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13 July 2022

The last of the folk-hero hijackers

A crime mystery that fascinated 1970s America gets a new set of wings in the Netflix series DB Cooper: Where Are You?!

By Rachel Cooke

Hijacks used to be – perhaps I’d better not use the word fashionable – so very common. I first went on a plane at the age of nine, and in between vomiting over Swissair’s too-pink breakfast ham, I distinctly remember looking around nervously for balaclavas. But of all the hijackings that took place in the Seventies, when airport security was lax to the point of non-existent, the only one that can truly be said to have been successful was committed by a man known as DB Cooper, whose real identity remains, to this day, a mystery. In the US, an entire culture has sprung up around this individual: films, books, nerdy conventions. Something about his extraordinary crime seems to drive grown men – they’re nearly all men, I’m afraid – halfway round the bend.

The Netflix series DB Cooper: Where Are You?! begins straightforwardly by simply recounting the astonishing events of 24 November 1971 when, on a Northwest Orient flight from Portland to Seattle that would ordinarily have lasted only 37 minutes, a passenger in sunglasses and (it would later turn out) a clip-on tie, handed an air stewardess a note informing her of a bomb in his suitcase. Soon after this, he made his demands: $200,000 in cash and four parachutes. The latter was a particularly clever ask. Had he required only one, the authorities on the ground might have been tempted to indulge in sabotage; as it was, they could not take the risk that he would put members of the plane’s crew in the other three.

[See also: Why we will never understand Ghislaine Maxwell]

The plane landed, the passengers filed off, and the money and the parachutes were put on board. By now, it was dark and stormy. The hijacker, the plane having taken off again, asked the pilot to fly at only 200mph an hour, and as low as possible. The crew were all in the cockpit when they felt the pressure in the cabin change. The hijacker had jumped, taking his money with him. Where had he landed? No one quite knew. Had he died, or had he escaped? Again, no one has ever been able to answer this question. A body has never been found, nor a parachute. Quite quickly, however, DB Cooper (a false name) became a folk hero in the then economically hard-pressed US: a Jesse James of the sky; “the slickest cat”, as one member of the public told a news channel.

With its Mad Men-style titles, a groovy theme tune by the Emmy Award-winning composer Blake Neely, and its lavish use of old airline ads, the first episode takes you back to the days when flying was still inexplicably glamorous (unless, of course, you were a female flight attendant, in which case just about every glass of free bourbon signalled another round of sexual harassment). How strange to think of an airport without metal detectors; of buying a plane ticket on the spot, much as you would one for the Tube or a train. It’s quite gripping, too, when various crazy theories are offered up. There are so many suspects. Everyone has their favourite. Could Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran and convicted fraudster, have been Cooper? What connection does DB Cooper have to Dan Cooper, the hero of a series of Franco-Belgian comic books by Albert Weinberg, a one-time associate of the great Hergé? What motivated the hijacker? Can it really only have been the money? As someone notes, the cash wasn’t even enough to “buy an Arby’s franchise”.

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But then – doors to manual – things take a turn. The second half of the series is about the madness that comes of an obsession with an unsolved mystery like this one. So far, Tom Colbert, a former TV journalist, has spent on his investigation as much money as the hijacker got away with – a trail that has convinced him (surprise, surprise) of FBI involvement in the case (he sued the organisation at one point).

But Colbert isn’t the only one. Several others, pale-faced and smiling, perform for the camera, trying hard to make light of their “work” – honestly, they’re not obsessed; they just want to know the truth – while visibly twitching at the thought of theories that contradict their own; the notion that someone might get there before them, and thus steal the pot of gold. Poor things. Nothing puts them off. DB Cooper, if by some miracle he is still alive, must be laughing his head off. I picture him dancing in delighted, victorious circles in front of his TV screen, waving an old toupee like a flag as he goes.

DB Cooper: Where Are You?!

[See also: Roddy Doyle: The Wire was not about thrills but humanity]

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant