Man in suit who hijacked Boeing before jumping out plane and vanishing forever

He looked just like any other businessman as he boarded the plane.

Sharply dressed in a black suit, tie and sunglasses, Dan Cooper calmly ordered a bourbon and soda and chain-smoked as he waited for take-off.

But this was no ordinary passenger.

Cooper proceeded to hijack the plane, demanding $200,000 in cash, and then leapt out of the craft mid-air… never to be seen again.

His real identity has not been discovered and it remains the only unsolved skyjacking heist in American aviation history.

But Eric Ulis, the world’s leading Cooper expert, who has spent 12 years investigating the mystery – believes he may finally have some answers.

He says: “I’m interested in the case because I want to know the truth. It’s so fascinating because we know so little.”

On November 24, 1971, Cooper bought a one-way plane ticket from Portland, Oregon to Seattle in the US.

As the Boeing 727 started its journey, he handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner that read, “I have a bomb”, before showing her a bag containing explosives.

He told Florence to pass on his demands to the captain: he wanted four parachutes and $200,000 – almost £1million in today’s money – to be brought onto the plane in Seattle.

The plane circled in the sky for two hours while airline managers organised the ransom money – but none of the other 35 passengers on board was told it had been hijacked; just that it was experiencing a “minor mechanical difficulty”.

Once the plane landed, with the passengers safely off and the ransom money and parachutes delivered, Cooper told the pilots to fly him to Reno, Nevada.

But half an hour later, Cooper – later named D.B. after he was mistakenly called that in a news report – jumped out of the plane into the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest, never to be seen again.

Despite an extensive manhunt, huge FBI investigation and some of the cash being found, Cooper has never been identified.

Five years ago, the FBI officially suspended active investigation of the case – but now expert Ulis has made it his mission to solve the mystery once and for all.

He has scoured FBI records, spoken to eyewitnesses from the plane and combed the woodland where Cooper is believed to have fallen to search for his parachute and ransom money.

Ulis says: “The FBI doesn’t even know if D.B. Cooper survived the jump or not.

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“There are even a few conspiracy theories around the case, including one that says he was a US Government operative, but I think people tend to jump to these because it’s an unsolved mystery.”

Ulis believes the most likely culprit is someone who worked for Boeing, who had lost their job and was worried about their finances.

“I don’t think he was a career criminal – this was a one-off event,” Ulis says.

“In May 1971, a large aviation project in the US was cancelled, and a lot of people involved in the industry were left without work.

“I think it was somebody who lost their job due to this, and they decided to do something really drastic to get money.

“The time frame would have given him six months to plan the hijacking, too.”

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Ulis’s interest in the mystery is the subject of a documentary called The Final Hunt For D.B. Cooper.

For a long time, his chief suspect was Sheridan Peterson a former Boeing employee and skydiver from California who was interviewed by the FBI as part of the case.

Peterson, now 94, revelled in the speculation, even writing in an essay “The FBI Had Good Reason To Suspect Me”, while his ex-wife said it sounded like something her former husband would do.

But DNA belonging to Cooper, discovered while filming the documentary, proved he was not Peterson.

“I was 98% convinced that Sheridan Peterson was Cooper,” says Ulis. “The DNA not matching was a surprise.”

But he does believe DNA is the key to eventually unlocking the secret.

Ulis says: “DNA is conclusive. It is hard, concrete evidence that someone was or wasn’t D.B. Cooper, and I think this is the only way we can advance the case.

“There is a good chance Cooper is still alive, and it’s more likely than not we will solve this case now that we have DNA evidence to work with.”

Ulis also runs an annual CooperCon, bringing together fans of the mystery man, and is hoping this year’s will be able to go ahead to mark the 50th anniversary.

He adds: “D.B. Cooper became a cult figure really soon after the event. He was a bad-ass who did something straight out of a James Bond movie, so it’s not surprising he still has a lot of fans today who want to celebrate him.

“I’ve been working towards this anniversary for several years, and we are planning to mark it with a really big event.”

●The Final Hunt For D.B. Cooper airs Tuesday at 9pm on Sky History.

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