“D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!” is Netflix’s documentary series about the tremendously famous D.B. Cooper, the man who hijacked a plane and then managed to vanish into thin air. Along with focusing on the suspects most believed to have been Cooper, the show also introduces a nice take on amateur investigators looking into the case and the influence of the mysterious criminal on popular culture. Despite not bringing anything new on the plate for those well acquainted with the case, “D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!” is an entertaining and riveting watch largely due to how it presents itself.
‘D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!’ Plot Summary: What Is This Limited Series About?
On November 24th, 1971, a man boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight at Portland International Airport, with features and an air about him that did seem to make him stand out from the crowd. The man was dressed in absolute formal attire, with a white shirt, black tie, and black business suit. He noticeably wore black sunglasses throughout a long part of the journey, even while inside the airplane. The flight had a rather short duration of thirty-five minutes to Seattle’s Tacoma Airport, but soon after takeoff, this man handed a printed note to one of the flight attendants. As the Netflix documentary puts it, flight attendants were really used to the advances of men during flights at that time, even to the extent of being sexually harassed very often, and the attendant, in this particular context, decided to put the note into her bag without paying any attention to it. The man now directly told her to read the note, for he was carrying a bomb with him, and this began a thrilling mystery that lives on even fifty years after. The note, which was in print, had the same claim written on it and also an order for whoever was reading it to sit beside the man. Once the flight attendant followed the order, the man opened a briefcase he was carrying with him and gave her a glimpse of dynamite sticks and a battery, also telling her how exactly he could arm the bomb and blow everyone up in moments. He then made his claim clear—the man was to be provided $200,000 in American currency and four parachutes.
As the attendant relayed all this information to the pilots and the pilots to the authorities, it was quickly clear to all that they would have to comply with the man’s demands. As he sat drinking his bourbon and smoking cigarettes in his seat, authorities landed the plane safely in Seattle, got all the other passengers out, and transferred the money and the parachutes inside. The man then ordered the plane to be flown again, this time with only him and four others—pilots and flight attendants—and at a specific low altitude. At one point, the pilots felt a sudden change in air pressure inside the plane, and realized that the aft door at the rear of the plane must be open. The attendant saw that the door, with stairs on it, was indeed open, and the hijacker was nowhere to be seen, meaning that he had jumped out.
The case quickly grabbed the attention of high American intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI, but it just had too many elusive uncertainties about it. At the time in the 70s, buying air tickets or boarding a flight had no security measures at all, and the experience was almost akin to that of a bus station, perhaps. The man, who told his name to be Dan Cooper while buying his ticket, walked into the plane with a bomb easily, as there was no metal object screening or anything of that sort at the time, and also managed to leave by pulling out an almost superhero-style stunt without much trace left behind.
It seems certain that Dan Cooper had a good experience with flying, as he knew about a jet’s ability to fly low and also possessed clear intelligence as he ordered for four parachutes, making it seem that he would make the hostages jump with him as well. Had he ordered just one for himself, the authorities might have rigged the parachute to either kill him or nab him, but with three innocent hostages, they could never take that chance. Finally, as Dan Cooper jumped out of the plane into the cold, dark, rainy night over a forested area in Reno, all that he left behind was his black tie and the stubs from the cigarettes he had smoked. Searches for the man were quickly launched in the Reno forests and its surroundings, but nothing could be found, prompting the FBI to start a serious investigation and manhunt for the case.
Who Was Robert Rackstraw, And Could He Be Proved To Be Dan Cooper?
Soon after the incident, newspapers and television shows began pouring attention into the case as it became immensely popular among the masses as well, and one such newspaper article had wrongly printed Dan Cooper’s name as D.B. Cooper. Although it was soon reported and stated that the name of the perpetrator was actually Dan Cooper, D.B. Cooper stuck in people’s minds and remained the name of the case, primarily because of how cool and mysterious it sounded. The FBI began its investigation and looked into a number of suspects, but no major lead was found until February of 1980, when a young boy and his family found a large stash of money on the shores of the Columbia River. Despite the fact that the notes, adding up to about six thousand dollars, had been destroyed due to being buried near water for so long, the serial numbers on them matched with the ransom money that was handed over to D.B. Cooper by the authorities in Seattle.
A writer and media executive named Tom Colbert, who later looked into the case with a lot of interest, found connections with real people in this regard, and started a long journey towards trying to uncover the real identity of D.B. Cooper; his information led to a man named Dick Briggs, who used to be a cocaine dealer by profession. The man apparently often claimed to his close friends that he was the real D.B. Cooper. One night during a party, when his friends encouraged him to produce any substantial proof of the claim, Dick Briggs pointed to a family of three sitting at a table and said that this family would soon stumble upon the money that the hijacker had disappeared with. To all his friends’ astonishment, that same family appeared on TV a few days later, saying how they found $6,000 from the ransom money.
