The Woman Who Might Have Been D.B. Cooper

The man is 50 years old, or maybe 40. Either 6-feet 1-inches or 5-feet 9-inches. Nervous or composed.

In the interviews following the event on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 on November 24, 1971, there were few things eyewitnesses could agree on. All authorities could take for an absolute fact is that a passenger who gave his name as Dan—later misidentified by a reporter as “D.B.”—Cooper had boarded the Seattle-bound plane in Portland, Oregon, ordered a bourbon and soda, and then handed stewardess Flo Schaffner a note. When it appeared she wasn’t about to read it right away, Cooper asked her to open it up.


I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.

What happened next became a legendary part of the FBI’s case files for nearly 45 years. Cooper demanded $200,000 in ransom and four parachutes, which the airline’s president and authorities gave him. After letting the 36 passengers and two attendants off the plane upon arrival in Seattle, Cooper asked the remaining flight attendants to head to the front of the aircraft while it cruised at an altitude of 10,000 feet toward Reno, Nevada, for a scheduled refuel. Moments later, Cooper disappeared, the retractable stairs in the rear having been engaged to allow for an exit.

A search of the expansive drop zone where Cooper could have landed amounted to nothing. There was precious little physical evidence to follow up on. For decades to come, both the FBI and amateur sleuths tried to find someone who could potentially fit the profile.

They assumed witnesses had gotten at least one detail correct—that the hijacker was a man. But in a small airplane hanger in Puyallup, Washington, two aviation enthusiasts had their doubts. They had struck up a friendship with a fellow pilot named Barbara Dayton. The more Dayton talked, the more her friends suspected the investigation had a fatal misconception. D.B. Cooper was not a man at all, but a woman who disguised herself as one in order to pull off the most audacious air heist in history.

To understand how it might be possible for someone to convincingly portray a man for the purposes of a skyjacking, it helps to understand that Barbara Dayton was born Bobby Dayton in 1926. As a child living in Long Beach, California, Dayton later recalled, she had always been able to more readily identify as female, sneaking looks at her mother’s undergarments and buzzing around her bedroom like Tinkerbell.

When Bobby Dayton was 18, he tried to join the Air Force to satisfy his love for flying; an eye condition disqualified him. Frustrated, he joined the Merchant Marines instead, traveling the world and sneaking cross-dressing sessions on the ship while his peers were sleeping.

After his service, Dayton hopped on a carousel of odd jobs—fishing, machine work, prospector, laborer. Between these gigs and the armed forces, he had picked up parachuting skills; on a few occasions, he helped his father blast through rocks on his property with dynamite. He married once, and then a second time. Money was scarce, and he sometimes joked about robbing a bank.

Irregular flying lessons became more frequent when he got a steady job at a car garage in the late 1950s. Dayton eventually logged enough time in the air to get his private license in 1959. But a commercial license—one that would allow him to merge his passion for flying with a steady income—was out of reach. Twice, he failed the written portion of the test. The math formulas had always stymied him, and he felt the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was too focused on formulas and other requirements that he didn't think mattered.   

Bobby went to Johns Hopkins to plead for a gender-reassignment surgery to cure his sense of feeling trapped in the wrong body. They declined. When he made the same effort at Seattle’s University Hospital, they had him evaluated before agreeing to perform the procedure: Bobby became Barb in December 1969.

After a second surgery, Barb convalesced in Renton, near Seattle. Eight days prior to the skyjacking, Dayton visited with hospital staff as part of a follow-up visit. She was lonely and depressed. Money was low and work was scarce. During another appointment two weeks after the incident, a physician noted that her mood had considerably improved. Despite her welfare being set to run out, the hospital's notes read, she was "strangely unworried" about money and seemed disinterested in looking for work. Dayton might as well have had all of the money in the world.  

Bobby Dayton, pre-surgery, compared to composite sketches of Cooper. Legend of D.B. Cooper

In 1977, Dayton was working as a librarian at the University of Washington and tuning up her Cessna 140 on weekends. At Thun Field in Puyallup, she ran into Pat and Ron Forman, a married couple who were just about ready to buy a small propeller plane of their own.

Although Dayton was a loner, she and the Formans developed a friendship over their mutual interest in flying. The couple had her and other pilots over for meals; they sometimes visited her at her apartment in Seattle, which was sparsely furnished. She told them a family inheritance had run out.

Among the pilots in the Seattle area, shop talk would sometimes turn to the Cooper case. Some thought there was no way Cooper could have survived the jump; others believed he had pulled off the perfect crime. At that point, the FBI was no closer to finding a plausible suspect.

