I am the problem: PSA flight 1771

13 Nov 20 23 Comments

On the 7th of December in 1987, Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 1771 departed Los Angeles International for a scheduled passenger flight to San Francisco. There were five crew and thirty-eight passengers on board.

The aircraft was a British Aerospace BAE-146-200, a four-engine airliner which was (and still is) popular with regional airlines like PSA for short-haul flights, as it is easy to maintain and very quiet; perfect for smaller operations at urban airports. PSA were one of the first airlines to adopt the BAe-146; the 146-200 flying flight 1771, registration N350PS, was just three years old.

PSA BAe-146-200A N350PS photographed by Ted Quackenbush

Pacific Southwest Airlines was popular a popular airline in the US, famed for its scantily-clad cabin crew and heavily discounted flights. The airline had been purchased by USAir six months before, but still flew as PSA.

It was a beautiful and sunny day and the flight was routine. However, about halfway through the flight Oakland air route traffic control center (ARTCC) received a MAYDAY call from the first officer, who reported that gunshots had been fired onboard.

Twenty-five seconds later, before the Oakland controllers could find out any more, they saw the flight descending in an impossibly steep descent. Moments later, the aircraft disappeared from radar completely.

Witnesses saw the intact aircraft racing towards the ground in a steep, nose-down attitude. The BAe 146 was travelling faster than the speed of sound when it smashed into a rocky hillside in the Santa Lucia Mountains. The crash site was quickly identified by a news helicopter. It was clear that there was no chance of survival; the impact was so forceful that almost half of those on board could not be identified from the remains.

Image of the LA Times December 8 1987

Usually, the first stage of an investigation is to move the wreckage in a grid pattern to a hangar or other sheltered area in order to preserve the evidence. In this case, there was no point; there simply wasn’t enough of the aircraft left. The speed of descent was faster than would happen from a loss-of-control incident; someone must have pushed the nose down with power on in order to reach that speed. Between this and the emergency call, it was clear that there was some sort of sabotage of the flight. The NTSB was joined by the FBI for the investigation.

The first priority was to find the recorders. The flight data recorder was badly damaged and only some information could be retrieved. However, the Cockpit Voice Recorder had survived the impact and the recording gave key information. The aircraft was cruising at 22,000 feet and the flight crew were discussing turbulence with air traffic control.

The flight recorder from PSA Flight 1771, as published on check-six.com

Then there is the sound of the lavatory door opening and closing, followed by the sound of two shots being fired. The crew contact ATC to declare an emergency as a cabin crew member entered the cockpit. She said “We have a problem.”

“What kind of problem,” asked the captain.

There is the sound of another gunshot and a male voice who announced “I’m the problem,” before shooting two more rounds.

I can’t imagine how chilling it must have felt to listen to this.

Forensics was able to confirm that the first shot killed the cabin crew member. The other two rounds were almost certainly to disable or kill the captain and the first officer. The cockpit voice recorder recorded increasing noise consistent with the aircraft accelerating, correlating to the timing of the rapid descent as witnessed by Air Traffic Control on radar. It is impossible to know if this was from a flight crew member slumped over the control column or if the intruder pushed the column forward into the descent. This was followed by the sound of another shot and then the recording ended.

After two days of searching the wreckage, the investigators identified parts of a Smith and Wesson .44 revolver with six spent casings and a fragment of a finger still stuck in the trigger guard.

Two bullet holes were found in the fragments of a passenger seat and a further bullet hole was found in a seat identified as being from one of the flight crew.

They also found an airsickness bag with a chilling note.

Hi Ray. I think it’s sort of ironical that we ended up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family. Remember? Well, I got none and you’ll get none.

The note was identified as written by a man named Burke, who had been employed by USAir for fourteen years until a few weeks earlier, when he was fired for petty theft: a hidden camera caught him taking $69 from the flight cocktail sales.

