Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

Victims Unknown
Born Unknown
Died Unknown
Date 7 December 1987
Criminal penalty Unknown


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 7 December 1987, the British Aerospace 146-200A, registration N350PS, crashed in San Luis Obispo County near Cayucos, 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. 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, for petty theft of $69 from in-flight cocktail receipts; he had also been suspected of involvement with a narcotics ring. 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. Flight 1771 departed from LAX at 15:31 PST, scheduled to arrive in San Francisco at 16:43.

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. 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 if 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.

As the aircraft, a four-engined 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 exact sequence of events remains undetermined, but the Mayday episode that focuses on the crash suggests that this was Burke entering the lavatory to draw his revolver discreetly, possibly loading it and giving Thomson time to read the note before killing him. Captain Gregg Lindamood (43), and First Officer James Nunn (48), were asking air traffic control about turbulence when the CVR picked up the sound of two shots being fired in the cabin.[citation needed]

The most plausible theory as to what happened was deduced from the pattern and audible volume of the shots on the CVR. According to the Mayday episode, Burke likely first shot Thomson twice. Thomson's own seat was never recovered, but part of a seat that was identified from its serial number as being directly behind Thomson's, which had not been sold and was therefore presumably vacant, was found to contain two bullet holes. As Burke was using a particularly powerful revolver, investigators concluded that the bullets could have traveled through Thomson's body, his seat, and then through the seat behind. First Officer Nunn immediately reported to air traffic control that a gun had been fired, but no further transmissions were received from the crew.

The CVR then recorded the cockpit door opening and flight attendant Deborah Neil telling the cockpit crew, "We have a problem!", to which Captain Lindamood replied, "What's the problem?" A shot was heard as Burke shot Neil dead and announced "I'm the problem." He then fired two more rounds. Most likely, he shot Lindamood and Nunn once each, incapacitating them, if not outright killing them. Several seconds later, the CVR picked up increasing windscreen noise as the airplane pitched down and accelerated. The remains of the flight data recorder indicated Burke had pushed the control column forward into a dive or that one of the shot pilots was slumped over it.[citation needed]

A final gunshot was heard, followed not long after by a sudden silence. Most likely, Burke killed Douglas Arthur, PSA's chief pilot in Los Angeles, who was also on board as a passenger and who may have been trying to reach the cockpit to save the aircraft. (Douglas Arthur's brother-in-law had died aboard PSA Flight 182 when it collided with a small plane near San Diego, California.) 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. The plane crashed into the hillside of a cattle ranch at 4:16 pm in the Santa Lucia Mountains between Paso Robles and Cayucos. The plane was estimated to have crashed slightly faster than the speed of sound, around 770 mph (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 2 ft (0.6 m) deep and 4 ft (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 Bob 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.

David A. Burke

David Burke

David Augustus Burke (18 May 1952 – 7 December 1987) was born in Croydon, London Borough of Croydon, Greater London, England to Jamaican parents living in the United Kingdom. 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. Some former girlfriends, neighbors, and law enforcement officials described him as a violent man before the events of Flight 1771. He had seven children from four women, but never married.


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. 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.

The crash killed the president of Chevron USA, James Sylla, along with three of the company's public-affairs executives. 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.

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.


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.

Flight 1771 was also dramatized in Aircrash Confidential.