November 24, 1971
As the 727 taxied down the rain-damp runway of Portland
International, the man in 18C stubbed out his third unfiltered
Raleigh and passed a note to the stewardess, a honey blonde
named Susan who’d strapped herself into the vacant seat across
Anticipating another clumsy come-on, she quickly covered
her name tag and took the note, flashing him a polite dropdead-
creep smile. Phone numbers scribbled on the back of
business cards, inappropriate comments about her legs, and
men ordering Dewar’s, splash of soda, without once looking up
from her breasts were occupational hazards she’d long since
learned to fend off with a diverse arsenal of bitchy half smiles,
beverage choice queries, and requests to buckle up and take
seats during turbulence. She figured that as soon as the plane
hit cruising altitude and she went to roll the drink cart down
the aisle she’d just toss the unread note into the trash. But
when she examined the intricately folded note and felt its
moist edges she knew she had to open it and see what was
inside, maybe share the contents with her fellow stewardesses.
It read: I have a bomb in my briefcase and I am prepared to
Her hands shook. She read it again, the words popping
inside her brain like tiny mushroom clouds: I have a bomb in my
briefcase and I am prepared to use it.
She took another look at the man, sitting cool like Robert
Mitchum under a haze of cigarette smoke, Ray-Ban Wayfarers
parked on his narrow face. He had on a dark suit and a skinny
black tie he’d wrestled into a full Windsor and jabbed with a
pearl stickpin. His hair was perfect and for the moment his
name was Cooper, Dan Cooper, to be exact.
Susan gathered up the gold cross that hung around her neck
on a chain and pressed the cool metal to her chapped lips to
stop her hands from shaking. For a brief moment her thoughts
drifted to her fiancé, a pipe fitter from Tacoma who’d been
after her to quit the airline.
“Do you understand?” Cooper asked, giving her twin reflections
of her own terrified eyes in his mirror shades.
She nodded and, like Dorothy in some terrible Oz, tapped
gold to enamel three times, hoping for some magic to pull her
out of this bad dream. But nothing happened and she let the
“Good,” he said, sitting back and stroking the briefcase on
his lap. It occurred to him that there would be no going back,
that this aluminum tube with wings slicing through the clouds
and mist might be the last thing he saw. And so he sucked in
the stale cabin air and lamped the neat rows of seats through
the twilight of his shades, taking in the dozens of heads Gforced
back and tenderly exposed above the seat cushions like
eggs in a carton. The cabin filled with the mindless chatter of
people on their way to Seattle anxiously putting words and
smoke into the stale air in the hope that it would somehow
negate the nagging possibility of a crash or some other disaster
– pilot error or say a duck sucked into the engine. He sat,
watching and listening to the nervous fraternity of lonely passengers
filling the empty space with the ordinary laundry of
their lives – the kids away at college, Maytags, the new lettuce
diet, the lonely guy at the office who finally got his ashes
hauled, Vietnam, breast cancer, Nixon and China, how the new
Buicks don’t hold a candle against the old Buicks, Muhammad
Ali, orthodontia, coffee stains on the stove top, church bake
sales, that Jonathan Livingston Seagull book, tax deductions,
beer cans left to ring end tables in familiar patterns, heart
disease, tax shelters, cheap weekend getaways, Idi Amin, college
tuition, gas bills, Evonne Goolagong, UFOs, electric crockpots,
lumbago, the wife and kids, and what exactly that song
“American Pie” was all about.
As the strange swoon of gravity denied sent a hush through
the cabin, Cooper decided to twist the fear blade a little deeper
and so he tapped the stewardess on the arm and opened the
briefcase. “See,” he said, holding two stripped wires. “I touch
these and the shit hits the fan, honey.” The plane skipped and
his hands swayed inside the briefcase, the wires almost touching
as he eased the lid down.
“I understand,” she mumbled.
“Now I want you to write down what I say and trot it up to the
captain so we can get this thing started.”
Her hands trembled as she pulled a pen and drink napkin
from her apron and readied herself.
“Okay,” he said. “Now here’s what I want. Two hundred
thousand dollars in used bills and I want ’em in a knapsack.
Two back parachutes, two chest parachutes. After we refuel,
passengers go free. No police. Oh, and say takeoff from Seattle
by five. You got all that? Good. Now nod that pretty little head
of yours and gimme some smile.”
When she’d finished scribbling the message down she nodded,
unbuckled, and stood unsteadily, quickly looking around
to see if any nearby passengers had heard them. They had not.
She was all alone, with the blooming dread of what the man
had just so calmly dictated to her. And then there was the note,
I have a bomb in my briefcase and I am prepared to use it.
“Go on,” he said. “Hustle up there and bring the note back.
