Paper Money

Hunt continues for 1971 skyjacker and ransom cash

A special "D.B. Cooper" insert depicts a 1971 FBI artist's sketch of the skyjacker. PCGS Currency created the insert to use for certifying $20 notes from the ransom money discovered in 1980.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Editor's note: The following is the first of a multi-part Coin World series about the 1971 D.B. Cooper skyjacking prepared by Michele Orzano for the August 2014 monthly edition of Coin World.

Read other posts in the series: 

Through the years Coin World has reported on many coin hoards that have been discovered around the world. However, money treasures are not always limited to coins.

Reports of people finding cash stuffed behind plaster walls or tucked away under the eaves in an old building or even buried in the ground come along on a seemingly regular basis.

But one story of “found” cash so captured the public’s excitement that it has become part of the shared American experience.

This paper money “treasure” story involves a ransom paid in connection with a skyjacking more than 40 years ago.

The name “D.B. Cooper” entered the American vocabulary shortly after a skyjacking (hijacking of an aircraft) on Nov. 24, 1971.

That day, a man carrying a black attaché case approached the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport in Portland, Ore., and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle.

He purchased his ticket using the alias Dan Cooper, but through miscommunication in the resulting media tidal wave, he became known as D.B. Cooper.

Eyewitnesses on board the plane recalled a man in his mid-40s, between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet tall, weighing 170 to 180 pounds.

He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, and a mother of pearl tie pin.

Shortly after takeoff, Cooper passed a note to one of the flight attendants telling her he had a bomb in his briefcase and that he was hijacking the airplane.

He demanded $200,000 in U.S. cash; four parachutes (two primary and two reserve); and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival.

Airline officials authorized payment of the ransom and FBI agents assembled the 10,000 unmarked $20 Federal Reserve notes, many of them Series 1969C with serial numbers beginning with the letter “L” indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

The plane circled Puget Sound near the Seattle airport for two hours waiting for Cooper’s demand to be met.

The plane eventually landed, and all 36 passengers and two flight attendants left the plane. Four crew members and Cooper stayed on board.

The money and parachutes were delivered and the airplane refueled. Cooper gave the pilot instructions to set a course to Mexico City, with a refuel stop in Reno, Nev.

Sometime during the flight, Cooper opened a door in the back of the airplane, lowered the attached staircase, and parachuted out into the darkness during a heavy rainstorm over rugged terrain somewhere between Seattle and Reno.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, local police, National Guard troops, civilians, and U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army personnel conducted extensive ground and helicopter searches around Mount St. Helens, the Lewis River, and other sites in southwest Washington.

Several years later, FBI officials said the area where Cooper most likely landed was the drainage area of the Washougal River, south-southeast of the original locations for the searches.

That area was also extensively searched, but nothing turned up at the time. All along, FBI investigators have insisted that Cooper probably did not survive his risky jump.

As part of their investigation, the FBI also distributed lists of the ransom serial numbers to financial institutions, casinos, race tracks, and law enforcement agencies around the world. Rewards were offered and the serial numbers were released to the public.

The hijacker has never been located or positively identified. The 43-year-old case remains the only unsolved air piracy in American aviation history.

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