Thrilling minute-by-minute drama: the crew of the hijacked plane
Thrilling minute-by-minute drama: the crew of the hijacked plane © BBC/Minnow Films/AP Images

Flying at 10,000ft through darkness somewhere between Seattle and Reno, the crew, shut in the cockpit of an otherwise empty jet, heard a thump from the rear of the plane. It sounded like their single, unwelcome passenger had finally departed. With that, “DB Cooper”, the man who jumped out that night with a parachute and $200,000 in ransom money, passed into legend, his fate unknown. His hijacking of flight 305 remains the only unsolved act of air piracy in the US. As John Dower’s mind-boggling Storyville documentary relates however, there’s no shortage of people convinced they have the explanation. 

A montage of sexist airline advertisements — flirtatious “stewardesses” in hot pants — sets the tone of airline travel in the early 1970s. Security levels of a casualness that beggars belief today gave rise to a rash of hijackings, usually involving rerouting the plane to forbidden Cuba, whereupon the desperadoes would disembark and the inconvenienced passengers would be issued with cigars and rum.

The events of that Thanksgiving eve in 1971 were far more sinister. Passenger Bill Mitchell, a student at the time, rushed to catch the jet at Oregon (“All you needed to have was tickets”) and sat at the back. On the other side of the aisle perched a slight man in shades with a briefcase. As the plane was taking off, the man passed a note to a crew member. She thought he was hitting on her, but it revealed he was carrying a bomb. 

It being too late to abort take-off, flight attendant Tina Mucklow was tasked with keeping the man calm as he sat with his finger on the detonator. She said a prayer for everyone on the plane, including the hijacker: “On a 727 there’s no place to run.” “I do have a grudge, but not with the airline,” he assured her, one of his only revealing moments. On landing at Seattle, he took ransom money and parachutes in return for the passengers, but kept crew members to fly on towards Mexico. Interspersed in the thrilling minute-by-minute drama of the hijacking are the stories of people suspected of being responsible. Sifting the implausible from the probable makes for a fascinating show. 

“He died that night,” affirms a man who’s spent 31 years trekking the drop area looking for clues. Marla Cooper is convinced DB was her uncle, based on conversations overheard as a child (“We’re rich, our money problems are over!”). Elderly Jo Weber took a deathbed confession from her late husband, but he sounds like a habitual liar, and looks nothing like the artist’s impression. Other candidates are much harder to dismiss. The desire to claim a criminal remains curious, but as one man at the time enthused, Cooper was “one of the slickest cats on the face of the earth!”, a countercultural hero of conspicuous daring in a drab era.

★★★★☆

On BBC4 on November 23 at 9pm

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