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.
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.
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 Skyjack: The 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.”