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Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

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Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771
British Aerospace BAe-146-200A, PSA - Pacific Southwest Airlines AN0070114.jpg
N350PS, the aircraft involved,
at Los Angeles International Airport in 1986
DateDecember 7, 1987
SummaryMass murder–suicide, aircraft hijacking
SiteSan Luis Obispo County
near Cayucos, California, U.S.
35°31′20″N 120°51′25″W / 35.52222°N 120.85694°W / 35.52222; -120.85694Coordinates: 35°31′20″N 120°51′25″W / 35.52222°N 120.85694°W / 35.52222; -120.85694
Aircraft typeBritish Aerospace 146-200A
Aircraft nameThe Smile of Stockton
OperatorPacific Southwest Airlines
Flight originLos Angeles International Airport, California, U.S.
DestinationSan Francisco International Airport, California, U.S.
Fatalities43 (including the perpetrator and five victims shot before impact)

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 was a scheduled flight along the West Coast of the United States, from Los Angeles, California, to San Francisco. On December 7, 1987, the British Aerospace 146-200A, registration N350PS, crashed in San Luis Obispo County near Cayucos,[3][4] after being hijacked by a passenger.

All 43 passengers and crew aboard the plane died, five of whom, including the two pilots, were presumably shot dead before the plane crashed. The perpetrator, David Burke, was a disgruntled former employee of USAir, the parent company of Pacific Southwest Airlines.[5] The crash was the second-worst mass murder in Californian history, after the similar crash of Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 in 1964.


USAir, which had recently purchased Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), terminated David A. Burke, a ticketing agent,[6] for petty theft of $69 from in-flight cocktail receipts; he had also been suspected of involvement with a narcotics ring.[7] After meeting with Ray Thomson, his manager, in an unsuccessful attempt to be reinstated, Burke purchased a ticket on PSA Flight 1771, a daily flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Thomson was a passenger on the flight, which he regularly took for his daily commute from his workplace at LAX to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area.[8] Flight 1771 departed from LAX at 15:31 PST, scheduled to arrive in San Francisco at 16:43.[9]

Using USAir employee credentials that he had not yet surrendered, Burke, armed with a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver that he had borrowed from a coworker, was able to bypass the normal passenger security checkpoint at LAX.[10] He gained access to the plane via the locked crew door using the access code scratched above the lock as reported by one of the lawyers representing families of two dead passengers. After boarding the plane, Burke wrote a message on an airsickness bag, but whether or not he gave the message to Thomson to read before shooting him is unknown. The note read:

Hi Ray. I think it's sort of ironical that we end up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family. Remember? Well, I got none and you'll get none.[7][11][12]

The exact sequence of events remains undetermined, though some details were able to be determined based on information from the aircraft's cockpit voice recorder (CVR). Due to the poor quality of the recording, it was not possible to decipher everything spoken in the cockpit, nor was it possible to positively attribute phrases to specific individuals.[13]: 348  As the aircraft, a four-engined British Aerospace BAe 146-200, cruised at 22,000 feet (6,700 m) over the central California coast, the CVR recorded either Captain Gregg Lindamood (43) or First Officer James Nunn (48) asking air traffic control about reports of turbulence. During the controller's reply, the CVR picked up two "high-level gunshot-like sound[s]."[13]: 349  Burke had likely shot Thomson at this time.[11] One of the pilots reported twice to the center controller that there had been gunshots fired aboard the aircraft. As the controller asked the pilots whether they wished to divert to Monterey, the sound of the cockpit door opening could be heard, followed by the sound of a female voice, believed to be Flight Attendant Debbie Neal. What was said by her could not be discerned, aside from the word "captain.""[13]: 349  This was followed one second later by a male voice saying something that was mostly not intelligible on the recording but ended with the word "problem." The FBI's transcript notes that this may have been Burke's voice. Although it is popularly believed[by whom?Discuss] that the complete phrase spoken by Burke had been "I'm the problem," this does not appear in the official FBI report. Immediately following this exchange, two more gunshot sounds were registered, followed by another gunshot six seconds later.[13]: 350 

Most likely, Burke shot Lindamood and Nunn, incapacitating them, if not outright killing them. Fifteen seconds later, the CVR picked up the sound of the cockpit door either opening or closing, as well as increasing windscreen noise as the airplane pitched down and accelerated. Thirty-two seconds after the sounds made by the cockpit door, a sixth and final gunshot was heard.[13]: 350  All that could be determined was that this shot occurred in the passenger cabin. Some speculation arose that Burke shot himself, though this seems unlikely, because a fragment of Burke's fingertip was lodged in the trigger when the investigators found the revolver. This indicated that he was alive and was holding the gun until the moment of impact.[14] The most probable victim was an off-duty pilot that was working for PSA, Douglas Arthur, who was likely trying to enter the cockpit in an attempt to get the plane out of the dive. For the remainder of the recording, the sound of windscreen noise and "distant voices" could be heard.[13]: 350 

