(The Associated Press)
A 1971 artist's sketch released by the FBI shows the skyjacker known as "Dan Cooper" and "D.B. Cooper." It was made from the recollections of passengers and crew of a Northwest Orient Airlines jet he hijacked between Portland and Seattle, Nov. 24, 1971, Thanksgiving eve.
By Curt Yeomans
The National Museum of Commercial Aviation, in Forest Park, is planning an exhibit on the man named "Dan Cooper," whose daring escape from an airplane he hijacked over the Pacific Northwest 40 years ago, made him part of American folklore.
Grant Wainscott, the museum's executive director, said he and other museum staff members plan to seek out any items related to the hijacking that they can find this fall, as they begin planning their exhibit. The exhibit will open when the museum's permanent facility opens, possibly as early as late 2012, near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, he said.
A mystique has grown around the hijacker, who became popularly known as "D.B Cooper," partly because of the way he escaped, the fact that he has never been found, and because his true identity remains a mystery that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is still trying to solve.
Wainscott said the museum currently has no Cooper-related items. "We're going to be doing an exhibit on D.B. Cooper, and we're on the lookout for artifacts related to what he did to include in the exhibit," Wainscott said.
The museum's plans come at a time when the case is receiving renewed attention. There are reports the FBI has received a new tip on the hijacker's possible identity.
On July 29, media reports circulated that the FBI confirmed it had received a "most promising lead" in the case, and was looking at a new suspect. A few days later, an Oklahoma woman, named Marla Cooper (who grew up in Washington state), went on ABC's "Good Morning America" television program, claiming her deceased uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, was the new suspect.
Wainscott said the speculation on whether Lynn Doyle Cooper was the hijacker is just the latest in a long history of occasional D.B. Cooper mania. "Every so often, he resurfaces and the case gets a lot of media attention," the museum's executive director said. "Then the attention dies down for a while, and then, something eventually happens to get it started all over again."
What D.B. Cooper did on Nov. 24, 1971, however, has made him into a mythical figure of sorts, as well as a part of aviation history. "He was a crook, but he kinda became a legend," according to Wainscott.
Cooper allegedly hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines flight, en route from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, Wash., after claiming he had a bomb on the plane.
He demanded, and received, $200,000 and several parachutes, and let other passengers get off the plane at Seattle's airport, before demanding he be flown to Reno, Nev., where the plane was to refuel before continuing on to Mexico City, according to the FBI's web site.
It was during the flight to Reno when Cooper did what became part of the basis for the mystique that surrounds him. He put on a parachute, lowered the plane's rear ladder and jumped into the night sky, with the money, the FBI's web site states.
That is where the known facts end, and the mysteries and theories begin. After 40 years, there are still several questions left unanswered. What happened to D.B. Cooper?
Did he survive the jump? If so, where did he go, and what did he do afterwards?
"There is a mystery of whether he made it," according to Wainscott.
And, then there is the overarching question that looms over the entire tale -- Who is (or was) D.B. Cooper?
"He jumped out of a plane mid-flight," Wainscott said. "It was such a daring escape, that it [still] fascinates people."
One small part of the mystery, concerning what happened to the ransom money, was partially answered in 1980, when a young boy discovered some of the money buried on the banks of the Columbia River, in southern Washington state. In all, $5,800 from the ransom money was found at that site, according to the FBI. The rest of the money is still missing.
The recovered money, which did eventually come up for auction, is the big prize for Wainscott, as far as possible artifacts for his exhibit go. "First, and foremost, the one item we would most like to get would be a piece of the money, a piece of what he stole," he said.
Wainscott explained that he is interested in creating a D.B. Cooper exhibit at the museum "because we have a [Boeing] 727-100 [the plane Cooper hijacked was also a 727-100], and it's going to be in the museum, and it seemed like a good fit." The plane in the museum's collection is not the same 727-100 that Cooper hijacked, the museum official said.
The museum's executive director was tight-lipped on how the exhibit might be designed, claiming that he does not want someone else stealing his ideas. He did say, however, that he is looking to make the exhibit an educational experience for anyone who sees it. He explained that he wants people to learn how the hijacking impacted the airline industry.
"With almost every accident, or other incident involving an airplane, something good comes out of it," Wainscott said. "When the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] looks into an incident, there is generally a lot of research done on how that event happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again in the future ...
"We got what became known as the 'D.B. Cooper Switch' on all 727's after that incident. The plane's manufacturer retrofitted all of the 727s with a switch that makes it impossible to lower the rear ramp while the plane is in flight. Who knows how many other hijackings were prevented because of that."
As for the recent speculation on D.C. Cooper's identity, Wainscott expressed mixed feelings about the possibility that Lynn Doyle Cooper could be the infamous hijacker.
"You want to know who he really was, but at the same time, if you solve the case, it doesn't seem as fascinating anymore," he said.