The Legend of Allen Barklage 

He was a daredevil, a savior and a man who cheated death. But it was the life he took that made him famous

Ninety-two feet above the Mississippi, the man on the bridge wept as he talked into an early-model portable phone. It was just after 6 a.m., rush hour on June 13, 1991. The man had already swung his legs over the side. He wanted to jump.

But the phone call provided distraction for the two officers inching closer. Sauget Police Detective Vito Parisi had offered the man the phone and a suggestion that, at the very least, he should talk to his family before ending his life. Minutes into the call, Parisi and a second Illinois cop wrapped their hands around the man's arms and shoulders.

The three struggled, pitting gravity and one man's self-destruction against the efforts of two cops.

It was a classic St. Louis summer day, humid and hot. The man was dripping sweat, and Parisi felt his grip coming loose. He remembers the next seconds seeming to stretch into minutes.

"He just slipped right through our hands," the detective recalls. "There was nothing that we could do, except look." There was the man, falling with unbelievable slowness, impossibly distant, arms flapping wildly. There was the shape of a body hitting the water, and the man disappeared into the cloudy wash of the Mississippi.

And then there was the sound of a helicopter. Parisi looked up and saw the yellow-and-black machine diving out of the sky.

It was Allen Barklage.

A traffic reporter and pilot, Barklage had broadcast the report on the suicidal man that originally roused Parisi into action. "There's a jumper on the bridge," Barklage told radio listeners. Sauget lies a few minutes' drive from the Poplar Street Bridge; the detective arrived just in time to try to stop the man's jump.

A different pilot might have continued with the traffic run, leaving the tragedy for the police and the morgue to sort out. Barklage was not that kind of pilot.

From inside the cockpit, Barklage could see the man fall. He radioed back to his passengers, who included an off-duty O'Fallon cop, to get ready for a rescue. Then Barklage tilted the helicopter toward the Mississippi.

The impact of the fall had broken the man's rib and punctured his eardrum, but he was alive, and he was now fighting to stay that way. While Barklage kept the helicopter in a hover, the O'Fallon cop balanced himself on the landing gear and hauled the man from the river onto the skid's metal surface. Soaking and exhausted, the man grasped the skid as the helicopter ascended, but his arms gave out a few moments later. He dropped back into the water. Barklage swung around for a second attempt, and this time, the man hung on just long enough for Barklage to drop him on a nearby barge.

Two TV stations had captured the heroic save — though KSDK, whose chopper Barklage had flown, wasn't one of them. In the coming weeks, Barklage smiled for award photos and commendations. He attended fundraisers with the station's helicopter, meet-and-greets and luncheons.

Barklage performed aerial stunts in his Mini 500 helicopter. In this photo, he's practicing snatching a hula hoop with the craft's landing gear. - COURTESY OF GENE HOFFMEYER
  • Barklage performed aerial stunts in his Mini 500 helicopter. In this photo, he's practicing snatching a hula hoop with the craft's landing gear.

It wasn't the first time he had been called a hero. For more than two decades, Allen Barklage buzzed above St. Louis as traffic reporter for KSDK as well as virtually every radio station in town. He was the voice on both AM and FM, a gearhead bantering to motorists about an overturned vehicle on the highway or a police pursuit in East St. Louis.

Through it all, Barklage never stopped chasing thrills, and emergencies seemed to chase him as well. When he wasn't reporting traffic, he raced go-karts and happily flew under bridges for the fun of it. There must be something wrong with him, his wife would sometimes remark. Sometimes, she was only half-joking.

Going by newspaper accounts alone, Barklage's helicopter skills saved several lives, including that jumper in June 1991. But it was also a helicopter that killed Barklage. He died twenty years ago, days after a fatal malfunction plummeted his helicopter into the ground.

A second anniversary involving Barklage also takes place this year. Forty years ago, Barklage ended a hijacking by shooting Barbara Oswald in the head 500 feet above the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. That was the day he became a hero. That was the flight that made him a legend.

The killing haunted him for the rest of his life.