At 4:16 pm, the plane crashed into a hillside on the Santa Rita cattle ranch[15] in the Santa Lucia Mountains between Paso Robles[16] and Cayucos. The plane was estimated to have crashed slightly faster than the speed of sound, around 770 mph (670 kn; 340 m/s; 1,240 km/h), disintegrating instantly. Based on the deformation of the titanium black box data recorder case, the aircraft experienced a deceleration of 5,000 times the force of gravity (G-force) when it hit the ground. It was traveling around a 70° angle toward the south. The plane struck a rocky hillside, leaving a crater less than two feet (0.61 m) deep and four feet (1.2 m) across. Only 11 of the passengers were ever identified.[citation needed]

After the crash site was located by a CBS News helicopter piloted by Robert Tur, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were joined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 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 that he may have been responsible for the crash. FBI investigators were able to lift a print from a fragment of finger stuck in the revolver'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 coworker admitted to having lent him the gun, and Burke had also left a farewell message on his girlfriend's answering machine.[17]

David A. Burke[edit]

David Burke

David Augustus Burke (18 May 1952 – 7 December 1987) was born in Croydon, England to Jamaican parents. Burke later emigrated to the United States with his parents. He had previously worked for USAir 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. Never officially charged, he reportedly relocated to Los Angeles to avoid future suspicions.[7][17] Some former girlfriends, neighbors, and law enforcement officials described him as a violent man before the events of Flight 1771.[18] He had seven children from four women,[19] but never married.[7]


Several federal laws were passed after the crash, including a law that required "immediate seizure of all airline and airport employee credentials" after an employee's termination, resignation or retirement from an airline or airport position.[20] A policy was also implemented stipulating that all airline flight crew and airport employees were to be subject to the same security measures as airline passengers.[21]

The crash killed the president of Chevron USA, James Sylla, along with three of the company's public-affairs executives.[22] Also killed were three officials of Pacific Bell, prompting many large corporations to create policies to forbid travel by multiple executives on the same flight.[23]

In the "Garden of Hope" section of the Los Osos Valley Memorial Park, a granite and bronze marker honors the 42 victims of Flight 1771, and a number of the passengers and crew are buried in that cemetery.[24]


An episode of the Canadian documentary TV series Mayday titled "I'm the Problem" ("Murder on Board" for UK broadcasts) chronicled the events of Flight 1771 and its ensuing investigation.[14]

Flight 1771 was also dramatised in Aircrash Confidential.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "FAA Registry (N350PS)". Federal Aviation Administration.
  2. ^ "ASN Aircraft accident British Aerospace BAe-146-200 N350PS Paso Robles, CA". Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  3. ^ "California jet crash kills 44". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. December 8, 1987. p. A1.
  4. ^ "44 die in valley plane crash". Lodi News-Sentinel. (California). UPI. December 8, 1987. p. 1.
  5. ^ "Fired worker's note to ex-boss found". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. December 11, 1987. p. 3.
  6. ^ "From the Archives: Crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner centers on fired employee". Los Angeles Times. December 9, 1987. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d Cummings, Judith (December 11, 1987). "Kin of Suspect Defiant and Contrite". The New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  8. ^ "Gun-toting fired employee linked to PSA plane crash; ex-boss was also on flight," Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1987
  9. ^ Pollack, Andrew (December 8, 1987). "California Plane Crash Kills 44; Gunshots Are Reported in Cabin". The New York Times. Retrieved April 3, 2018. The flight, PSA 1771, left Los Angeles shortly after 3:30 and was scheduled to arrive in San Francisco at 4:43 P.M.
  10. ^ "Security badges lost". Houston Chronicle. December 17, 1987. Archived from the original on October 12, 2012. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  11. ^ a b "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
  12. ^ "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.
  13. ^ a b c d e f "Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771". FBI Records Vault.
  14. ^ a b Produced in association with: Discovery Channel (Canada), Canal D (Canada) and National Geographic Channel (US & International) (February 10, 2012). "I'm The Problem". Mayday (TV series). Season 11. Episode 10. 40–55 minutes in.
  15. ^ "Witnesses See Plummeting Plane Moments Before Crash With PM-Plane Crash, Bjt". AP NEWS. Retrieved November 22, 2022.
  16. ^ "Ex-worker's badge found". Houston Chronicle. December 16, 1987. Archived from the original on October 3, 2012. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  17. ^ a b "PSA Flight 1771". December 7, 1987. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  18. ^ "Jet Crash Suspect Had Violent Side". Chicago Tribune. December 11, 1987. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  19. ^ Magnuson, Ed (June 24, 2001). "David Burke's Deadly Revenge". Time.
  20. ^ Pescador, Katrina; Renga, Alan; Gay, Pamela (2012). San Diego International Airport, Lindbergh Field. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 110. ISBN 978-0-7385-8908-4.
  21. ^ Malnic, Eric (June 5, 1989). "PSA Crash Liability Case May Hinge on Airport Security". Los Angeles Times. ... the Federal Aviation Administration changed security procedures as a result of the incident.
  22. ^ Fisher, Lawrence (December 9, 1987). "4 Chevron Officials Died in Air Crash". The New York Times. Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  23. ^ Lapidos, Juliet (April 13, 2010). "Do Obama and Biden Always Fly in Separate Planes?". Slate. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  24. ^ "PSA Flight 1771 Memorial Cache". Geocaching. Retrieved October 22, 2017.

External links[edit]

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