The Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper, review: a true stranger-than-fiction mystery

Anita Singh
·2 min read
Was Richard Floyd McCoy the real DB Cooper? - BBC
Was Richard Floyd McCoy the real DB Cooper? - BBC

Here’s an illustration of how times have changed: being on a hijacked aeroplane was once considered fun. “Typically, it was Cuban nationals who wanted to return to their homeland. Everybody on the aeroplane would get a bottle of rum and a couple of cigars, they got back on the aeroplane, flew home and thought it was a really fun thing,” chuckled former pilot William Rataczak.

The Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper (BBC Four) was a documentary that couldn’t fail to entertain. The case is one of those delicious, stranger-than-fiction mysteries. On November 24, 1971 a hijacker who gave his name as Dan Cooper boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon. He handed the stewardess a note demanding $200,000 and four parachutes, and calmly opened his briefcase to reveal what appeared to be a bomb. Once in possession of the money and parachutes, handed to him during a brief stopover in Seattle, he instructed the pilot to set a course for Mexico City. Back in the air, he lowered the air stairs at the rear of the plane and jumped. No trace of him was ever found.

The crime turned Cooper into a folk hero. “I think he’s one of the slickest cats who ever walked on the face of the Earth,” said one man in a news bulletin. John Dower’s film picked up on the eccentricity of the story and its characters. He introduced us to people who were convinced they knew Cooper’s true identity. Jo Weber said her husband, Duane, made a deathbed confession. Marla Cooper claimed her uncle, LD, was the man, and that as a child she had overheard another uncle tell him: “Well, we did it, we hijacked the aeroplane, we’re rich and our troubles are over.” 

Richard Floyd McCoy didn’t seem a bad bet – five months after the Cooper case, McCoy pulled off a copycat hijacking. His former probation officer believed McCoy and Cooper were one and the same. And then there was the couple who said their friend, Barbara Dayton – formerly Robert Dayton, the first man to have a sex change in Washington State – had confessed to the crime.

Then Dower’s camera pulled back from the pictures of these four suspects to reveal dozens of others. It wasn’t a film about the identity of DB Cooper, but about the power of myth, the unreliability of memory and our desperation to believe in something. 

If the real DB Cooper ever does stand up, there’ll be a heck of a lot of disappointed people out there.