One line of Barklage’s flight log for May 24, 1978, simply read, “Hijack.” - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • One line of Barklage’s flight log for May 24, 1978, simply read, “Hijack.”

Gene Hoffmeyer met Barklage in the fourth grade at St. Joseph Catholic School in St. Charles.

"He never worked at anything he didn't enjoy," Hoffmeyer recalls. The two spent their childhoods tinkering on cars and motorcycles, fishing and hunting rabbits in the forests and farmland around St. Charles County. They were briefly separated when Barklage's family moved to Eureka, but the childhood friends reunited at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, where they both landed jobs after high school. The year was 1966.

"Of course, that was when the Vietnam War was getting hot and heavy," Hoffmeyer recalls. "One day, Allen's girlfriend called me up and said, 'Come over here and talk him out of it, he's talking about joining the Army.'" It didn't quite work out that way. "I went over to talk Allen out of it," Hoffmeyer says, "and instead he talked me into it."

The eldest of the three Barklage boys, Larry, had joined the U.S. Army intending to gain admission to flight school. He advised his younger brother to do the same, to act before the draft forced him into infantry combat. Why fight in the trenches, Larry told his younger brother, when you could soar above them?

Allen Barklage chose the sky. Hoffmeyer enlisted a month later. Both were eighteen.

Barklage wound up in the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company and began his flying career behind the controls of heavily armed Huey gunships. The Viet Cong shot Barklage down multiple times over the next years; photos show the young pilot in green military fatigues grinning near the wreckage of some unfortunate piece of Army property. Barklage would later tell an interviewer that he'd nearly died in Vietnam when a piece of shrapnel blew a hole into the cockpit. But he'd given up his regular seat for that flight; the man in it died.

Barklage was lucky, but he was also very, very good at his job. After his first tour, the young combat pilot came home for additional training. He later told a reporter that he was uncomfortable with the version of America that greeted him, a place caught up in protest and anti-war fever. He wasn't ready to come home for good.

Hoffmeyer chose not to reenlist. Twenty-five percent of his class at flight school, some 300 pilots, had died in that first tour. For Hoffmeyer, beating the odds once was more than enough. Not so for Barklage; he remained in the Army until 1972.

After his discharge, Barklage joined Hoffmeyer back in St. Louis, where both took jobs as commercial pilots, ferrying tourists and TV and radio reporters. Barklage was undoubtedly overqualified, but he was also lucky to find work. The war's end had saturated the market with helicopter pilots, says Larry Barklage, who himself took a job with the Federal Aviation Administration.

"He was a natural-born pilot, instinctual. He put on a helicopter like you'd put on your shirt every day," he says. "I used to joke that, if they'd known how much he enjoyed flying helicopters, they would have paid him less."

Barklage loved flying too much to be scared by it. "I've been shot down three times in Vietnam," he would tell new radio traffic reporters. The boast was meant to be reassuring — that he could handle anything.

Barklage (second from left) and childhood friend Gene Hoffmeyer (second from right), with traffic reporters Don Miller and Sue Mathias, both became pilots. - COURTESY OF GENE HOFFMEYER
  • Barklage (second from left) and childhood friend Gene Hoffmeyer (second from right), with traffic reporters Don Miller and Sue Mathias, both became pilots.

Allen Barklage first became a media darling in 1976, with a headline that read, "Tourist's Copter Ride Ends in the River." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a family had entrusted Barklage with giving a helicopter ride to their daughters: thirteen-year-old twins and their six-year-old sister.

Seconds after takeoff, though, the rear rotor jammed. Barklage did the only thing he could do — he turned off the engine, sending the aircraft into a 40-foot plunge and a jarring water-landing on its twin pontoons.

The twins claimed they wanted to finish the helicopter ride. Their mother told the paper, "We've all had enough excitement for one day."

Barklage, though, never seemed to reach that point. Around that time, he started flying around with KMOX's Don Miller. When Miller took days off, Barklage pulled double duty, doing both the flying and the reporting.

The helicopter news business was booming in St. Louis. By the final years of the 1970s, even local media stations had realized that the incredible popularity of traffic reporting outweighed the cost. At one point, KMOX reportedly spent upwards of $100,000 a year to keep Miller on (and in) the air.

