Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771
|Date||7 December 1987|
|Summary||Mass murder via passenger suicide|
|Site||San Luis Obispo County
near Cayucos, California, United States
|Fatalities||43 (all, including 4 or 5 shot before impact)|
|Aircraft type||British Aerospace Bae 146-200A|
|Aircraft name||The Smile of Stockton|
|Operator||Pacific Southwest Airlines|
|Flight origin||Los Angeles Int'l Airport|
|Destination||San Francisco Int'l Airport|
Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 was a commercial flight that crashed near Cayucos, California, United States, on December 7, 1987, as a result of a murder-suicide scheme by one of the passengers. All 43 people on board the aircraft died. The man who caused the crash, David Burke (born May 18, 1952), was a disgruntled former employee of USAir, the parent company of PSA.
USAir had recently purchased Pacific Southwest Airlines. Burke had been recently terminated by USAir for petty theft of $69 from in-flight cocktail receipts and had also been suspected of other crimes. After meeting with Raymond F. Thomson, his supervisor, in an unsuccessful attempt to be reinstated, Burke purchased a ticket on PSA Flight 1771, a daily flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. David Burke's supervisor was a passenger on the flight, which he took regularly for his daily commute to and from work.
Using his unsurrendered USAir credentials, David Burke, armed with a loaded .44 Magnum revolver that he had borrowed from a co-worker, was able to use the employee security bypass checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport. After boarding the plane, Burke wrote a message on an airsickness bag. It is not known if he gave the message to Thomson to read before shooting him:
- Hi Ray. I think it's sort of ironical that we ended up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family. Remember? Well, I got none and you'll get none.
As the aircraft, a four-engine British Aerospace BAe 146-200, cruised at 22,000 ft (6,700 m) over the central California coast, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the sound of someone entering and then leaving the lavatory. The captain and the co-pilot asked air traffic control about turbulence when the sound of two shots being fired in the cabin was heard on the CVR. This was probably when Burke shot Thomson to death. The co-pilot immediately reported to air traffic control that a gun had been fired on board and no further transmissions were received from the crew. The CVR recorded the cockpit door opening and a female, presumed to be a flight attendant, told the cockpit crew, "We have a problem." The captain replied, "What kind of problem?" A shot was fired, presumably killing the flight attendant, and Burke announced "I'm the problem," and two more shots were heard that either incapacitated or killed the pilots. Several seconds later, the CVR picked up increasing windscreen noise as the airplane pitched down and accelerated. The remains of the flight data recorder (FDR) indicated the control column had been pushed forward, most likely by Burke, causing the aircraft to dive.
A final gunshot was heard followed not long after by a sudden silence. It is speculated that the final shot fired by Burke had killed the airline's chief pilot, who was also on board as a passenger and who may have tried to reach the cockpit to save the aircraft. According to the TV series Mayday, a fragment of Burke's fingertip was recovered with the gun which indicated that he was alive and holding the gun until impact. The plane crashed into the hillside of a cattle ranch at 4:16 p.m. in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Paso Robles and Cayucos. The plane was estimated to have crashed at a speed of around 770 mph (1,240 km/h), disintegrating instantly. It is estimated that the aircraft hit the ground at five thousand times the force of gravity, and was traveling at an approximately 70-degree angle toward the south. The plane struck a rocky hillside, leaving a crater less than 2 feet deep and 4 feet across, presumably where the landing gear struck the ground. The high-speed impact compressed the soil, which almost immediately rebounded, throwing fragments and paper (including the note by Burke) back into the air, before flames consumed them. No one survived the crash; the force of impact meant that human remains were very small, the largest being feet in shoes. The remains of 27 passengers were never identified.
After the crash site was located by a CBS News helicopter piloted by Bob Tur, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were joined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). After two days of digging through what was left of the plane, they found the parts of a handgun containing six spent cartridge cases and the note on the airsickness bag written by Burke, indicating he may have been responsible for the crash. FBI investigators were able to lift a print from a fragment of finger stuck in the pistol's trigger guard, which positively identified Burke as holding the weapon when the aircraft crashed. In addition to the evidence uncovered at the crash site, other factors surfaced: Burke's co-worker admitted to having lent him the gun and Burke had also left a farewell message on his girlfriend's answering machine.
The perpetrator, David Burke, was born May 18, 1952 to Jamaican parents living in Britain. Burke later emigrated to the United States with his parents. He had previously worked for an airline in Rochester, New York, where he was a suspect in a drug-smuggling ring that was bringing cocaine from Jamaica to Rochester via the airline. He was never officially charged and reportedly relocated to Los Angeles to avoid future suspicions. Some former girlfriends, neighbors, and law enforcement officials described him as a violent man before Flight 1771. He had seven children, but never married.
Several federal laws were passed after the crash, including a law that required "immediate seizure of all airline employee credentials" after an employee's termination from an airline position. A policy was also put into place stipulating that all airline flight crew were to be subject to the same security measures as passengers.
The crash killed three managers and the president of Chevron USA, James R. Sylla, along with three officials of Pacific Bell, which prompted many large corporations to create or revise policies on group travel by executives.
An episode of the TV series Mayday (aka Air Crash Investigation or Air Emergency) featured this incident. The episode is entitled I'm The Problem or Murder on Board in the United Kingdom version of the program (Air Crash Investigation).
- "ASN Aircraft accident British Aerospace BAe-146-200 N350PS Paso Robles, CA". Aviation-safety.net. Retrieved 2012-12-19.
- Cummings, Judith (December 11, 1987). "Kin of Suspect Defiant and Contrite". The New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- "Gun-toting fired employee linked to PSA plane crash; ex-boss was also on flight," Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1987
- "Security badges lost". Houston Chronicle. December 17, 1987. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- "Note of doom found in PSA jet wreckage; message apparently written by fired USAir employee supports FBI's theory of vengeance," Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1987
- "PSA Gunman's Note Told Boss He Was About to Die : Message Written on Paper Bag". Los Angeles Times. December 10, 1987. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- Thomson's own seat was never recovered. Part of a seat that was identified from its serial number as being directly behind Thomson's was found to have two bullet holes in it. Due to the power of the revolver, the bullets must have traveled through Thomson's body, his seat, and then through the seat behind.
- Produced in association with: Discovery Channel (Canada), Canal D (Canada) and National Geographic Channel (US & International) (10 February 2012). "I'm The Problem". Mayday (TV series). Season 11. Episode 10. 40–55 minutes in.
- "Ex-worker's badge found". Houston Chronicle. December 16, 1987. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- "PSA Flight 1771". Check-six.com. Retrieved 2012-12-19.
- "Jet Crash Suspect Had Violent Side". Chicago Tribune. December 11, 1987. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- Katrina Pescador; Alan Renga; Pamela Gay (2012). San Diego International Airport, Lindbergh Field. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 110. ISBN 978-0-7385-8908-4.
- "Physical Security Practitioner 2022". asisonline.org. p. 6.
- Lapidos, Juliet (April 13, 2010). "Do Obama and Biden Always Fly in Separate Planes?". Slate. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- AirDisaster.com article
- Official NTSB Summary
- PSA Flight 182 & 1771 Memorial Page at The PSA History Museum
- Aviation Safety Network criminal occurrence description