A Call comes in to the San Luis Obispo County,
California Sherrif's Office citing a small plane crash in the mountains of
southern California. Detective Bill Wammock is the first to arrive on the
scene. He recalls “nothing that resembled an airliner... we went on for hours,
before we heard the news reports of a missing airliner, believing that we
were dealing with a small airplane full of newspapers that had crashed. We
saw no pieces of the aircraft that were larger than, maybe, a human hand.
It did not look like a passenger aircraft.”
Two days later, an FBI Agent working the scene
found what appeared to be the barrel and trigger of a handgun. Forensic
Analysists examined the pieces, and found a small peice of skin wedged between
the trigger and the barrel. By matching the skin prints to the passenger
manifest, investigators were able to conclude that the gun had been in the
hand of USAir employee David Burke at the time of impact.
December 7, 1987, was not a typical day for USAir employee David Burke. Two
weeks prior, Burke had been placed on unpaid leave, awaiting the outcome
of an investigation into whether he had stolen $68.00 from a drink fund set
up by Flight Attendants. The date of Burke's appearance before the Board
of Appeals at USAir was today.
In the hearing, Burke admitted to the act and pleaded
for leniency, citing his family's well-being. Despite telling the members
of the committee that he was “regrettably sorry,” and that his “children
would have no one to support them,” Burke's pleas for his job went unheard,
and he was summarily dismissed by his supervisor, Raymond Thompson. As Burke
left his office after the hearing, Thompson's secretary wished him to “have
a nice day.” Burke paused, turned around, and replied “I intend on having
a very good day.”
David Burke then purchased a ticket on Pacific
Southwest Airlines flight 1771, a daily non-stop along PSA's “Pacific Highway”
between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This flight was also taken by Burke's
supervisor, Raymond Thompson, every day on his commute home from the USAir
Headquarters at LAX.
Using his USAir employee credentials, which had
not been seized and were later found at the crash site, David Burke bypassed
security at Los Angeles International Airport and stepped aboard the BAe-146
aircraft, armed with a loaded 44-magnum pistol. Upon entering the aircraft,
Burke scrawled a note onto an air-sickness bag which read:
“It's kind of ironical, isn't it? I asked for leniency for my family,
remember? Well, I got none, and now you'll get none.”
As the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of
29,000 feet, Burke calmly vacated his chair and made his way to the lavatory,
dropping the air-sickness bag in his supervisor's lap as he passed. Moments
later, he emerged with the handgun, and immediately shot Thompson. The sound
of the gunshot is picked up on the cockpit voice recorder, and seconds later
the sound of the cockpit door opening is heard. A female, presumed to be
a Flight Attendant, advises the cockpit crew that “we have a problem.” The
Captain replies with “what kind of problem?” Burke then appears at the cockpit
door and announces “I'm the problem,” simultaneously firing two more shots
that fatally injure both pilots.
Several seconds later, the CVR picks up increasing
windscreen noise as the airplane pitches down and begins to accelerate. A
final gunshot is heard as Burke fatally shoots himself. Airspeed continues
to build until 13,000 feet, when traveling at a velocity of 1.2x Mach, the
aircraft breaks apart and the Flight Recorders cease functioning.
All 44 passengers and crew aboard PSA Flight 1771
died as the aircraft crashed into a Farmer's field in the Santa Ana Hills.
The accident spelled the end of Pacific Southwest Airlines, which in April
of the following year was absorbed into USAir. A federal law was passed which
required “immediate seizure of all airline employee credentials” upon termination
from an airline position. Most importantly, however, the Federal Aviation
Administration adapted policy to require that all members of any airline
flight crew, including the Captain, be subjected to the same security measures
as are the passengers.