Commercial flights kept Barklage and Hoffmeyer busy, too. At their employer, Fostaire Helicopters, it was common for the two pilots to swap jobs throughout the day just to keep up with the demand.

That's what happened on May 24, 1978. Hoffmeyer was tied up with a Post-Dispatch photographer who needed snapshots of Six Flags, but he had another job waiting at a floating heliport on the St. Louis riverfront, a passenger who had chartered a 5:30 p.m. flight for an aerial survey.

Running late, Hoffmeyer radioed Barklage, asking if he could reschedule the charter flight or ask the passenger to wait 30 minutes. But Barklage had just returned early from another job. "Don't worry, I'll take this one," he told his friend.

Hoffmeyer remembers telling Barklage everything he knew about the charter, which wasn't much: Some real estate agent wanted to look at property. It seemed unremarkable at the time.

"I didn't even know her name," Hoffmeyer says.

Soon, the entire country would.

Allen Barklage himself shot this image of the Arch rising above the clouds. - ALLEN BARKLAGE
  • Allen Barklage himself shot this image of the Arch rising above the clouds.

Barbara Oswald joined the U.S. Army in 1968, one year after Barklage entered flight school. She was a single mother of five whose childhood began in poverty and essentially ended at age twelve when she was deposited in a Lutheran orphanage. At seventeen, she became a sex worker to pay the bills. Most people knew her as "Bobbie."

"Prostitution, it wasn't something she wanted to do," says one of Oswald's daughters, speaking about her mother for the first time publicly. She changed her name decades ago and asks to be identified only by the initials MR.

Growing up, MR says her mother's profession wasn't a secret to her.

"She actually ran a small brothel in an apartment building in Maplewood," she says. "She'd take me to the White Castle, and she taught me how to spot undercover cop cars in the parking lot. 'See that one? It has a no whitewalls and no hubcaps. That's a police car.'"

In 1968, Barbara Oswald extricated herself from a marriage with an ex-con, someone whom MR, who was thirteen at the time, remembers as manipulative and verbally abusive to her mother. Oswald found herself raising five kids alone.

But she surprised her family by joining the Army at 33, attending air-traffic school while the kids went to live with relatives. Oswald advanced quickly, and in 1973 she was transferred back to St. Louis and became a recruiter.

After her death, Oswald's past would be unearthed by the national media. The New York Times reported that she was known to local reporters — she'd even tried to sell her story of orphanhood and prostitution to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat to pay to bail out her criminal husband.

"I don't think Bobbie ever thought she did anything wrong," one Globe-Democrat reporter remarked to the Times. "Her view of things was that this was a jungle and you had to be alert and willing to kill to survive in it."

The military seemed to provide new opportunities. "It suited her and she did really well," MR recalls. "She made rank right away."

But then Oswald fell off a motorcycle. Dealing with a serious back injury, Oswald was placed on disability leave and with no certain future. She moved her family to Richmond Heights and enrolled in a master's program at Columbia College.

It was while researching a paper that she encountered the book that would change her life all over again. The Fox is Crazy Too is a pulpy, all-too-smitten biography of a convicted hijacker named Garrett Trapnell, who was then doing time in an Illinois prison. Its pages portrayed Trapnell as a devil-may-care rogue, a romantic figure who married and exploited multiple wives, robbed a string of banks in Canada and used the insanity defense to his advantage. The paperback's cover proclaimed Trapnell "Skyjacker! Supercon! Superlover!"

The author had included Trapnell's mailing address, and Oswald sent him a note. MR says, "She wrote what was probably an innocent letter to Trapnell with whatever questions she had. That's how it started. That's how he sucked her in."

MR, then 23 years old and in the military herself, noticed a change in her mother during their occasional visits.

"I remember seeing her one day, and she was really dressed up," MR says. "She looked nice, makeup, pantsuit from Saks. I said, 'Where are you going?'"

Her mother answered, "I'm going to visit Garrett."

