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The highwayman of the air

A still from The Pursuit of DB Cooper, made in 1981. Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

For as long as there have been planes in the sky, says Julia Sirmons in Crime Reads, there have been skyjackings. The first was in 1919, when a gay Hungarian aristocrat, Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas, stole a plane so he could flee with his lover to Vienna after a failed attempt to become king of Albania. But the “golden age” of skyjackings was the 1960s and 1970s. Global political turmoil produced a glut of “cults, revolutionary groups and malcontents” looking to make political statements – and money.

No character is more synonymous with this era than that “unknown highwayman of the air” DB Cooper – the alias he used to buy his plane ticket. In 1971, just before Thanksgiving, “Cooper” hijacked a Boeing 727 on the short hop from Portland to Seattle, claiming to have a bomb in his briefcase. What set him apart from other skyjackers – an idiosyncratic bunch of Mexican opera singers, union leaders and Greek politicians – was his “white, middle-class, apolitical nondescriptness”. After receiving his $200,000 ransom and four parachutes, he told the pilot to chart a course for Mexico City, then jumped out somewhere over Washington state. Despite a long FBI search, this “folk hero” is still at large.

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