I need it for my archives. But first I want a highball, plenty
She lingered a minute, gawking at him, waiting for some
cruel punchline or smile. But none came. He wanted a drink.
He had a bomb.
Cooper stared right back, thinking: Boom motherfuckin’
boom! He’d always been good at tough thoughts and it worked,
because she brought him a highball and then made her way
toward the cockpit, rushing past the unsuspecting passengers
as the plane punctured the clouds on its way to Seattle.
From his smoky perch in the back of the plane Cooper
sipped his drink and got into character, trying to imagine them
all dead and scattered into the air, bits and pieces of them
seeding clouds, raining down like fertilizer.
Before: the name he’d given at the ticket counter was Dan
Cooper. It was not his real name, nor was it his first choice.
He’d briefly toyed with Rip or Quint but ruled them out as too
memorable, settling finally on Dan Cooper; a name with just
the right amount of generic menace. Dan Cooper sounded
like the sort of guy who might hijack a plane the day before
Thanksgiving and Dan Cooper would have a bomb and he
would ask for money and they would give it to him, because on
this gray day the man seated in seat 18C calling himself Dan
Cooper did not give a shit if he lived or died. He was tired of
mediocrity and the long flat road that his life seemed to be
speeding down and he had arrived at this plan, as a drowning
man flails for a towrope across riptide and chop. The plan was
pure, a thing to hone and polish and stick to if deliverance was
to be granted, and the minute he’d stepped onto the plane and
spotted the unoccupied backseat, he’d steeled himself for the
worst that could happen, be it crash or cowardice on his part.
That there would be no future for him or anybody else on the
plane – no Thanksgiving Day turkey, creamed peas, oyster stew,
or ginned-up relatives sleeping in recliners – was of no consequence.
Dan Cooper was getting the hell out. End of story or
maybe the beginning, depending on how things sorted out.
In the cockpit Susan relayed the message, her voice cracking
with every bump and bang of the fuselage as Captain
Yount instructed her to look for a gun and note the hijacker’s
demeanor. “Can you do that for me, Susan? I need you to be my
eyes and ears, size him up. We need to know what kind of
maniac we’re dealing with here.” She nodded, taking comfort
in Captain Yount’s square-jawed calm as he said, “Be brave,
She exited the cockpit and noticed that her knees had
stopped quivering and that she was able to meet the passengers’
curious stares. But as she neared the back of the plane
and saw Cooper waiting for her, hands resting on the briefcase,
she felt her heart surge into her throat.
“Are we on?” he asked.
He plucked the note from her fingers and dropped it into
the watery remains of his highball, stirring until it became
mush. “No funny stuff this way,” he said, lighting another
He knew he had to scare her and so he opened the case and
gave her another brief snatch of the coiled wires and batteries
and dynamite-looking cylinders strapped inside. “Hell in a box,”
he said, still with the crooked grin. He pointed at the seat next
to him, motioning her to sit as the engines strained, blanketing
the cabin with their drone.
And Cooper knew he had her and that his plan would work –
it would all work. He would get the money and parachutes and
he would disappear. It would be his grand gesture, the last
great thing. He pushed up his shirtsleeve and read the rules
he’d ballpointed across his wrist.
Don’t take any shit.
So far so good, he thought. The plane continued to climb
momentarily over the storm clouds, the cabin filling with bright
bars of light. A silver-haired man three rows up turned to have
a look around. His face was toppled with sun, maybe too much
booze, and he was sweating, his tie jerked down, generous
thighs squeezed into navy slacks. Cooper nodded and the man
rolled his eyes and shrugged as if to say he was just getting
by and that it was enough that he rose every day to answer
the bell, kick back the stool, and tap gloves with what he called
Susan rose and Cooper turned on her. “Where do you think
you’re going?” he said.
She pointed at his glass. “You want another drink, right?”
A minute later she returned with another highball and tried
to see if he had a gun in his coat or a wedding band on his
finger – some telling detail she could report back to Captain
Yount about – but her eyes kept returning to the briefcase.
“Tell you what,” he said, lowering his shades. “Trot back up
there and tell Captain America I’m not foolin’ around here.
Tell him we’re not landing until the money and chutes are
ready. And remember, any funny stuff and we all go to pieces
She nodded and again made the trip to the cockpit, pausing
every other aisle to stare into the pool of each passenger’s
lap as she tried to get a handle on the situation and the possibility
that they might all be blown and scattered in the wind.
Instead she focused on the little things – pilled seat arms,
magazines sliding under seats, and the incredible dandruff of
the man in 7B.
