By Matthew Clark
On November 24, 1971 an innocuous looking middle aged man, dressed in plain business suite, stepped up to the counter of Northwest Orient airlines in Portland, Oregon's International airport. He put $20.00 on the counter and asked for a ticket to Seattle, Washington, a 38 minute flight. The man gave his name as Dan Cooper, had no luggage except a black attache case, and after purchasing his ticket made his way to the Boeing 727 aircraft. Cooper sat at the back of the plane where he ordered a bourbon and ginger ale when the stewardess (now called flight attendants) took his drink order.
It was Thanksgiving Eve in the United States, usually a very busy travel day but this particular flight was only 1/3 booked. Americans were looking forward to a family holiday at the approaching end of a tumultuous year. Beside the cancer of the Vietnam War the country's citizens were dealing with the consequences of President Richard Nixon's decoupling of the United States dollar from the gold standard. Although this had only occurred in August of that year it was already having economic ramifications, principally on debt, and prices.
To the north of America Canadians were distracted from day to day events by the annual Canadian Football League championship, titled the Grey Cup Game. Vancouver, where the match was being held, was flooded with enthusiastic fans from Calgary, and Toronto, whose teams were playing in the yearly classic. Both teams claimed certain victory for their team. Ultimately Calgary would come away with the prize that year.
Early in the flight Cooper handed a note to stewardess Florence Schaffner which, she assumed, was his phone number, given to arrange a future rendezvous. She dropped the note into her purse, which prompted the middle aged man to say," Miss you better look at that note, I have a bomb."
Schaffner remembered the note instructing her to sit by him. When she did so Cooper opened the attache case which contained six sticks of dynamite attached to what appeared to be a detonator. What the hijacker then demanded was $200,000 in cash (1.3 million dollars in 2022 coin), four parachutes, and to be flown to Mexico City.
Throughout the following ordeal the different stewardesses found Dan Cooper polite, soft spoken, even nice, as Northwest Orient airline stewardess Tina Mucklow described him. At one point Mucklow asked Cooper if he had a grudge against Northwest orient, to which the hijacker replied," I do not have a grudge against your airline miss, I just have a grudge."
When the aircraft landed at Seattle's Tacoma airport, a necessary stop to pick up the money, and parachutes, the passengers, along with most of the crew, were allowed to leave the plane. After the four parachutes and $200,000 in cash were loaded onto the 727, the journeyed was renewed. Quickly after takeoff Cooper ordered everyone into the cockpit. The Hijacker stayed in the back of the plane. He also instructed the pilots to fly the aircraft at 10,000 feet, while keeping the flight speed at 200 miles per hour. Very soon after being airborne under these parameters the flight crew realized the airstair at the back of the 727 had been lowered. There was no further communication from the skyjacker, and it soon became evident that he had jumped from the aircraft. Later in the evening the plane landed safely. For the crew the drama was over.
Dan Cooper had jumped into history. His real identity remains unknown. The case is the only unsolved hijacking in American history. Countless individuals, and law enforcement institutions have failed to find a verifiable answer to the mystery.
Yet perhaps the solution lies in the name that the skyjacker used to describe himself. 'Les Aventures de Dan Cooper was a Franco-Belgium comic book series about a fictional Canadian military pilot who also parachuted from his aircraft on occasion. It started up in 1954 by Tintin magazine. being written and illustrated by the Belgium artist Albert Weinburg. Over time the series became popular in France, Belgium, and Francophone Canada. In one episode a hijacker jumps from the aircraft he was on.
More than one investigator, including Cooper Research Team leader Tom Kaye, who worked in co-operation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have suggested Cooper might have been French Canadienne, or an English Canadian familiar with the Belgium French comic book series. So many of the events of the famous crime match the adventures of Dan Cooper, comic book hero, it is easy to see why Kaye could reach that conclusion. However there is another indicator as well.
When talking to stewardess Tina Mucklow Cooper has claimed he had a grudge. What that grudge might have been goes back to 1958, thirteen years before the events of November 24, 1971.
In the 1950's Canada had a very large military for the size of the nations population. With a populace of 18 million people the country's armed forces numbered 250,000-300,000 frontline personnel. (Compared to today with Canada's inhabitants totaling 37 million who are protected by 68,000 frontline warriors). A large component of those numbers were in the Royal Canadian Air Force. As well the Royal Canadian Navy had two aircraft carriers, the Bonaventure and the Magnificent. It was a good time to be a pilot in the Canadian military, or somehow associated with the Royal Canadian Air Force, or the country's aerospace industry.
To solidify this situation the Canadian De Havilland Aircraft Manufacturing Company decided to build a state of the art fighter jet. Getting the best engineers in the nation together , the project managers went to work, naming the combat aircraft the Avro-Arrow. In remarkably short order the team succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Test flights done in the proto-type confirmed the engineers expectations. A new futuristic fighter plane was ready to enter production. Canadian aerospace was on the cusp of a new frontier.
Very quickly though, as the aircrafts flights met expectations, and beyond, word came from south of the border that the Americans were far from happy at this development. While the United States government and military leaders wanted the very best aircraft available t their pilots, they wanted those planes built in Seattle, not in Toronto, Montreal, or Winnipeg. Word swiftly leaked out that the United States military would have nothing to do with the Avro-Arrow. There would be no purchases from De Havilland. Worse they also pulled all their influential levers to make sure there were no international buyers for the Canadian craft. With this chain of events the Avro suddenly became a financial white elephant, costly with no chance of financial recompense. As well it would tie up military resources away from other endeavors at a time when the cold war was heating up in Berlin, and Asia. Reluctantly the Canadian government pulled their financing of the project, which forced De Havilland to shelve the Avro-Arrow.
For Canadian pilots, Air Force personnel, and members of the Canadian aerospace industry, the result was catastrophic. Engineers left the country en masse, going to Britain and France to work on the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, or to the States to work in the Space industry. The Royal Canadian Air Force started to downsize, sometimes decommissioning five hundred pilots at a time. Workers in the Canadian aerospace industry suffered a loss of jobs, with plants even closing. By 1971 Canadian military pilots, the few of them still employed, were flying obsolete 'Voodoo' combat craft. It was a substantial fall for a once proud service, and the accompanying industry, with whom they had had a symbiotic relationship.
So when 'Dan Cooper' entered onto Northwest Orient Airline 727 on November 24, 1971 he might have been harbouring a very deep grudge if he was a Canadian air force veteran, or a participant, current or former, in that nation's aerospace community. Be he a French, or English Canadian, it could well be one of the United States most captivating mysteries originates from The Great White North.'