Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771: a story of revenge, hijack and murder

Aero Icarus / flickr

The story behind the Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 crash in 1987 is perhaps among the most chilling in aviation history.  

It is a dark tale of revenge, hijack and ultimately mass murder that wouldn’t look out of place in the latest Hollywood thriller.  

On December 7, 1987, a British Aerospace 146-200A, operated by Pacific Southwest Airlines (which was owned by USAir) crashed in San Luis Obispo County, California, resulting in the deaths of all 43 passengers and crew on board.  

However, subsequent investigations would discover that this was not merely a tragic accident, and that a handful of those on board were likely killed by a disgruntled former USAir employee before the jet met its grizzly end. 

Campaign of revenge

David Burke, 35, was born in Croydon, United Kingdom (UK), on May 18, 1952, but emigrated to the United States (US) with his parents.  

They moved to Rochester, New York, where Burke began a career with USAir, before eventually moving to Los Angeles Airport (LAX) to take up a new role with the airline. 

In 1987, after 15 years with the airline, Burke was fired from his job after he was caught on CCTV stealing receipts worth $69 from in-flight cocktail sales. 

Burke pleaded with his boss Ray Thompson, who oversaw USAir operations in Terminal One at LAX, to be reinstated but he was refused. 

Unbeknownst to Thompson, this refusal would set Burke on a campaign of revenge that would shake the aviation industry to its core and tragically lead to his murder.   

‘Incensed’ by his dismissal

After he was sacked, Burke was reportedly moody and violent, and just three days before the plane crash, he took his girlfriend and her young daughter on a six-hour drive at gunpoint.  

According to the LA Times, the girlfriend, who was also a USAir employee, told police that Burke was “incensed” by his dismissal on November 18, 1987. 

Ray Thompson was known to take regular flights from LAX to San Franciso Airport (SFO) where he lived. 

On the day of the crash, it was reported that Burke was seen at the USAir offices at LAX, possibly to find out what flight Thompson was flying on. 

Crucially Burke knew his way around the airport, and he was familiar with the security codes that were needed to access restricted areas.  

It is not fully clear whether Burke’s identification cards were taken from him or if he had kept one. But either way he probably relied on his familiarity with LAX employees to navigate security while hiding a handgun that he borrowed from a friend. 

One USAir employee told the LA Times following the crash that, “it’s always possible to get through [security] if they know your face”.   

Murder in the sky

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 took off on December 7, 2023, shortly after 3:30 pm local time and was due to land at SFO at 4:43 pm.  

The four-engine British Aerospace 146-200A aircraft had 38 passengers and five crew members on board.  

Tragically, apart from David Burke no one was aware of the terrible fate that the aircraft would meet that day or that the disgruntled former USAir employee had managed to smuggle a Smith and Wesson .44 magnum revolver onto the flight.  

The exact sequences of events that unfolded on Flight 1771 are somewhat shrouded in mystery. The aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder (CVR) only managed to pick up small pieces of conversation and much of it was of poor quality. 

Following the crash, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published a report which tried to piece together what happened on the flight before the aircraft crashed.  

According to the FBI, the jet was cruising at around 22,000 feet when someone was recorded entering the lavatory. Investigators found this was probably Burke so that he could load the handgun in secret. 

At some point during the flight, Burke also wrote a note for Thompson on an air sickness bag, although it is not clear if he handed it to his former boss.  

“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,” the note read.  

In another part of the recording Captain Gregg Lindamood or First Officer James Nunns were receiving a message from air traffic control when two “high-level gunshot-like sounds” were heard. It is believed that these were the gunshots that killed Thompson. 

One of the pilots then advised air traffic control that there had been shots fired on board the plane and shortly after a cabin crew member entered the cockpit. 

In 2001, Time Magazine reported that the flight recorder picked up the sound of someone pounding on the cockpit door and what the FBI described as “unauthorized entry” into the cockpit.  

A “terrible commotion” then followed and more gunfire, which was most likely the pilots being killed or incapacitated.  

The CVR then picked up a final gunshot which is thought to be the murder of an off-duty pilot who worked for PSA and happened to be on the flight. 

Investigations concluded that maybe the off-duty pilot had attempted to reach the aircraft controls and level the plane as it thundered towards the ground.  

However, ultimately, he was unsuccessful and at 4:16 pm the aircraft crashed in the Santa Lucia Mountains between Paso Robles and Cayucos.  

A witness who saw the plane crash said that it “sounded like it was breaking the sound barrier” as it fell to the ground.  

At the crash site investigators later found the air sickness bag note written to Thompson and parts of a revolver with six empty castings.  

A fragment of Burke’s fingertip was also found lodged in the gun trigger suggesting he was holding the firearm when the aircraft crashed.     

The victims and the lessons 

The Flight 1771 tragedy was also notable due to some high-profile passengers on board the flight. 

Among those killed was James Sylla, the President of Chevron USA, and three of the firm’s public affairs executives. Three executives of Pacific Bell were also killed. 

The crash is seen as a precursor of corporations ensuring that multiple executives do not travel on the same flights.  

Following the crash, a great deal of focus was placed on how Burke was able to smuggle a firearm past security at LAX.  

New Federal laws were passed that ensured all airline and airport employee credentials were seized when a staff member leaves their position. 

A policy was also brought in to ensure all aviation staff faced the same security checks as passengers at airports.   

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