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When Hijacking Airplanes Became a Thing

Flying in the post September 11th world is often a maddening gauntlet of petty and seemingly arbitrary rules and procedures at the cold, probing hands of the TSA. But the current security measures are only additions built upon the foundations of the reaction to a wave of hijackings of airplanes in the 1960s and 70s. For a time air piracy almost became the new normal, the subject of comedy routines and the basis for the coining of the word skyjacking. Of the many hijackers of the era the most famous was D.B. Cooper, who jumped out of an airliner with a bag of ransom money never to be heard from again, but the worst of the air pirates was a man who became more dangerous after he was caught and imprisoned.

Few people noticed the 34-year-old man with a cast on his left arm in LAX boarding TWA flight No. 2 nonstop overnight to New York on January 28, 1972. Garrett Brock Trapnell had already traveled an unlikely path from his family background that represented the best in aviation history.

His cousin Admiral Frederick Trapnell was a pioneer in naval aviation. In 1943 Trapnell took the controls of the Bell XP-59A Airecomet, becoming the first Navy pilot to fly a jet aircraft. In Trapnell’s long career he led the Navy test pilot program, helped engineer the redesign of the Corsair to match the performance of the Japanese Zero, flew almost every kind of aircraft including dirigibles and for a time in the 1930s was a member of the Navy’s “Three Flying Fish” aerobatic team, the predecessor of the Blue Angels.

Garrett Trapnell’s uncle General Thomas Trapnell had an equally distinguished career in the Army. Trapnell was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, served in Korea and as an advisor to the French during the Indochina War and strongly advised President Kennedy against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Garrett Trapnell’s immediate family was rooted in the same tradition. His father, Walter Scott Trapnell, was a graduate of Annapolis and his mother attended Radcliffe. His parent’s marriage ended when he was four and his father’s career took a dark turn. Young Garrett was forced to live with his mother, who increasing sank into alcoholism. At eleven Garrett joined his father in Panama, where he allegedly managed a brothel. Garrett began his criminal career at 15, dropping out of school. By age 17 he enlisted in the Army. By chance he found himself stationed at Ft. Hood where his uncle was the commanding officer, who openly ridiculed his nephew’s lowly rank.

Garrett Trapnell was more successful as a criminal. He graduated to bank robberies and jewel theft, using the proceeds to finance a flashy lifestyle. The Batista government in Cuba accused him of running guns to Castro.

Trapnell had a perverse talent for manipulation, a kind of minor league Charles Manson, leaving wives and children across the U.S. and Canada. He undertook an intensive study of psychiatry in order to master the rarely attempted and even less rarely successful insanity defense. He began a pattern of committing crimes and blaming his alter ego “Gregg Ross.”

Garrett was a pilot and with the help of a partner flew about once a month to Canada to rob banks. On another occasion he used credit cards stolen from a dancer in Las Vegas to rent a plane which he flew to the Bahamas. After robbing a jewelry store of $100,000 he ditched the plane in Florida, made a getaway in a rented car and left his driver’s license on the seat.

By the time he boarded the flight at LAX in 1972 he had been arrested more than 20 times but had only served two years in prison. Usually he was confined to mental hospitals for short stays or simply walked out when he wanted.  After one stint in a Florida hospital in July, 1971, Trapnell read of a 57 foot yacht for sale. He claimed he paid $306,800 in $100 bills to James Fahey to buy the ship. Fahey disappeared after the alleged sale. Trapnell sued to gain title to the yacht but lost in court.

As he sat on the TWA flight to New York Garrett Trapnell had one last ironic footnote to his life. Five months before a cousin, Joseph Trapnell, a pilot for Eastern Airlines, had overpowered a hijacker bound for Cuba. Now Garrett would enter aviation history on his own terms.

Trapnell handed flight attendant Constance Tokarski a note and pulled a handgun from under his cast. The plane landed at JFK and the 93 passengers were released. Trapnell demanded the payment of $306,800, the release of imprisoned black militant Angela Davis and his friend Jorge Padilla, and to talk to Richard Nixon. During the next eight hours Trapnell held the crew at gunpoint and at one point forced the pilot to take off and circle the airport as he threatened to crash the plane into the terminal. Trapnell agreed to let a new crew replace his hostages. An FBI agent disguised as a ground crew member shot Trapnell in the arm.

At his trial for air piracy Trapnell mounted his usual defense, claiming “Gregg Ross” was responsible. He focused his attention on juror Gertrude Hass, a middle aged social worker. As he correctly predicted in an interview before the trial began, Hass held out for acquittal against the other eleven members of the jury. According to a report in the New York Times the judge made highly irregular comments about Hass calling her someone who thinks “there is no such thing as a crime, there are only a lot of sick people until you get your own purse snatched,” and the U.S. attorney reacted by threatening to investigate her for misconduct.  