Dick Briggs was investigated by authorities as well, but all of it came to an end shortly when Dick was found dead in a bizarre one-car-crash in Portland in 1980. Although his close friends still suspect that foul play to cover up something about the D.B. Cooper case was at play here, the man’s physical appearance did not match that of the perpetrator at all. However, even more astonishing leads were found from here, specifically when Tom Colbert and his friends started looking into Dick Briggs’ contacts and close associates. Among them was a man named Robert Rackstraw, who matched a lot with D.B. Cooper’s profile, even beyond his physical appearance. Rackstraw’s face is almost identically matched with one of the later sketches of Cooper, made based on witness descriptions. Rackstraw had also served in the US army as a pilot and had enough experience with planes and parachutes, and his army superiors from Vietnam mentioned an adventurous and thrill-seeking personality of his that was very well matched with the stunts of D.B. Cooper.
On top of it all, the man had been involved in a number of criminal cases, including ones regarding fraudulence, forgery, airplane theft, and even trying to fake his own death, only months after the plane jacking incident in Portland. The man remained in police custody for quite some time and was also investigated by the FBI, and through TV interviews from the time, it is clear that the man seemed to enjoy the attention that he was getting from being suspected as D.B. Cooper. He kept denying being Cooper, though, and in 1979, the FBI released him from any official investigation of the case, much to the surprise of everyone following it. Years later, Tom Colbert and his associates formed an investigative team called the D.B. Cooper Cold Case Team that even included members of the American Intelligence Service who were retired or close to retiring. Colbert and the others now reached out to Robert Rackstraw, who had by now established himself as a good law-abiding citizen as he stayed away from any criminal records after being released by the FBI. Rackstraw initially agreed to talk, as a fair sum of money was being offered to him by Colbert, who was writing a book on the case and was planning to make a documentary film as well, but he still denied being D.B. Cooper.
Finally, when Rackstraw denied having any connections with the writer-turned-investigator, Colbert and his team used techniques to pressurize the man into confessing an alter-ego identity. Colbert also managed to strike up a show deal with History TV, in which he and his team would present facts that they gathered about their theory of Rackstraw being Cooper, but this did not go according to plan when a witness and one of the co-hosts denied believing the connection on the show itself. After the show was canceled, Colbert kept his spirits high and kept trying to prove his theory, with Rackstraw now even suing him and his team. By this time in 2016, the FBI also declared the case closed and suspended, saying that no new information to solve it had yet been found. Colbert waged a legal battle against this and finally managed to get all classified information about the case released to the public.
His and his team’s primary claim as to why the FBI wanted to close the case so quickly was that Robert Rackstraw actually had connections with the CIA. Rackstraw had gotten close to a CIA agent during his time in Vietnam and had also been involved in top-secret black-ops missions, most possibly conducted by the CIA. In the American intelligence hierarchy, the CIA stands over the FBI. Therefore, the former can easily ask the latter to stop looking into a case that would compromise its own classified information, which is what Colbert claimed had happened. While this might explain the sudden drop in the investigation of the man by the FBI, people with differing opinions point out how no direct connection between Rackstraw and D.B. Cooper was ever found.
After the plane hijacking, some people used the name of D.B. Cooper to write taunting letters to the FBI which did not really include any information, but while looking at these letters after they were declassified, a member of the D.B. Cooper Cold Case Team claimed to have found direct links. This man, who also happened to be an expert of coded messages in American Intelligence, and a senior of Rackstraw in Vietnam, found connections between the codes in those letters and codes used for Rackstraw in the army. He even found sentences that could be codified to read “I’m Lt. Robert W. Rackstraw,” and claimed this to be conclusive evidence that proved Rackstraw was D.B. Cooper.
The team had also conducted a wide search in an undisclosed area that they believed to be where Cooper had landed and produced an old fabric that they claimed to be the parachute strap. While nothing conclusive could ever be proved by the authorities connecting the two men, other fellow D.B. Cooper investigators and debunkers claimed Tom Colbert to be just blindly believing things that he wanted to believe as facts. Because of a quite common nature among human beings, Colbert and his team members possibly believed and saw unrelated things as proof and evidence because they wanted to believe them inside their minds, and their whole investigation could be questioned. The codified message, for example, could be easily dismissed because the code method used to make D.B. Cooper appear to say “I’m Lt. Robert W. Rackstraw” could also be used to make it seem like D.B. Cooper wrote “I am SpongeBob SquarePants,” as one of the disbelievers presents it quite funnily. The strap of fabric could be literally anything, as the area it was recovered from was regularly used for lumbering activities. Besides, there was also the fact that Tom Colbert had put a lot of his own money into the investigations without any significant return, and some believe that he was even desperate enough to stage the whole Robert Rackstraw character and feud as a sort of publicity stunt. Irrespective of all the claims from both sides, nothing could ever prove that Rackstraw was D.B. Cooper, and whatever secret the man might have had, he took it to the grave when he passed away in 2019.