When someone voiced an opinion Dayton perceived as silly, she became agitated and vocal. After Ron playfully told her she probably was D.B. Cooper, she sternly told him to never make a joke like that again.

As their relationship deepened, Dayton confided two secrets to the Formans. The first was that she had formerly been a man and had undergone surgery. The second was that she was indeed Cooper.

According to the Formans’ book, The Legend of D.B. Cooper, Dayton told them the following: Feeling resentful of the FAA and mired in a depression following her gender reassignment, Dayton decided to pull off an airborne heist. She drove to a bus station in Woodburn, Oregon, wearing a suit and tie that concealed a blouse underneath. She ran shoe polish through her hair to make it look darker. Her wig was in a paper bag, and a makeshift bomb rigged with dynamite was in an attache case. At the bus station, she parked her car, took public transportation to Portland International Airport, signed a fake name to her boarding pass, and boarded. The ransom demand followed.

After parachuting out, she navigated toward a predetermined landing area near a hazelnut orchard in Woodburn by using lighted checkpoints visible in the night sky en route to Reno. She walked to an irrigation cistern, stashed the money and suit, donned the wig, and returned home. Dayton had borrowed her former gender only long enough to become a hijacker.

Barbara Dayton. Legend of D.B. Cooper

The Formans didn’t quite know what to believe. For one thing, Dayton’s eye color (blue) differed from descriptions (brown) given by witnesses. She was also 5-feet-8, a good deal shorter than some reports of Cooper being over six feet.

Then again, the eyewitnesses had been inconsistent. Dim cabin lights, Dayton told them, could account for the different descriptions of her eye color. And how well could you judge a person’s height while they were sitting down?

Dayton eventually cooled on the Cooper talk, denying she had ever been serious. It’s possible she had been mistaken about the statute of limitations regarding the case. While it was originally set to expire in 1976, officials managed to get an indictment for a John Doe that kept the case open and charges available indefinitely. The Formans believed Dayton didn’t realize that when she made her confession in 1979. 

As Dayton’s interest in flying waned in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Formans saw less and less of her. A lifelong smoker, she died at the age of 76 in 2002 due to pulmonary disease. When the couple approached the FBI with their suspicions, they dismissed it: She was the wrong height. The Formans handed over DNA samples from Dayton’s belongings, but the agency appeared to only have incomplete samples from a clip-on tie Cooper had left behind. Geoff Gray, author of the comprehensive SkyjackThe Hunt for D.B. Cooper, later drove with Ron to the cistern where Dayton had said she stashed the money. It was empty. The Formans believe Dayton might have gambled it away during a stay in Reno, Nevada.

In July 2016, officials formally closed the case on Cooper. Gray, who wrote of several possible Cooper suspects in his book, summed up Dayton’s story: “I can’t prove she was Cooper,” he wrote. “I can’t prove she wasn’t.”


Additional Sources:
Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. CooperThe Legend of D.B. Cooper

Paramount Pictures
15 Surprising Facts About The Godfather
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Leave the gun, take these facts about Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece adaptation of Mario Puzo’s gangster novel, which premiered in New York City 46 years ago (on March 15, 1972).


Francis Ford Coppola (who got the job because of his previous movie, The Rain People) wasn’t the first director Paramount Pictures had in mind for The Godfather. Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn, Richard Brooks, and Costa-Gavras all turned the job down. And after filming began, executives didn’t like the brooding, talky drama that Coppola was shooting.

The studio wanted a more salacious gangster movie, so it constantly threatened to fire Coppola (even going so far as to have stand-in directors waiting on set). Coppola was reportedly getting the ax until he shot the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey, which the executives saw and loved.


The studio originally wanted to scrap the now-iconic “puppet strings” logo (which was first created by graphic designer S. Neil Fujita for the novel’s release) with Puzo’s name above the title for the movie release, but Coppola insisted on keeping it because Puzo co-wrote the script with him.


As a cost-cutting measure, Paramount asked Coppola to modernize the script so the action took place in 1972 and to shoot the movie in Kansas City as a stand-in for the more expensive New York City. Coppola convinced them to keep the story in a post-World War II New York setting to maintain the integrity of the film.


Coppola held improvisational rehearsal sessions that simply consisted of the main cast sitting down in character for a family meal. The actors couldn’t break character, which Coppola saw as a way for the cast to organically establish the family roles seen in the final film.


When Coppola initially mentioned Brando as a possibility for Vito Corleone, the head of Paramount, Charles Bluhdorn, told Coppola the actor would “never appear in a Paramount picture.”