In addition to a briefcase of guns, Oswald carried hand-drawn maps and instructions for the prison escape. - NATIONAL ARCHIVES AT KANSAS CITY
  • In addition to a briefcase of guns, Oswald carried hand-drawn maps and instructions for the prison escape.

On the morning of May 24, Barbara Oswald visited Trapnell in prison in Marion. She'd visited seven previous times that month, four times with at least one daughter in tow. Her eighth visit would be her last.

Trapnell, skyjacker and supercon, was six years into a life sentence connected to a 1972 hijacking and ransom attempt — he'd smuggled a pistol on a plane as part of a caper that ended when he was shot by an FBI agent. Still, Oswald found the jailed Trapnell just as captivating as the book had promised, and in a few months her feelings for the skyjacker deepened to absolute loyalty. He promised her a life together. In Australia, he said, the laws couldn't touch them. He showed her a photo of the house where they'd live. She believed him.

After conferring with Trapnell, she drove back to St. Louis that day and packed a briefcase full of guns.

Then, at 5:25 p.m., Oswald arrived at Fostaire Helicopters for her flight with Barklage.

Earlier that week, she'd called in a reservation under the pretense that she was a real estate agent looking at flooded property near Cape Girardeau. In a statement submitted to the coroner's inquest, Barklage described her demeanor as friendly, even talkative.

But half an hour into the flight, Oswald reached into the briefcase and pulled out a pistol. She disconnected Barklage's radio and put the gun to his head. She told him to fly east.

Cape Girardeau is 30 miles from Marion, a short hop for a helicopter. Oswald informed Barklage of the basics: They were picking up three prisoners at the federal penitentiary. In her pocket she carried a hand-drawn map; it showed a rough approximation of the prison yard. She'd made an 'X' on the spot where she wanted Barklage to land the craft.

Barklage later described his calculations for survival: He considered the prison, its tall guard towers and assuredly armed officers. He didn't trust Oswald or the three prisoners. He did trust the guards to try to shoot down all of them.

Barklage claimed he tried to talk Oswald out of it, but, he said, "it was to no avail." So he started his own scheme.

In Barklage's statement, he describes offering unprompted advice. The side door was heavy and difficult to open, he told her. Opening it in the air, he said, would save precious moments on the ground.

She believed him, and leaned forward to work the door's handle. Barklage recounted: "While she was trying to open the door, she put the pistol that she had on me in her left hand, I noticed her finger was not on the trigger."

All of Barklage's combat experience had taken place in the air, but it had generally involved spraying ammunition at ground troops. He'd never engaged an enemy in close combat, let alone disarmed one mid-air.

Still, he made his move, snatching the pistol from Oswald's hand. Of course, he also had to take his hands off the controls. But now he had the pistol.

"The heli was going down," Barklage wrote.

He turned back to the instruments to stabilize the suddenly falling craft, and in the mirror he saw Oswald rummaging in her briefcase. She selected a .45. "Well, I have another," Barklage heard her say.

Barklage turned back around, raised the pistol and fired five times, hitting Oswald twice in the torso and once through the head. A fourth bullet blew a hole in the helicopter's skin.

Barklage turned back once again to regain control of the helicopter. In the mirror, he could see Oswald slumped against the chair, unmoving.

The helicopter landed gently near the prison administration building. Barklage sprinted through the entrance and into a communications room. He stabbed at various buttons on the intercom system, desperately trying to make a call when the first group of guards found him.

Corrections officer Clyde Jones was among that group.

"I met Mr. Barklage right at the front steps," Jones later reported to his superiors. "He was running and waving his arms, he was extremely excited to the point of being incoherent for a few minutes, and I couldn't make it out just what he was trying to say."

Barklage's words came out in a jumble: "Hijacked," "I had to kill her," "She's dead, I know she's dead."

The guards took Barklage outside. The pilot was "in pretty bad shape," Jones wrote. The officer tried to reassure him. "I kept telling him, maybe she's not dead."

Oswald's blood had pooled along the helicopter's outer door, and it dripped from the side, thick and red, leaving drops like melted candle wax on the landing gear. A medical assistant was called, and the pilot and two guards lifted Oswald's limp form and placed her on the grass of the prison yard. She was pronounced dead at 6:35 p.m.


