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Special Report: Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

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.

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