''Miss, I have a bomb,'' said the middle-aged man to a stewardess. In a suit and dark glasses, he could have been any passenger on Northwest Airlines Flight 305 except for his briefcase containing a bundle of red cylinders and a web of wire. After the jet landed in Seattle as scheduled, the hijacker released the 36 passengers and two of three flight attendants in exchange for $200,000 and four parachutes. His next stop: Reno. But before Flight 305 arrived, he parachuted over a snowy wilderness in southwest Washington, never to be seen again.
He was just a man with $200,000 and a dream when he stepped out of that plane door on Nov. 24, 1971. Yet 24 years later, the FBI likeness of the fugitive called D.B. Cooper (a wire-service misreporting of ''Dan Cooper,'' which he gave when buying his ticket) still looms in the American consciousness. His disappearance sparked T-shirts, a hit song, a movie, books, and a cult following. Cooper leaped a lawbreaker and landed a legend.
How he landed is subject to debate. Seasoned FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach followed Cooper's faint trail until retiring in 1980. Himmelsbach, 70, believes his quarry was a thug who met a grisly end: ''He didn't ask for a helmet, gloves, flight jacket, jumpsuit, or boots. It was seven below zero outside, it was dark, and the plane was going 196 miles per hour. And he was wearing slip-on loafers, which blew right off.''
Stranger still, the skyjacker left behind the two superior parachutes, indicating scant skydiving knowledge. One of the two he did take was an inoperative training parachute provided by mistake; if Cooper strapped on that chute, he plunged to his death.
Even so, the public believed Cooper had pulled off his scheme even after $5,880 of the ransom was discovered buried along the Columbia River, just weeks before Himmelsbach retired. In 1981 Treat Williams and Robert Duvall portrayed hijacker and agent in the film The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, and the sky bandit has been given his due on Unsolved Mysteries. And Ariel, Wash., the town nearest his presumed landing point, has held an annual Cooper festival since 1975, featuring look-alike contests and parachute jumps. Meanwhile, the mystery continues: The hijacking remains the only unsolved case of its kind in U.S. history.
TIME CAPSULE: NOV. 24, 1971
Isaac Hayes' ''Theme From Shaft'' topped the pop charts; Clint Eastwood spun box office records in Play Misty for Me; Medical Center took care of TV viewers; and readers feasted on Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.