Fictional Interviews with Nonfictional Men A Fictional Interview with the Nonfictional Man Known as D. B. Cooper
D. B. Cooper is immortal because he only lived for a couple of hours, from the time he boarded the Boeing 727 until the time he jumped out of it.
This is Fictional Interviews with Nonfictional Men , a column of fictional interviews by Calvin Kasulke that investigates masculinity, notoriety, and what it means to be private in public.
I don’t know why I expected a cabin. Just because he jumped out of a commercial airliner and parachuted into the forest below one time , that doesn’t mean he must especially love the woods. It definitely doesn’t oblige him to make a permanent home there. Still, when my car pulled up to his domicile—which was not a cabin—I was surprised. Or, more precisely, I was disappointed, but I reallocated the force of that feeling to one of mild surprise in order to defuse my unhelpful reaction moments before a big interview.
While I can be precise about my emotional state before it began, the conditions of securing this big interview require that I be imprecise about almost every other detail involved in its execution. If I insist on describing something—a bad habit, endemic among journalists—it must be described in the negative. For instance, I can tell you his residence was not a cabin, but I can’t tell you whether it was a tacky McMansion or a ground-floor studio apartment or a geodesic dome; I can tell you he was elderly, but I can’t reveal his precise age; and though I am extraordinarily, stridently forbidden from publishing his legal name, my subject has helpfully been using the same pseudonym for the last fifty years.
I exited the car and was greeted at the entrance of the not-cabin by the man known as D. B. Cooper.
He never meant to be known as D. B. Cooper. He never meant to be known at all, but the name he gave the airline was Dan Cooper. The D. B. initials were mistakenly attributed to our Cooper when a different man in the Portland area—whose name was actually D. B. Cooper, who had previously been in trouble with the law (not “hijacked a plane” trouble, but some trouble)—was contacted by the authorities in association with the skyjacking perpetrated by “Dan Cooper.”
(Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the name for Cooper’s crime: skyjacking . Skyjacking ! The crime was so common in this era that it earned its own punny portmanteau!)
The wire service reporting on the incident mixed up the two Coopers, and so the pseudonymous Dan Cooper became known as D. B. Cooper, and the Portland resident D. B. Cooper presumably started going by something else. Dennis, maybe. I don’t know. That’s not the Cooper I spoke to.
The D. B. Cooper I spoke to— the D. B. Cooper—requested (demanded) anonymity as a condition of this, his first and only interview. I agreed. So I can’t, for example, reveal D. B. Cooper’s legal name. But that doesn’t mean I can’t capitulate to another of those terrible journalistic habits and attempt to tell you who this man really is.
This is the part of the interview where, typically, I would describe him. “The Cooper I spoke to was [height], with [hair] and [eyes] that [assertion that a feature of the subject’s body either conveys or contradicts their personality],” etc. Except, as I outlined above, physical descriptions are largely verboten—the wages of access journalism is dearth—so in place of describing his body, I’ll describe the feat that made him infamous.
“On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man identifying himself as Dan Cooper bought a plane ticket from Portland to Seattle. He hijacked the plane, claiming he had a bomb in his briefcase, and demanded $200,000 and four parachutes. He jumped out of the plane with the money and the bomb somewhere over the Pacific Northwest, never to be seen again. The FBI claims to have investigated over a thousand people, including dozens of deathbed confessions. In 2016, forty-five years after the hijacking, the FBI suspended its investigation of the case. While the FBI is no longer looking for D. B. Cooper, there is a community of people who are trying to solve the case on their own. Welcome to The Cooper Vortex .”
Okay, I lied. This isn’t my description of the crime; it’s Darren Schaefer’s. Schaefer is the host of The Cooper Vortex , a podcast named after the forum community whose denizens obsessively discuss and dissect the D. B. Cooper case. I specify “forum community” because, as Darren explained to me via video chat this past July, the whole thing began as a single post on a skydiving forum and spun off from there. The original post went up on February 4, 2008. At the time of this writing, it has garnered 64,030 replies. It is the real-life version of this tweet .
Schaefer’s podcast interviews prominent figures from the eponymous Cooper Vortex, many of whom are considered experts on the Cooper case by their forum-mates. Many have written books on the topic, most of which are self-published. While The Cooper Vortex is, of course, about the Cooper case—trying to determine who Cooper is, if he survived the jump, and, if so, did he escape with the money—it’s also about the people who are obsessed with the Cooper case. Who is the kind of person who still, fifty years after this common-at-the-time crime was executed, gives a shit?
The case that D. B. Cooper did not survive the jump from the plane goes like this:
• Jumping out of a commercial airliner, at night, over that particular terrain, would be difficult for even an expert paratrooper.
• None of the $200,000 that Cooper was given in exchange for the safe return of the plane and its crew ever turned up in circulation, something that almost certainly would’ve happened no matter how he spent, deposited, or laundered it.
• However —and it’s a hefty however—$5,800 of that $200,000 was found on a beach on the Columbia River in 1980 . (The FBI identified the money via the serial numbers, which they were absolutely tracking.) An alive D. B. Cooper probably wouldn’t just leave behind a chunk of his ransom money to partially decompose in a riverbed.
