction of New Mexico.
Somewhere over southwest Washington, he parachuted out of the flight with the ransom and all of his belongings, never to be seen again.
Michael Cooper, meanwhile, was left alone with his thoughts at his sister’s home.
He was unable to call any of his friends or family members because his sister didn’t have a phone.
He could barely believe the events of the past few hours – and his disbelief was further suspended when he switched on the 10 o’clock news to see his name on the screen, identifying him as the skyjacker at large.
“The top story that night was the hijacking,” said Michael. “I was watching the footage, when one of those messages appeared along the bottom of the screen saying that the FBI was seeking Michael Cooper, a high school teacher from Missoula, Montana, in connection with the hijacking.
“I just shook my head in disbelief. I thought, ‘This can’t be true, what the devil has happened?’
“Because I couldn’t call anyone – not my wife, my parents, or friends – and say, ‘I didn’t do this, that’s not me.’
“I just got up and went to bed. It was all just too much for me to process.”
While Michael slept, back in his hometown of Missoula, the Cooper family’s phone was ringing off the hook with agents and reporters quizzing Michael’s wife regarding his whereabouts.
She was unable to provide them with any details – nobody had heard from him since the plane landed.
The FBI also contacted administrators at Missoula Sentinel High School, who informed the Bureau that Michael had left school early that day to catch a flight.
Speculation about Michael Cooper began to build on local news broadcasts, and his parents were also eventually questioned by cops in Sequim, Washington.
Within 24 hours, the FBI’s error was finally rectified and reports were changed to name Dan Cooper (who later became known as D.B. Cooper due to a printing error in an early news article) as the culprit cops were seeking.
Michael Cooper was never contacted by the FBI again.
More than 50 years later, he said he is still waiting for an apology from the Bureau.
“The whole situation scared the hell out of me and made me never want to fly on an airplane again,” admitted Michael.
“It took me quite a while before I was able to find the guts to go back.
“I also lost my faith in the federal government,” he added.
“I used to think that the FBI was the most professional organization in the world, and knowing that they made such a stupid mistake of just crossing off the wrong name and never even bothering to apologize just left a sour taste in my mouth.
“For years afterward, my income taxes were quite often checked and I had to go into the Bureau and justify my expenses, so clearly I still had a red flag against my name.”
Even now, every time Michael steps foot on a plane or hears one flying overhead, the first thing he thinks of is DB Cooper and his brush with death.
Some of his friends still tease him by calling him “DB,” much to his amusement.
For years, Michael held an annual event to recall the story of Flight 305 at Sentinel High and later Sequim High School, where he retired in 2011.
Michael doesn’t believe DB Cooper survived his perilous skydive and is doubtful investigators will ever learn who he truly was.
But he called the two FBI sketches of him “extremely accurate” and said he still believes he could pick the culprit out of a lineup today, all these years on.
“I think this Cooper guy was a very independent, very strong individual but I think he made a stupid mistake.
“I don’t think he’d have survived jumping out that plane, but that’s just my opinion,” said Michael.
“I think he died during the jump because the weather was so crummy.
“Maybe he was the perfect smoke jumper type […] but I always suspected he ended up in the woods of the area where he jumped and hit the ground.
“They found $5,800 of his money along the Columbia River [in 1980], I doubt he’d just be throwing away that kind of money if he’d lived.”
AN ENDURING MYSTERY
Where Cooper landed, and whether he even survived his jump, has never been determined.
The only trace of Cooper ever yielded came in 1980, when a child digging along the banks of the Columbia River in Tena Bar, north of Portland, unearthed stacks of rotting $20 bills totaling $5,800.
Further investigation linked the bills back to Cooper’s ransom.
The FBI published the bills’ serial numbers in the hope of fresh leads, but the vast majority of the cash was never recovered.
Cooper’s trail went cold again and the case has continued to baffle law enforcement and amateur detectives alike in the years since.
Today, the hijacking of Northwest 305 remains the only unsolved skyjacking in US history.
The FBI closed its investigation into DB Cooper for good in 2016.
A MISSED CLUE?
A key to finally unmasking Cooper may lie in a strange incident that happened over Eugene, Washington, the night before the heist, believes Cliff Ammerman, a retired air traffic controller who supervised Northwest 305 after its second takeoff.
Ammerman had just returned from his lunch break when he was informed by a colleague he would be supervising a “hijacked aircraft pretty soon” once it crossed over into Woodland, Washington.
“That was the first I heard about it,” remembered Ammerman, 81, in an interview with The U.S. Sun.
“We didn’t know much about what was happening onboard because we weren’t getting a lot of knowledge from the pilot.
“They were busy in the cockpit, communicating with the company and other people on the ground.
“Also, you have to assume the hijacker is in the cockpit […] so we were being really careful with everything we transmitted.”
Ammerman said he had no idea the hijacker claimed to have a bomb onboard. He was, however, aware of the ransom fee paid out and the number of parachutes Cooper had requested.