To this day, MR says she cannot reconcile her mother's descent into Trapnell's madness.

After all, Oswald had worked as a prostitute for years to support her family. She had left that life behind, yet suddenly at 43 years old she lost herself in a career sociopath — because of a book? It was all too much.

"Mom was somebody who really knew what was up, and had been around the block a few times. To see her fall underneath Trapnell's spell ..." MR sighs. "I think she just was tired of being alone."

But to MR, the mysteries of her mother's mindset are less troubling than the actions of the man who killed her.

"No one could figure out why he had to shoot her in the head," MR says.

For a long time, MR says, the Oswald children suspected a conspiracy behind Barklage's actions. The coincidence of a decorated Vietnam combat pilot being hired for their mother's flight seemed too outlandish to be real.

Facing new charges for kidnapping and air piracy, Trapnell encouraged the Oswalds' paranoia. In his arguments to the court, Trapnell claimed Barklage was actually in on the escape plan, alleging that the pilot had been paid expressly to ferry the prisoners to Perryville. They planned to leave him handcuffed to his helicopter to cover up the plot, Trapnell said.

The claim fell apart when Barklage took the witness stand. He pointed out that, if not for a 30-minute delay, it would have been Gene Hoffmeyer flying Oswald, not him.

In MR's mind, though, Barklage still went too far. "I think he had other options, and he didn't take them," she says. "I'll believe that until I'm gone."

One of Trapnell's accomplices doesn't agree. Martin McNally, 74, an ex-con now living in St. Louis, has described his mindset in Marion as "pure escape mode." That included the willingness to kill any guards who tried to stop them. Trapnell, he says, was a "phony monster" responsible for enticing and exploiting Oswald — and McNally, too, sees himself as a monster in this story. He admits, "We destroyed a family."

Both convicted skyjackers and residents of the same cell block, McNally and Trapnell had spent months in 1978 plotting their escape. McNally read over Trapnell's letters to Oswald, encouraging the web of lies that ultimately brought her to them in a helicopter.

Today, when asked about best-possible scenarios for that afternoon in 1978, McNally's mind conjures the escapees embarking on an epic crime spree, skyjacking planes and robbing banks in the South. "There's no telling how it would have gone, but we would definitely have been America's most wanted," he says.

And as for Barklage, McNally bears no bitterness.

"Heavens no," the old hijacker says, "He was a hero. He did what he had to do."

Barklage kept several photos in his scrapbook showing his helicopter covered in Oswald's blood. - ALLEN BARKLAGE PERSONAL EFFECTS
  • Barklage kept several photos in his scrapbook showing his helicopter covered in Oswald's blood.

The hijacking changed Barklage's life. For months, reporters breathlessly followed the action as the defendants prepared for trial, interviewing Trapnell through several hunger strikes, describing his frivolous lawsuits and the announcement of his presidential campaign conducted behind bars.

But while the headlines proclaimed Barklage a hero pilot, he was a mess at home. His wife filed for divorce.

His younger brother, Richard, eventually set him up on a date with a mutual friend, Chris. She had secretly harbored a crush on the pilot after meeting him several months before. The two quickly bonded, and soon, Allen and Chris were a couple.

She wasn't intimidated by his fame. "He didn't act like a celebrity," she says. (She remarried after Barklage's death and is now Chris Berry.) For one thing, she says, he dressed "like a hoosier." She says she threw away most of his clothes after they got married in 1980.

"He was caring," she recalls. "He had a good heart, and Allen was totally fearless. I don't think there was anything he was afraid of."

In December 1978, the two were on a date when Barklage got a message on his pager. It was the FBI.

About 100 miles away, in a federal courthouse in Benton, Illinois, a jury was listening to a prosecutor's final arguments against Trapnell and his accomplice McNally. Trapnell had chosen to represent himself, a decision that put him at a distinct disadvantage in legal expertise, but did grant him one key privilege: the opportunity to interview defense witnesses. Among them was seventeen-year-old Robyn Oswald.