The Nixon administration was also upset at the mistrial, fearing that others would try the insanity defense.  Government officials proposed new laws revamping the insanity defense and in January, 1973 introduced the first airport security measures including metal detectors to finally do something to end the hijackings. At his retrial the government introduced evidence from Jorge Padilla on Trapnell’s instructions on beating the charges with a phony insanity defense. Trapnell was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Trapnell was sent to the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, the unofficial replacement for Alcatraz and the predecessor of the current supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Tapping into the Anglo-American quirk of romanticizing criminals (for example Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde, and Tony Soprano) Trapnell turned his charm on the women writing him in prison. Many women attracted to prisoners fit the stereotype of living in homes on wheels and had missing teeth, but Barbara Ann Oswald did not. After a rough start in life she achieved middle class respectability in the solid St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights and was working on a master’s degree from a local college when she fell in love with Trapnell.

After a stream of letters and prison visits Oswald was ready to do anything to free her lover. On the morning of May 24, 1978 Oswald visited Trapnell and returned to St. Louis. In the early evening she hired Alan Barklage, the chief pilot of Fustaire Helicopters, to fly her south to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to look at investment property. During the flight she pulled out a .44 caliber handgun and ordered Barklage to fly east to the prison in Marion. Trapnell was waiting in the exercise yard along with  Martin McNally, who unsuccessfully tried to hijack a TWA flight at Lambert airport in St. Louis, and Kenny Johnson, a bank robber.

As Barklage, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, flew the Bell Jetranger II closer to almost certain death from the heavily armed guards in the prison towers he saw his only chance. About three miles from the prison Oswald switched the gun to her other hand and Barklage let go of the controls and lunged at her. They struggled for the gun as the helicopter tumbled out of control. Barklage grabbed the gun and held it on Oswald as he tried to land. Oswald reached for another weapon in the back seat and Barklage fired, hitting Oswald point blank in the head. Barklage landed the helicopter just outside of the main entrance as armed guards swarmed on him.

Trapnell and the others were charged with attempting to escape and air piracy. Investigators found that Trapnell had considered sending Oswald to helicopter flight school but abandoned the idea. He had made arrangement with his ex-wife in Canada to have a car, clothes and guns waiting for him and the others near the prison and had planned to head to New Orleans for a robbery spree. “Escaping is as American as apple pie,” Trapnell told ABC News in an interview. “If I had made it in that helicopter the American public would have loved it.”

In December Trapnell and McNally stood trial in the federal district court in nearby Benton, Illinois. One of Trapnell’s witnesses was Robin Oswald, the 17-year-old daughter of Barbara Ann Oswald. Robin, a cheerleader at the elite Clayton High School, was so distraught at her mother’s death she dropped out of school. On December 21, 1978, the final day of the trial just before the jury began its deliberations Robin Oswald boarded a TWA flight from Louisville to Kansas City during a stopover in St. Louis. She revealed a dynamite bomb and detonator strapped to her chest and demanded the plane fly to the small airport at Marion. There she threatened to blow up the plane with most of the passengers still on board unless Trapnell was freed.

The FBI opened ten hours of negotiations, bringing her sisters and a brother to the airport to talk to her.  Robin Oswald remained calm asking a flight attendant “Aren’t I the nicest hijacker?” Finally Robin agreed to surrender. The bomb was actually three railroad flares and parts of a doorbell. Just as she was taken into juvenile custody the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts against Trapnell.  Trapnell returned to Marion with another life sentence and restrictions on his contact with the outside, leaving frivolous litigation and occasional campaigns for president as his main source of amusement in the coming years.

In Marion Trapnell was held in the most secure part of the most secure prison in America. The K Unit is a small underground prison within the prison. More dormitory than dungeon, K Unit has a few rooms more like bedrooms than cells and by prison standards lavishly furnished. During a press visit in 1990 by the present writer, convicted spies John Walker and Jonathan Pollard occupied two cells, along with arms dealer Edwin Wilson and a white supremacist with a long history of murders and the suspicion that he shot publisher Larry Flynt. In a fifth cell was Garrett Trapnell, grayer and older than in old newspapers but with eyes that were burning with a calculation, trying to work the situation to his advantage, every bit as dangerous as ever. Trapnell did finally leave the unit when he was transferred to the federal prison medical center in Springfield, Missouri, where he died of emphysema in 1993.