November 24, 1971. A tall, dark haired man in a suit boards Northwest Airlines Flight 305, bound for Seattle WA, on a stormy night. He sits in the middle seat of the last row on the right. Orders a bourbon and Seven Up. He seemed like no one in particular, until he handed one of the flight attendants a note just as the plane was taking off, informing her that he had a bomb and would like her to sit by him.
What follows is the epic, slightly kooky story of the hunt to find the man who called himself Dan Cooper, chronicled in Geoffrey Gray’s book Skyjack. Using a parachute and the aftstairs on on the 727, Cooper parachuted out of the plane with the $200,000 he demanded from Northwest and disappeared into thin air and folklore. As of today he is the only airline hijacker never to be caught or identified. Cooper became a cult hero at a time in our history when Americans were pretty down on America (pre-Watergate and during the Vietnam War), and his hijacking was seen as Everyman taking on the Establishmen– and winning.
Like any sensational event, the Cooper hijacking elicited a media firestorm, and conspiracy theories abounded. Suddenly every whack job in the country was the lost hijacker, or married to him. Every unexplained photograph, prolonged absence, personality disorder, or interest in flying was enough to bring possible candidates for Cooper out of the woodwork. Families became torn apart by the case, as relatives became obsessed with finding the hijacker or the money, or proving that their husband/son/brother was Cooper. Gray himself becomes a bit obsessed by the end of the book, struggling in vain to find even one piece of evidence that would crack the case.
It was interesting to see the slice of Americana that became involved in the case. No one seemed really “normal”, but to become interested in solving what many agents at the time called “the perfect crime”, you would have to be a bit off kilter. This book for me was more of a testament to what happens when someone starts to dig under the surface of any crime, or into anyone’s life, for that matter. What you find isn’t always pretty, desirable or understandable, and you don’t always get all the questions answered.
This was not my favorite book, but it was engaging enough to finish, and like the Cooper case itself, left you hanging at the end. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real story as I read. It does seem unbelievable in some parts. Gray describes his wacky cast of characters well, and did a good job helping the reader get inside their heads. I wondered what the real Dan Cooper would have thought of the people who tried to claim his name and his deed. I think he would have had a good laugh. Almost 40 years later, he has still not been found.