Ammerman said he was worried that the hijacker was going to make the crew bail out of the aircraft with him, leaving the 727 to crash to the ground unmanned.
The controller’s fears would prove unfounded, with Cooper skydiving out of the aircraft at around 8:13 pm.
Ammerman continued to assist Flight 305 up until it passed over Eugene, Oregon.
It later landed safely in Reno, Nevada, some seven hours after the terrifying ordeal began.
Ammerman was never interviewed by the Bureau.
He believes the FBI may have overlooked a few key details in their initial investigation, including a strange incident he was alerted to near Eugene, Oregon, the night before the skyjacking.
“They didn’t contact me, but the only thing I thought the FBI should know […] was something that happened the night before the hijacking that may have been pertinent,” he said.
“I was working another swing shift and late in the evening, sometime around 10 pm or 10:30 pm, someone from the Eugene [air traffic control] tower called and said, ‘There’s someone from an airplane dropping flares down by Cottage Grove,’ which is a community southeast of Eugene.
“He asked me if I’d heard anything about it and I hadn’t. So I checked the NOTAMs [Notice to Airmen] to see if anything was mentioned and there was nothing there.
“But after that hijacking happened, I thought to myself, ‘If this guy’s got someone on the ground waiting for him in a certain area, what better way to see a guy coming down than if he was using a flare?'”
When Cooper first hijacked Flight 305, he opened his briefcase and showed the flight attendant what she later described as a tangle of wires and two rows of four red cylinders – which she assumed was dynamite – attached to a battery.
However, Ammerman believes the red stick may have instead been flares – and the incident over Eugene the night prior may have been Cooper conducting a test run for his jump.
He explained, “My thought was, if they’re going to practice their getaway, they’re not going to do it where they were going to jump out.
“I made sure my supervisor contacted the FBI the next day and let them know about the incident but I never got any feedback from them.
“So I just assumed they checked it out and nothing came from it.”
The FBI long believed that whoever DB Cooper was, he was familiar with the area in which the hijacking was staged.
But the subject of whether he survived his perilous jump from Flight 305 has been fiercely contested for decades.
Last week, retired FBI agent Larry Carr – who oversaw the case for a total of six years – told The U.S. Sun he is certain Cooper died.
Contrary to popular assertions, Carr said Cooper was no master criminal and instead an unprepared thief with an ill-conceived plan.
A series of mistakes Cooper made in the planning and execution of his plot also indicate he had very limited – if any – prior skydiving experience and had no special military training, Carr believes.
[DB] was just, I would say, cool. Whenever I looked at him, he just looked right back and stared at me like he was the boss.
Among Cooper’s apparent mistakes, Carr pointed out that he failed to specify the kind of parachutes he wanted from authorities, failed to dictate a specific flight path he wanted the pilots to take before leaping from the aircraft, and didn’t have appropriate clothing or equipment to protect him during the daring jump.
Additionally, there was a strong storm in the Pacific Northwest on the night of the heist, and Carr believes anyone with prior military experience would have scrubbed the mission and waited for a safer window.
“Reading the investigative files, the picture I got of Cooper was that he was highly motivated but lacked the skill to effectively accomplish the mission he set out to do,” said Carr, who retired from the Bureau in 2022.
“Going back to the beginning, if you have military paratroopers and their mission is to jump behind enemy lines on this date, and it happens it’s a night jump and there’s a storm blowing through, then that mission is going to be scrubbed because it’s unsafe.
“So if Cooper knew about what he was getting himself into, he would’ve scrubbed the mission. He would’ve waited for a better window.
“That tells me he didn’t have military experiences or experience as a jumper otherwise he’d have scrubbed the mission for a better day.”
COOPER’S ‘LIKELY DEMISE’
None of the crew saw Cooper jump, and virtually all traces of the skyjacker vanished therein.
Carr believes Cooper’s trail went cold after the jump because he died.
Had Cooper lived, he says he has no doubt the FBI would have caught him.
“When you look at the breadth of the FBI’s investigation, every field office in the US had leads on this case. It was a full-court press by the FBI to get it solved for years,” said Carr.
“If he’d have survived the jump, we would’ve found him. The trail goes cold after he left the plane because he died. We’d have caught him, just like we caught everyone else.
“Because, here’s the thing, this isn’t rocket science; this doesn’t need a skilled investigator pulling apart a genius’ mind to work these leads and clues through a Sherlock Holmes ‘It was the butler’ type of thing.
“This is just a guy that committed a bank robbery in the sky and jumped to the earth, and lived among us or died. But suppose he lived among us, he would have been caught, just like they all were.
“It’s the same investigation. You ask questions and get the answers. And you follow up those answers with other questions. And when those questions lead you to someone else, you just do that.
“And we enlisted thousands of people to ask those questions and follow up those leads.
“And so I firmly believe, just like any other crime when you have 1000s of people asking questions and following potential suspects, you will always find something unless the person is no longer with us.”