The studio pushed the director to cast Laurence Olivier as Vito, before eventually agreeing to pursue Brando under three stringent conditions: 1) Brando had to do a screen test; 2) if cast, Brando would have to do the movie for free; and 3) Brando would have to personally put up a bond to make up for potential losses caused by his infamously bad on-set behavior.

Coppola surreptitiously lured the famously cagey Brando into what he called a “makeup test,” which in reality was the screen test the studio demanded. When Coppola showed the studio the test they liked it so much they dropped the second and third stipulations and agreed to let Brando be in the movie.


The studio wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone, but Coppola always wanted Al Pacino. Other actors, like Martin Sheen and James Caan (who would go on to play Sonny), screen tested for Michael.


Robert De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny, but Coppola thought his personality was too violent for the role. De Niro would later appear as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, and win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.


To add a sense of reality to the wedding scene (and because he only had two days to shoot it), Coppola had the cast freely act out and improvise in the background. He then shot specific vignettes amongst the action.


Lenny Montana, who played Luca Brasi, was a professional wrestler before becoming an actor. He was so nervous delivering his lines to a legend like Brando during the scene in the Godfather’s study that he didn’t give one good take during an entire day’s shoot. Because he didn’t have time to reshoot the scene, Coppola added a new scene of Luca Brasi rehearsing his lines before seeing the Godfather to make Montana’s bad takes seem like Brasi was simply nervous to talk to the Godfather.


The residence was put up for sale in 2014 for just under $3 million. That’s a price we can probably refuse.


During his daily walks to the set, Coppola would often see a stray cat, and on the day of shooting the scenes in Vito’s study, Coppola took the cat and told Brando to improvise with it. The cat loved Brando so much that it sat in his lap during takes for the whole day.


He really had his jaw wired shut for the first part of the shoot after his character is punched in the face.


The horse head in the movie producer’s bed wasn’t a prop. The production got a real horse’s head from a local dog food company.


The line in the script only had actor Richard Castellano as Clemenza say “Leave the gun” after the hit on the mobster who ratted on the Corleones. He was inspired to make the addition after Coppola inserted a line in which the character’s wife asks him to buy cannoli for dessert.


The 175-minute movie is long by Hollywood standards, and an intermission was going to be included just after the Solozzo/McCluskey shooting scene—but the idea was scrapped because the filmmakers thought it would ruin the momentum and take the audience out of the movie.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Big Questions
What is the Riot Act, and Why Don't I Want It Read to Me?
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2011, NBC published a guide on how employees could "read the riot act" to their subordinates. Professional footballer Stéphane Mahé was once "read the riot act" after fouling a rival player so hard he needed four stitches. In Bibb County, Georgia, a Superior Court Judge "read the riot act" to a group of wayward teens in an effort to curb their bad behavior.

The idiom, which has been in use for centuries, is generally thought to mean the admonishment of a person or persons who have committed an error in judgment. But the origin of the term "riot act" concerns a very particular wrongdoing—an unlawful public assembly that peace officers of the 16th century fought with a pre-written warning to disperse or face serious repercussions. Like death.

Atlas Obscura reports that the riot act was first passed by British Parliament in 1714 and took effect on August 1, 1715. At its core, the Act served as what linguists refer to as a speech act: a word, phrase, or order that carries real weight. (Think of an ordained minister pronouncing a couple husband and wife.) If confronted with a rowdy crowd, an authoritarian would arrive and—this was crucial—read the Act aloud in order to serve formal notice that the parties involved were overstepping their bounds.

A copy of language appearing in the Riot Act
Jenson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Act was passed in haste because supporters of the Catholic Jacobite political movement had been voicing their disapproval of King George I. A "riot" was any group of 12 or more people that was engaged in public disharmony. Typically, the raucous formation would be given 60 minutes to take a hike. If not, their just punishment would be prison, labor, or death. If the peace officer believed danger was imminent, he wouldn't have to wait the whole hour: He could deputize citizens to try and break up the gathering.

To enforce the Act and any punishments, the officer had to punctuate the reading by shouting, "God save the King!"

Scholars have wondered how successful such orators were in scolding a large assembly of angry protestors. In 1768, the answer was: not very. People opposing the imprisonment of radical John Wilkes ignored the Riot Act and suffered shots of musket ball, which killed seven.

The Riot Act was officially repealed in England and Wales in 1967 as part of some legislative housekeeping. Today, it's almost always used as a figure of speech, although Belize still recognizes it as a meaningful method of crowd dispersal. In 2017, police officers drew criticism for launching tear gas into a People's United Party protest without first reading them the Riot Act.

Questioned by a reporter, assistant commissioner of police Edward Broaster said that the incident didn't "meet the threshold" for busting out the paperwork.

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