The case that D. B. Cooper did survive the jump goes like this:
• No corpse matching the description of Cooper has ever been found in or around the area where he could’ve landed, and people have looked .
• There’s no missing person report from that time that could plausibly match the description of Cooper (as reported by the flight attendants and his fellow passengers), and someone probably would’ve noticed if their husband or brother or colleague just disappeared, especially if a sketch that looked a lot like him was being published in newspapers and shown on the news in connection to an unsolved skyjacking.
• I am sitting right in front of him.
“I’ve read anywhere between dozens to over nine hundred people have confessed to this crime,” Schaefer told me during our video chat. “So we’re way beyond your grandpa saying, twelve minutes before he dies, ‘Hey, I pulled off the D. B. Cooper skyjacking.’ Because I already know a bunch of people who have done that.”
I asked Schaefer what evidence he would need from someone claiming to be the real D. B. Cooper to believe they truly, really, were the infamous skyjacker.
“We would need the money, the parachute, if he had a ticket stub left after all this time,” he said. “There has to be something.”
While visiting him in his unspecified domicile, I asked Cooper for physical proof of his Cooper-dom. (The promise of some kind of verifiable evidence was arranged as part of my traveling to meet him, though this has more to do with justifying expense reports than my skepticism that this geriatric man was trying to deceive me.) The parachute, he said, was long gone—he could see no reason to take it with him after he landed.
Cooper explained this as he crossed the room, but he moved so slowly that we were well out of parachute-talk before he returned and placed a fireproof lockbox on the table between us. Another few minutes passed in mostly-silence as he once again had to stand up and search for the key to the box.
“We would need the money, the parachute, if he had a ticket stub left after all this time.”
To kill time while he searches, let’s return to Darren Schaefer of the Vortex podcast, whose goal, were we to swap places, might first be learning about the immediate aftermath of the skyjacking. “I am dying to hear any post-jump story,” he said during our call. “If you want to make one up right now, I’ll listen to it, because there really is no story after he jumps out of the plane.”
Schaefer continued: “Even [in] a lot of the confessions, there’s no real landing story. So if there was a real compelling ‘Hey, this is where I landed, this is what it looked like, this is what I did with the parachute, then I walked to the store and broke in and stole gloves and beef jerky,’ that would add a lot of credibility to it.”
I pitched this to Cooper as he looked for the key to his lockbox. He rejected it on the grounds that he never liked beef jerky. Eventually, he returned, key in hand, and revealed the box’s contents: a bundle of decrepit twenty-dollar bills whose serial numbers matched those given to Cooper during the course of his skyjacking, and a ticket stub for seat 18C on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 out of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport at 2:50 p.m. on November 24, 1971. Incontrovertible proof that the man sitting across from me was D. B. Cooper.
You can feel the “but” coming, right?
Of course it was an anticlimax—and not just in the clichéd “the journey is the destination” kind of way where one attains one’s goal only to realize it’s not ultimately fulfilling. It’s actually very satisfying to know, with certainty, the identity of D. B. Cooper. But that man I spoke to wasn’t D. B. Cooper.
Or rather, he was D. B. Cooper. Past tense. Now, he’s just another old man with a box full of paraphernalia from his glory days, though the “glory days” in this case involve multiple felonies. The man I really wanted to talk to was the Cooper still in the process of getting away with it, plummeting to earth with a bag of cash and a parachute. My ideal interview would probably put me in a parachute right beside him, falling on a parallel path toward the darkness below, asking him what he thought the odds were that he’d land in a clearing in the woods instead of drowning in the Columbia River. In this fantasy, our interview ends when his chute unfurls and he can no longer hear me as we drift apart in the darkening skies.
The present-tense Cooper did have some trouble hearing me, actually. Faulty hearing aids.
D. B. Cooper is immortal because he only lived for a couple of hours, from the time he boarded the Boeing 727 until the time he jumped out of it, $200,000 richer and already wanted by the FBI. The question as to whether he survived the jump—Schrӧdinger’s Drop—created the uncertainty required to make D. B. Cooper transcend death. His continued evasion of the authorities turned him into a character from folklore, a mythic antihero who was either a very clever criminal or a very rich ghost.
The real Cooper, the man who hasn’t answered to the name Dan Cooper since November 1971, has been living in the shadow of his myth ever since. How can you top that? How do you live your life knowing exactly what your legacy is, and it’s not even yours . The story of D. B. Cooper belongs to the people arguing on parachutist forums and The Cooper Vortex and people watching reruns of Unsolved Mysteries . It belongs to everyone but Cooper.
Meeting him in person only drives that point further home. He’s a guy with a different name, a home address, unopened mail; he’s no longer Skyjacker Bigfoot. Even if you’re one of the Cooper Vortex denizens with a theory about Cooper’s true identity—even if you’re right!—he can’t be who you want him to be.
A man you can identify can never be the man who got away with it. You can be a guest in his home, sit across a table from him, you can count the serial numbers on his decaying ransom money, but you can’t meet D. B. Cooper, even when you do.