Captain Yount was on the radio when she entered the cockpit,
his brow now damp with sweat, the copilot too focused on
the controls and gauges. Captain Yount told Susan to stay calm,
they were doing everything they could to meet the hijacker’s
demands. She did not believe them.
She hurried back and approached Cooper, mustering all her
poise only to see it crumble when he looked up at her.
“Well?” Cooper said. “Did they say how long?”
“He wants you to know that we’re doing all we can to make
this happen,” she said. “He doesn’t want anybody to get hurt.”
“That dog don’t hunt, sweetcakes. I want my demands met
sooner rather than later.” He pinched the Raleigh dead,
dropped it into the ashtray, and pulled another from the pack.
He motioned for her to light it, saying, “Now, how about giving
me some fire.”
She did. Their fingers brushed as she whipped the match
away, snapping it with a practiced snap of the wrist.
He took a long pull, let his face leak fresh smoke, and said, “I
sure hope we don’t have a hero behind the controls.”
Susan told him Captain Yount was a good man who was just
trying to do his job.
He pointed for her to sit again.
Two hours later, after circling in a holding pattern, the plane
landed in Seattle and taxied down a runway lined with waiting
vans, fuel trucks, and luggage tractors. He saw sharpshooters
crouched along the terminal roof like bland gargoyles, breathing
in between heartbeats, and inside the terminal stood men
Cooper figured to be FBI agents, their faces pressed against the
aluminum-frame windows, fogging the glass.
After a delay a courier car containing the requested chutes
and cash approached the aircraft. As instructed, Susan met
the car and transferred the chutes and bag of money, dragging
them past the rows of nervous passengers to the back of the
plane, where the man in the black suit and Wayfarer shades sat
holding his wires, waiting.
“Good work,” Cooper said as Susan dropped the chutes
and sack of money. He inspected the chutes quickly and then
snapped open the sack and allowed himself a moment of pure
gloat as he fingered a brick of twenty-dollar bills. “Okay,” he
said, pointing at his fellow passengers. “Get them out of here.”
Susan nodded and went to the cockpit. Minutes later Captain
Yount came on the PA system and instructed the passengers to
begin deplaning, his voice cool and reassuring.
They rose like churchgoers popping up from pews at the
first organ blast of the doxology, clutching at coats, purses, and
attaché cases, a few glancing at the man in the back with puzzled
expressions and the dim awareness that something bad
had happened or was still happening or was about to happen.
But as the people in the front of the plane began draining out
the door, down the steps, and onto the tarmac, squinting into
the lights, even the rubberneckers were pulled out into the
damp night as a stewardess wished each of them a happy
Thanksgiving. And like that they were gone, leaving the cabin
and crew to Cooper and the next phase of his plan.
When the hatch closed and the fuel truck backed away,
Cooper gave Susan instructions to relay to the pilot, telling him
to chart a course for Mexico City. She looked up and down the
empty rows of seats and the small litter of departed passengers
before pulling her eyes back to Cooper. “Mexico City’s nice,”
she said. “It’s warm and . . .”
“Goddamn right it’s warm,” he said. “And it’s not here.” He
pointed out the window.
He grinned. “I like that,” he said, tapping the briefcase. “Not
too scared to ask questions.”
She frowned, her chin no longer shaking, eyes dim and red.
She gave him a tiny nod and he went on. “Now here’s how
we’re gonna do this. I wanna go low – ten thousand feet, no
more, no less. I want the flaps at fifteen degrees – fifteen
degrees or, hell, I don’t need to tell you what’s gonna happen.”
He pointed at the briefcase, made a little boom sound. “Then I
want you back here with me for takeoff. Okay?”
She whispered okay and trotted toward the cockpit, stopping
to whisper to the dark-haired flight attendant before parting
the first-class curtain and disappearing.
Cooper turned his attention to the chutes, spotting the bad
one right away. “Fucking amateurs,” he said, tearing it out and
snipping the cords to bind the money sack to him. The others
looked good and the money felt nice and heavy – if not two
hundred, then close.
Ten minutes later the jet circled back onto the runway,
engines firing. Cooper waved good-bye to the rigidly silhouetted
John Q. Law types watching him from inside the bright
terminal, their hands on radios, just itching to give shoot
orders, the very same men who would be looking for him,
scouring the land, crawling through the plane dusting for
prints, spitballing possible motives, and interviewing oblivious
hostages, sifting for that criminal needle in the haystack. He
wished them lots of luck.
When he turned around Susan was standing a couple of
yards away, broken and awaiting further instruction.
He pointed. She sat. Then the plane muscled off the ground
and began its steep climb as Cooper stared out at the smudgy
blur of lights.
When they had stopped climbing at ten thousand feet he
told Susan that he wanted her to clear out of the cabin and go
up front with the other gals. She hesitated, pointing at the
briefcase containing the bomb.
