Let’s have a moment of silence for one of the co-founders of modern flight: Wilbur Wright passed on to the great baggage claim in the sky exactly one hundred years ago this month. Poor Wilbur may have succumbed to typhus in 1912, but his invention, we will be reminded this month, lives on. May is also the month we commemorate paper airplanes (May 26 is National Paper Airplane Day!) and the beginning of the summer travel season (Memorial Day is the busiest flying weekend of the year so far). So come fly with Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings as he debunks some commonly held—but thoroughly untrue—beliefs about airplanes and aviation. He’ll make sure your historical facts are in the upright and locked position, and that your scientific understanding is securely stowed in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you.
Airplane Myth #3: "D. B. Cooper" Hijacked a Plane for Cash in 1971.
It was the day before Thanksgiving 1971 when a polite, nondescript, fortyish white man in a dark suit approached the Northwest Orient counter at Portland International Airport and booked a one-way ticket to Seattle. But immediately after takeoff, this forgettable man made more of an impression, telling the crew he had a bomb aboard and demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. The man got his cash and parachutes in Seattle and let the passengers go. But when the plane took off again, bound for Reno, the mystery man opened the commuter jet’s rear stairs and jumped out, about ten thousand feet over southwestern Washington. He was never seen again, making this one of the most famous unsolved crimes in history.
"D. B. Cooper," right? Wrong. The hijacker actually bought his ticket under the (no doubt false) name "Dan Cooper." So where did the made-up initials come from? The FBI began their investigation by looking into local Coopers, and there was indeed a D. B. Cooper with a minor Oregon police record. The real D. B. Cooper had nothing to do with the heist, of course—in fact, he was in jail at the time. But an inexperienced UPI reporter, up against a tight deadline, confused the two names and misreported the hijacker’s alias as "D. B. Cooper." Other news outlets ran with the error, and by the time it was discovered and corrected, the public had already latched on to the wrong name.
Dan (a.k.a. D. B.) Cooper is still a mystery man, more than forty years later. Some of the ransom cash was found near Vancouver, Washington in 1980, but Cooper is the only hijacker-for-cash in U.S. history whose identity is still unknown. The FBI feels pretty sure he never survived his risky parachute jump into fame, but they’d like to be sure. Those guys hate it when criminals disappear into—literally—thin air.
Quick Quiz: What TV series’ lead character was also named D. B. Cooper—specifically, Dale Bartholomew Cooper?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.