Robyn was a Clayton High School cheerleader who shared her mother's wavy blonde hair and decisive streak. Before her mother's death, Robyn had accompanied her on visits to Trapnell, forming a bond that grew stronger in grief. In Robyn's mind, they had become a family. A "father figure," as some news reports put it.

Years later, Robyn would tell a TV documentary crew that Trapnell was "a selfish human being."

"Trapnell was really good at being creative," she recounted to FBI: The Untold Stories. "[He made] you visualize things, like a big beautiful home, all the clothes a sixteen-year-old could want, the Jeep that I wanted ... He said he'd wrap a big red ribbon around the engine and put a rose on the steering wheel as my birthday present."

It may have gone further than even that. McNally claims that Trapnell bragged about obtaining topless photos of the teen. In a story in the St. Louis Times, a purported high school friend said, "Trapnell attracted her more as a lover."

Trapnell didn't hesitate to use the teen just as he'd used her mother.

On the morning Trapnell faced a possible jury verdict on charges of hijacking and kidnapping, Robyn boarded a TWA flight in St. Louis. Five minutes before landing in Kansas City, she asked her neighbor to signal for a stewardess.

Beneath a shapeless cardigan and scarf, Oswald revealed what looked like three sticks of dynamite strapped to her body. She demanded the release of Garrett Trapnell.

The plane was diverted to Marion, where a standoff began that would stretch into the night. The teen had more than 80 hostages under her control.

But the hijacking only shut down court proceedings temporarily. The judge ordered the jury sequestered and then sealed the courtroom from reporters. Trapnell and McNally were moved to a cell to wait out the crisis.

That's when the FBI started making calls. An agent tracked down MR in Oregon, where she'd retreated in the aftermath of her mother's death. The agent pressed her: She was Robyn's big sister. Robyn would listen to her.

But MR turned the FBI down. "I can't do it. I'm done," she told the agent. The crisis of her mother's death and her sister's hijacking was too much to bear. "I just couldn't be involved and survive myself."

As for Barklage, when he got paged at dinner with the news, he assumed the girl wanted revenge. Berry says he immediately offered himself as a bargaining chip.

"Tell her, if she wants me, she can let the people go and she can have me," Berry recalls him saying.

Robyn Oswald, however, demanded only the release of Trapnell. And unlike her mother, the teen wasn't armed. The sticks of dynamite were road flares, the "detonator" made from harmless items purchased at a hardware store.

Over the next hours, dozens of passengers managed to sneak off the plane as Robyn repeatedly called the FBI for updates on Trapnell. One hostage later described her to a reporter a "calm, cool and collected doll." Another claimed Robyn had quipped to a stewardess, "Aren't I the nicest hijacker?"

But the hours wore on the teen. At one point, a witness later claimed Robyn announced that if Trapnell was not on the plane in half an hour, "All 72 people [left on the plane] are going to be blown from the face of the earth."

The FBI called her bluff. Thirty minutes came and went. Hostages crept away in greater numbers. Finally, after ten hours, Robyn Oswald surrendered to the FBI.

From there, she seemingly disappeared into the juvenile justice system. MR, who is estranged from her siblings, believes Robyn is currently living in St. Louis along with her children and grandchildren.

Berry says she watched her new husband struggle to handle the wave of coverage over the second hijacking, the wall-to-wall stories of a daughter's anguish and vivid retellings of Barklage's actions inside the helicopter.

She recalls him complaining about the reporters.

"He always begged the newspapers," Berry says. "He'd say, 'Please, if you can put it in your story and let Robyn know, I did not mean to kill her mom, I did not want to kill her mom.'"

But the papers never printed that. The ink had already dried on the legend.

For the next twenty years, St. Louis' skies belonged to Allen Barklage.

As many as 30 times per day, commuters listened to his voice, and each year at Christmas, he landed Santa in Tilles Park. He'd show up at car dealerships and charity events, even grade schools, swooping a Jet Ranger onto a field in front of crowds of awestruck kids.

"He was well known everywhere, wherever radio reached in the St. Louis area. And people talked about him like they knew him," says Larry Barklage. For years, he endured the ritual of strangers invariably remarking on his last name, "Oh, you're Allen's brother?"

