Skyjack: The Hunt for D. B. Cooper
by Geoffrey Gray
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
On Nov. 24, 1971, a man who gave his name as Dan Cooper entered the Portland airport to board a Northwest Orient Airlines flight to Seattle. Nobody involved in that seemingly routine journey, just 28 minutes aloft, understood during the boarding process that they would be witnessing a legend. As one of the flight attendants would recall later, in wording used by author Geoffrey Gray, Cooper's "suit is dark and his raincoat is black. He is holding a dark attache case. He looks like a businessman. He shuffles into the cabin and sits in the last row, 18, starboard side. The row is empty. He places the attache case on the seat next to the window. He keeps his raincoat on."
As any reader familiar with American history/pop culture will recognize at this point, Dan Cooper was preparing to hijack the plane, asking for lots of money as the ransom. It is no spoiler given the massive publicity given to Cooper since then to disclose that he eventually received the money (apparently $200,000), parachuted from the plane, and has never been arrested or even positively identified by law enforcement agencies. A new suspect has surfaced in the last two weeks, but DNA testing is inconclusive and no one is ready to declare the case solved.
Perhaps the hijacker died quickly after parachuting. Or perhaps he survived and committed something akin to the perfect crime. If he survived the jump, perhaps he is still alive today. Or perhaps not.
Gray became interested in the Cooper legend decades later. Then he became obsessed. Previously, Gray was a generalist freelance writer who published articles about boxing and, according to his brief biography, "once drove an ice cream truck."
Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper is as much about Gray's quest to identify Cooper as about the hijacking itself. The quest involved lots of reporting -- obtaining the FBI file on Cooper; decades later seeking and interviewing those on the airplane that night; plus discussing alternate theories of the case with other Cooper obsessives. The result is an offbeat (sometimes downright strange) yet mostly fascinating quest book.
Does Gray identify the real Cooper beyond a reasonable doubt? Not to my mind. But Gray does offer credible alternative identifications for discussion and surely moves knowledge about the case forward.
The book opens with Gray trying to figure out whether to believe Lyle Christiansen, who stimulated renewed interest in the Cooper case by claiming his brother Kenneth (1926-94) was the airplane's hijacker. Kenneth Christiansen had been employed by Northwest Airlines. He knew how to use a parachute. He had resided for a while near Seattle. Did everything add up? Well yes, sort of. But as Gray becomes more and more knowledgeable, he realizes that evidence adds up just as well (or poorly, depending if the reader is a glass half empty or glass half full kind of person) when suspects other than Kenneth Christiansen enter the discussion. One of the hijacking suspects is a female posing as the male Cooper, not so incidentally.
Along the way, Gray takes the reader on numerous detours, fleshing out the book by discussing airline history, what it was like to serve as a flight attendant and a pilot, hijackings before and after the Cooper incident, the nature of celebrity, the accuracies and inaccuracies of media coverage, the blind spots of law enforcement agencies, the devotion of private investigators and the nature of legend versus documentable truth.
Gray does not offer a neatly tied-up ending for readers -- no definite statement about Cooper's true identity. The ending might fairly be called bizarre, and also unsatisfying. Still, it does not erase the rollicking reading experience provided by Gray.