24 November 2020 00:38
Here's an illustration of how times have changed: being on a hijacked aeroplane was once considered fun. The Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper (BBC Four) was a documentary that couldn't fail to entertain. The case is one of those delicious, stranger-than-fiction mysteries. On November 24, 1971 a hijacker who gave his name as DB Cooper boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon. He handed the stewardess a note demanding $200,000 and four parachutes, and calmly opened his briefcase to reveal what appeared to be a bomb.
Once in possession of the money and parachutes, he instructed the crew to lower the air stairs at the back of the plane and jumped. John Dower's film picked up on the eccentricity of the story and its characters. He introduced us to people who were convinced they knew Cooper's true identity. Marla Cooper claimed her uncle, LD, was the man, and that as a child she had overheard another uncle tell him: "Well, we did it, we hijacked the aeroplane, we're rich and our troubles are over." Richard Floyd McCoy didn't seem a bad bet – five months after the Cooper case, McCoy pulled off a copycat hijacking. His former probation officer believed McCoy and Cooper were one and the same.
However, it was hijacked by a man who claimed to have a bomb in his suitcase. The plane landed, his unsuspecting fellow passengers disembarked, the cash was handed over, the flight took off again, and then DB Cooper parachuted out, at night and in bad weather, over difficult Oregon terrain. This wonderfully entertaining Storyville film goes some way towards finding a convincing account of who DB Cooper might have been. Writer/director John Dower talks to friends, family and acquaintances of different people who may have been the culprit. Jo Weber, the biggest character in a documentary filled with them, believes her late husband Duane was DB Cooper. She discovered fake IDs, a spell in prison, a tax return that suggests a windfall from around the time of the hijacking and a magazine in a secure lockbox featuring an article about Cooper. He seemed to know Oregon, where the hijacker left the plane, and offers a plausible solution to the mystery of how $3,000 of the ransom money ended up being discovered buried on the banks of the Columbia River, some distance from the assumed landing area. Jerry Thomas, an amateur sleuth who has been gripped by the story since 1988, when he began searching the wilderness for a parachute, is convinced that DB Cooper didn't make it alive. Marla Cooper believes her uncle, LD was the culprit. There is a theory that Richard Floyd McCoy Jr, who hijacked a plane for ransom a year later, was repeating his earlier crime, having somehow dropped the money on the way down the first time around. A likable couple called Pat and Ron Forman recall befriending a woman they met on an airfield, Barbara Dayton, who eventually told them she was transgender. Eventually, the pair started to suspect that Barb bore some similarity to the mysterious Cooper. As well as spending time with the characters involved in the main story – interviews with Tina Mucklow, the stewardess who sat with Cooper as he revealed the bomb in his case, and co-pilot William Rataczak, still moved by their own survival, are oddly touching – and the offshoot myths, Weber does a great job of exploring why this narrative is so fascinating. Against a bleak economic backdrop in the region during the early 1970s, Cooper symbolised someone who stuck it to the man. The Hijacker Who Vanished has a Twin Peaks feel, from the music to the scenery and quirks of character. When Dower notes that Marla Cooper's home is Twin Peaks-esque, it is not accidental. As much as this gripping documentary is about the mysterious DB Cooper, it is about human nature, too. These brilliant characters, some deeply entangled in the story, some distant from it but connected, are believers. This film asks what keeps them believing, and it is a far bigger question than the mystery itself. The Hijacker Who Vanished, BBC Four, review: enthralling trawl through the American myth made flesh This last element was by far the most fascinating, with some suspects far more credible than others The story of DB Cooper is one of the great American legends. The mysterious hijacker, who apparently jumped from a plane in November 1971 with $200,000 (roughly $1.5m in today's currency) and was never seen again, has been namechecked on everything from Prison Break to 30 Rock. The enthralling The Hijacker Who Vanished, made for Storyville by John Dower, the director of My Scientology Movie, picked through the evidence, considering possible endings as well as telling the stories of those who may have been, or claimed to be, the man. This last element was by far the most fascinating, with some suspects far more credible than others. A young woman named Marla Cooper told of being woken up at night by her uncle Dewie carrying her uncle LD, who was bleeding while saying "all our money problems are over", followed by whispered conversations about a hijack. Others were less believable: a couple talked of befriending a woman named Barbara Dayton, an excellent pilot, who would later admit to having had a sex change and whom they were convinced was Cooper in disguise. Richard Floyd McCoy Jr., 29, of Provo, Utah, was arraigned in Salt Lake City, 1972 on federal charges of air piracy in connection with the daring hijack of a United Air Lines 727 jet over Colorado (Photo: AP Images/Wally Fong) It wasn't all about the hijacker. We heard too from passengers on the flight ("I thought it was odd that he was wearing sunglasses inside the plane. Not cool") and from a flight attendant, Tina Mucklow, who had to keep the hijacker calm after he showed her the bomb. Did Cooper even survive the jump? The point about DB Cooper is that he is the American myth made flesh. The man who pulled off a daring heist and then disappeared into the mists of time, never to be found.