"Allen loved that part of it," Larry says. "He loved the celebrity of it."

The public seemed to love him back. In the age before cable, TV networks and radio stations owned the media market. By the early 1980s, competition between the various outlets meant that as many as five helicopters were trying to observe the same city traffic.

When his helicopter had an open seat, Barklage was known to indulge friends on a trip he called the River Run. Traffic reporter and on-air personality Paul Ford, who goes by "Captain Mac" on 92.3 (WIL-FM), remembers Barklage had a different name for it: the Vietnam Flashback Tour.

According to Ford, Barklage would push the engine to its max, roaring down the Missouri River with just a few feet of clearance between the helicopter and the blur of water below. Then, without notice, Barklage would climb the aircraft to 300 feet.

"He would stall," Ford says, "So you'd be weightless for a bit. Then he would take back control of the stick and get it under control."

On another occasion, when Barklage was apparently feeling "more ornery than usual," Ford recalls the pilot pushing the helicopter to 100 mph flying north on the Mississippi. In front of them lay the old Chain of Rocks Bridge.

"If we don't pull up we're going to go right under that bridge," Ford warned his colleague. Barklage did not pull up.

Rumor holds that the pilot once touched his helicopter's skids to the top of the Gateway Arch. To this day, the tale remains unsubstantiated, but it seems entirely plausible.

Barklage regularly abandoned his traffic assignments at even the barest hint of something more interesting. One day in 1998, flying over the Mississippi, Barklage got a call from a station employee monitoring the police channel: there was an empty boat drifting in the middle of the river. Its two passengers were now stranded in the water, and only one of them had on a life jacket. The other held onto a piece of wood.

Ford remembers Barklage getting his attention in the back seat. "I'm going to let you out," Barklage said.

Ford didn't argue, and Barklage dropped him off on a sand bar and zoomed away. KMOX's Joe Sonderman, who was still inside, watched as Barklage hovered the chopper over the water. Then Sonderman felt the aircraft tip on its side, further than he'd ever felt it tip before.

It took a moment to realize what Barklage was doing.

"The thing was acting like a big giant fan, you could see it was creating a wake." Sonderman says — the rotors blew the stranded swimmers to shore while Sonderman hung perilously by his seatbelt. "All I could think about was, 'Jesus Christ, what if this seat belt lets loose?'" It didn't.

Barklage's instincts got him through multiple close calls, including a takeoff on a TV news chopper that literally ripped the machine apart, throwing metal and rotor pieces around the airfield and nearly killing Barklage and a co-pilot. Another time, someone on the ground shot a bullet through the side of the helicopter. Barklage laughed it off.

"He was bulletproof," Sonderman says now. "You couldn't imagine him dying."

click to enlarge Barbara Oswald, shown here in a newspaper photo, reinvented herself in the military.
  • Barbara Oswald, shown here in a newspaper photo, reinvented herself in the military.

The Revolution Mini 500 helicopter cost about $24,000, arrived in boxes and provided pilots of modest means the rare opportunity to own a one-seater aircraft. All they had to do was build it themselves.

Barklage was both a daredevil and a lifelong tinkerer who worked around professional mechanics every day — the perfect customer for the Mini. He appropriated a corner of a hanger at his employer's airfield, and over some months, the boxes and parts became a delicate-looking flying machine with a bubble front.

The Mini stood barely eight feet tall and weighed less than 900 pounds. The news choppers Barklage usually flew cost more than $1 million and weighed 1,500 pounds. With that weight (and cost) came sophisticated safety features, including crumple zones in the landing gear designed to absorb the force of a crash. By comparison, the Mini was a soda can with rotors — but pilots reported that it was spectacularly fun to fly.

One day, traffic reporter Tori Lyons witnessed the tiny white helicopter diving and swooping toward the ground, aiming squarely at a hula hoop being proffered by Chris Berry. Behind the controls of the Mini, her husband deftly snatched the hoop from her hand mid-dive. The Mini then darted up into the sky, like a small bird who'd caught a worm.

