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PSA Flight 1771

An Animation of the Fight 1771 about to crash.

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 an angry former employee of USAir, the parent company of PSA.


USAir had recently purchased and was in the process of absorbing Pacific Southwest Airlines. Burke had been 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, he 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 which he probably gave 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 plane, 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 toilet. 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. 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 are 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 telephone answering machine.

David BurkeEdit

The perpetrator, David Burke, was born May 18, 1952 to Jamaican parents living in Britain. Previously Burke had 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, but is reported to have relocated to Los Angeles to avoid future suspicions. Some former girlfriends, neighbors and law-enforcement described him as a violent man before the murders. 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).