Who Were The Other Suspects In The Case? What Was The French Connection?
Other than Robert Rackstraw, there had been other suspects investigated by the FBI as well, but none could be established to be the man who jumped out of a flying plane with ransom money. A man named Richard McCoy had been arrested for a similar crime of hijacking a plane and then flying out of it, just a few months after the D.B. Cooper incident. McCoy was soon arrested and investigated by the FBI, but was ultimately found out to be just a plane hijacker copying the D.B. Cooper method. A man named Duane Weaver claimed to his wife that he was Dan Cooper before he died, but no certain leads could be found to support the claim.
Barbara Dayton, who had prior experience with flying, claimed that she was D.B. Cooper, as she had been born a man and had undergone sex change surgery two years before the incident. She claims to have posed as a man and done the hijacking, but very little matched her physical appearance, and other links ruled her out as well. Sheridan Peterson had been part of the US Marines during WWII and had enough experience with parachutes from that time as well as later when he worked as a smokejumper (a firefighter dropped via parachute to put out fires in remote areas like forests). But he did deny being Cooper and possibly also had an alibi of being somewhere else at the time in 1971.
Much later on, another connection and suspicion was established when amateur investigators looked into a very famous French comic that was in active circulation in Canada at the time. This comic featured a heroic man, a pilot by profession, who would often jump out of flying planes, wearing a suit and with parachutes on his back. The man was named Dan Cooper. The comic was also titled “Dan Cooper,” and it was a regular feature in the “Tintin” magazine that was popular all over France, Belgium, and French-speaking parts of Canada. The investigators claim that this could very well be looked at as a huge hint pointing to the fact that D.B. Cooper was probably a Canadian national.
At the time, Canada was going through a rough time politically and financially, and the aviation industry, in particular, was firing a lot of professional pilots, much to their dismay and anger. It could be possible then that such a Canadian pilot, disgruntled at losing his job, might have carried out the hijacking, for, in his demand, D.B. Cooper apparently mentioned “negotiable American currency.” Although these words were only relayed by the cabin attendant and might not be the exact words, the question of why an American individual would specifically mention “American currency” and not just a general term like money or dollars definitely arises. Along with this, the neck-tie that Cooper had left behind were found with traces of metals and minerals like pure titanium, cerium, and strontium, which were very rare at the time unless one worked in the aerospace industry.
Many had believed that Cooper was probably an employee at Boeing, since the company was involved in research with titanium, but Canadair in Montreal was also involved in similar research, as an investigator from Canada states. It is also stated that the writer of the Dan Cooper comic, Albert Weinberg, had said that one of his acquaintances from the Canadian military pilot program claimed that D.B. Cooper was someone they knew from work. Despite all these later claims, the fact remains that at that time in the 1970s, the United States had a pretty terrible relationship with Canada, and the FBI really could not, or were not allowed to if they had actually sought permission, to hold investigations in Canada.
‘D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!’ Ending Explained: What Is The Legacy Of D.B. Cooper?
None of these suspects, nor the French connection to D.B. Cooper, could ever be proved or brought into the case with any success, and the real identity of D.B. Cooper still remains as much of a mystery as it was on that day in 1971. However, despite his unknown identity, or most possibly because of it, D.B. Cooper has by now become a very attractive figure of interest in popular culture. From the time of the incident itself, the fact that the man hijacked a plane and took off with the ransom money without ever hurting a single human being was very well received by many ordinary people. Having stolen money from the high and mighty authorities without any repercussions made the man almost seem like the Robin Hood of hijackers, and this parallel was often drawn.
Gradually, people started to celebrate the legacy of D.B. Cooper, making shirts and other memorabilia with the man’s images and name on them, and by the turn of the century, this escalated even more. D.B. Cooper became almost a legendary and definitive icon who managed to steal from the government and then fool the FBI for fifty years. By now, there are bars and pubs with themes of D.B. Cooper, and a large gathering of people interested in the case come together in a comic-con style meet called Cooper-con. “D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!” brings all of this to the table, which does give a fresh new perspective on the mysterious figure of D.B. Cooper that might not always be available to people outside the US. The documentary itself might not present too much new or unknown information, as the case has already had many passing references and detailed explanations in covers ranging from Hollywood films to YouTube videos, books to podcasts, but the making definitely makes it enjoyable for those keeping an interest in such documentaries.
“D.B. Cooper: Where Are You?!” is a 2022 Crime documentary on Netflix.