Lyons remembers seeing the helicopter while it was still under construction, and thinking, "No flipping way is he going to fly in that."

"Obviously he could fly it," she says now. "It was a helicopter."

Still, Lyons didn't like the look of the Mini. "I know I said it to him, 'You're going to die in that thing," she recalls. Barklage scoffed that he'd already survived Vietnam and a hijacking. He told her, "I've already had plenty of chances to die."

In fact, Berry says her husband was so confident in the product that he agreed to speak at the manufacturer's conference, attesting to the aircraft's safety and stability. It's not clear whether he was aware of the mechanical limitations in the Mini 500's guts, particularly the Rotex engine, whose 1994 owner's manual buried a warning on the very last page: "This engine, by its design, is subject to sudden stoppage! Engine stoppage can result in crash landings. Such landings can lead to serious bodily injury or death."

On September 19, 1998, Barklage took off in the Mini 500 from the airport in Cahokia. In a later report by the National Transportation Safety Board, a witness reported seeing the helicopter clearing the tops of telephone wires and flying in a wide turn around a hangar before making its way west toward St. Louis. Barklage and his Mini were less than 200 feet off the ground.

Then, the witness heard a pop. Sudden silence replaced the whine of the helicopter's engine. The helicopter started to drop.

At 30 to 40 feet, the craft seemed to level out, but it was still coming down. The helicopter struck nose-first, cartwheeling into the ground and finally coming to rest in a soybean field north of the airport.

In such a light craft, the crash wrought catastrophic damage to Barklage's head and spine. He was in a coma for six days.

Berry knew he was gone at the moment of impact. On September 25, she asked the doctors to unhook the machines keeping her husband's body breathing.

The federal investigation concluded that Barklage's engine had seized up — specifically, "a loss of engine power due to cold seizure of the power-takeoff cylinder" — a malfunction that was already proving fatally common in the line of kit helicopters. Dozens of accidents were recorded after the Mini 500's release in 1994. By the time the manufacturer folded in 1999, nine pilots had died in its helicopters. Barklage had been the fifth.


Twenty years later, the world has moved on from Barklage's flying days. No radio reporters hover over highways anymore.

In 2017, the last two holdouts, KTRS and KMOX, joined the rest of the local radio media in grounding their airborne traffic operations. Traffic reporters like Tori Lyons now sit in front of a computer screen watching maps compiled with GPS data. These days, she delivers reports to radio audiences in Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis, as well as Wichita and Omaha. GPS makes the job easy. Barklage would have hated it.

On Lyons' first day on the job in 1992, she remembers Barklage inviting her up to his office and pulling out a thick blue scrapbook. She had just moved back to St. Louis, and wasn't familiar with the Barklage mythology. He flipped the album through pages of newspaper clippings, a picture of Trapnell, a gory photo of a helicopter dripping with Barbara Oswald's blood.

But the scrapbook contained more than carnage. Later passed to Barklage's brother, and then to his former sister-in-law, the album's 87 pages trace a life of bravery and good luck: a boy staring out of his school portrait, a high school track star, a combat pilot, a tireless reporter.

Multiple pages are devoted to the 1978 escape, the headlines and follow-up stories preserved behind adhesive plastic. There are no stories about Robyn Oswald.

On page 77, the scrapbook opens to a four-picture spread, grainy photos captured off a TV screen. The photos show a man hanging from the skid of a helicopter, his feet kicking above the Mississippi. A life saved.

It is that version of Barklage that his friends remember the best. Surely that's the case for Jim Cavins, the O'Fallon patrol officer riding along with Barklage on the day of that rescue in 1991.

Cavins had seen the man fall from the bridge just as Barklage made a pass, the helicopter hovering for a moment over the sea of blinking red brake lights and gawking motorists.

Barklage turned in his seat, and gestured to Cavins. "Undo your harness and open the door," Barklage instructed.

Below them, the man struggled to keep his head above water. Cavins remembers Barklage's voice, steady and unpanicked. It was the voice of a pilot who didn't think twice.

"Allen just says, 'We're going to get him,'" Cavins says. "And then we just dove."

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April 1, 2020


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