“You wanna know how it’s going to end?”
“I’m about to find out,” Cooper said. “Now trot up there and
pull the curtain.”
For a moment he considered letting her in on the joke and
telling her that the dynamite was really a couple of old road
flares strung together with some colorful phone cable and a
radio tube he’d pirated from a twenty-inch RCA he’d found
abandoned behind his trailer. But he decided not to. It was best
to leave her scared and sure of her own heroism as she vanished
behind the first-class curtain like a magician’s assistant,
trembling with anticipation.
For a few long moments he just looked out the window,
enjoying the plane minus the passengers as he replayed the
dozens of jumps he’d taken over the humid jungles of Vietnam,
a world away from the ocean of fir trees, brush-tangled hills,
and twisted creeks of Washington that waited, cold, dark, and
wet below. Here it was, he thought, one of those moments in
life at which you arrive totally unprepared. But his demands
had been met and there was the money and all his tough talk
and months of planning. Certainly no going back.
It was time to jump.
When he rose and checked the chutes a second time he felt
that dead, sapped-out feeling creep into his legs – the one that
had enabled him to jump despite the presence of snipers waiting
for him under vine-ridden blinds, ready to shoot his heart
out expertly. He would be the dangling man all over again, a
piece of meat on a string caught between earth and sky. But
this time there would be no gunfire, just the long run to the
border, where some new life awaited him.
When he went to snap rubber bands over his pant legs and
shirtsleeves he discovered that he’d somehow forgotten to
wear the jungle boots he’d bought from the Army surplus
store. Instead he had on his house shoes, a thin pair of oxblood
penny loafers with bad stitching. He kicked at seat backs, cursing
his stupidity, until his toes hurt and he realized that there
was no option but to suck it up and soldier on, boots or no
boots. So he said fuck it and inventoried his pockets, feeling
the reassuring lumps and bulges of the waterproof matches,
barlow knife, Hershey bars, compass, waxed twine, aspirin, leather
gloves, wool watch cap, and the tin flask of bourbon he’d
carried during the war. He went to examine the rear hatch and
pressed his face to the tiny window, hoping to see the lights of
Merwin Dam or the dull glow of snow on Mount Saint Helens.
But there was only gray-black sky – an eternity of it.
He took hold of the red hatch handles and pulled down. A
blast of cold air quickly filled the cabin and sent alarms buzzing,
lights flashing. His ears popped and the plane bucked as
the captain’s voice came over the PA system. “Is everything
okay back there? Anything we can do for you?”
Cooper let go of the hatch, rushed over, and grabbed the
interphone and said, “No!” He waited, eyeing the curtain, half
expecting the copilot or one of the stewardesses to rush back
and stop him. But they left him alone and so he charged the
hatch again, shoving with every fiber in his body until it cracked
open a few feet and another wave of cold air swept through the
cabin, launching stray cocktail napkins and sending discarded
newspapers flapping around like trapped birds. He kept pushing
until the stairs snapped into place, the wind punching him
against the door frame, tearing at his chest and legs.
He took a moment to steady himself, his hands tugging and
checking the chute, pulling on the cord that held the money
sack as he looked down and forced his legs to move, sure that
at any moment he would be blown off into the night, sucked
through the engine turbines and transformed into bloody
ribbons. The first step was going to be a bitch, he thought, no
He placed one foot on the tread and much to his surprise his
grip held even as he ventured another cautious step and then
another until there was nowhere else to go except down into
the howling void.
And so he pushed off and fell, tumbling past the roar of the
727’s engines into the rip of wind and rain that whipped his
hair back and snatched the half-empty pack of Raleigh unfiltereds
from his jacket pocket and instantly numbed his face
and fingers and straightened the narrow black necktie until it
stood behind him like a noose that would jerk him away into
the nothing as he spun through clouds and sheets of hard rain
toward the green rolling hills of the Columbia River valley far
But there was the money, an enormous encouraging hand
slapping his back as he pumped his hips into the cushion of air,
screaming until his lungs fell empty and his body felt as if it had
been sprung from some dark cage into the roar of a waiting
Down he went, hurtling toward the sprawl of lights and trees
and interstates lit with lonely taillights of tractor trailers and
cars full of families traveling to Thanksgiving celebrations the
following day where they would wake to the smell of risen
bread and roast turkey and to the newspapers announcing his
deed and the $200,000 he’d run off with or died trying to.
So he pulled the rip cord. The chute fluttered and then
popped open, jerking him back and jumpstarting his dead
heart with a snap. The easy part was over, he thought, time to
take the money, get lost, and slip down the rabbit hole and