The fragment found in the trigger guard gave enough of a print to confirm that the finger belonged to Burke, which meant that he was holding the weapon when PSA flight 1771 impacted the ground.

Thirty-five-year-old Burke had worked for USAir in Rochester but recently transferred to become a Los Angeles customer service agent, moving in with his then-girlfriend, a USAir ticketing agent. She reported that had a message from him on her answering machine left that morning, which said “I’m on my way to San Francisco, flight 1771. I love you. I really wish I could say more, but I do love you.”

Another USAir worker came forward to say that he had loaned the handgun and twelve rounds of ammunition to Burke a few weeks before.

The day of the flight, Burke had met with a USAir Supervisor who had been Burke’s manager; the man who had fired him a few weeks before. Burke asked for his job back but the supervisor refused. The supervisor worked in Los Angeles but lived in San Francisco and was booked on flight 1771 to travel home. After the meeting, Burke purchased a one-way ticket on the same flight.

At the time, airline employees did not have to go through security checkpoints. Burke still had his airline ID card and he used that to carry the gun to the gate, straight past the metal detector.

Unattributed image identified as the searching of the wreckage of PSA flight 1771

The seat fragment with the bullet holes which was recovered from the wreckage was identified by serial number as the seat in the row behind the supervisor’s seat. It is likely that Burke stood to give his supervisor the note written on the air sick bag and then fired twice upon him, with the power of the .44 forcing the bullets through the supervisor and his seat and then through the seat behind. These would have been the two shots that the flight crew initially heard in the cockpit.

Burke then followed the cabin crew member into the cockpit, where he shot her and at least one of flight crew. It’s unclear whether the final shot was turned against himself or possibly another employee, PSA’s chief pilot, who was a passenger on the flight and would likely have moved forward after hearing shots in the cockpit. It seems likely have been someone else, as Burke was still holding the revolver with his thumb on the trigger guard when flight 1771 crashed into the hills.

The passengers killed in the flight included the president and three executives from Chevron USA and three officials from Pacific Bell. According to an article by Juliet Lapidos on Slate this led to corporate policies limiting the number of executive-level personnel to travel on the same flight.

The NTSB findings focused on the inadequate procedures for the operator and the airport security allowing sabotage and control interference by a passenger leading to intentional suicide.

Phase of Operation: CRUISE – NORMAL
Phase of Operation: DESCENT – UNCONTROLLED


The loss of PSA flight 1771 is particularly interesting as it had lasting effects on aviation. Since this crash, it is federal law in the US that all airline and airport employee credentials are seized immediately when an employee is terminated. In addition, it became policy that all flight crew and airline employees were to be put through the same security measures as passengers are.

Category: Accident Reports,


  • I don’t know why this particular story is extra horrifying, but it is.

    I assume “Ray” was the supervisor that was shot first?

    • Perhaps it’s the sheer depravity of someone being willing to kill dozens of complete strangers for the sake of a grudge against one individual.

      • I was probably the last person to see and talk to David A. Burke before he boarded that fate airplane. You see I was a bartender in Terminal #1. Which was where PSA boarded their passengers onto their airplanes.

  • Another chilling indictment of the way gun ownership in the USA has gone totally out of control, and this occurred back in 1987. And it is still getting worse. In the 2016 presidential election campaign Trump gained votes when he accused Hilary Clinton: “… and she wants to take away your guns!” School children are subjected to “gun drills” and there have been serious proposals that teachers should be armed. Remember not all that many months ago when a young man was arrested for entering a supermarket with a heavy, military-style submachine gun… and was acquitted? Trump supporters strutting around in quasi army uniforms, again with assault weapons – in public?
    The casual mentioning that “another USAir worker […] had loaned the handgun and twelve rounds of ammunition to Burke a few weeks before” sends shivers to my spine. What kind of society has America become?
    Not long before this incident my colleague and I arranged for an experiment with the head of Special Branch at a certain UK airport. It was perhaps not totally official so, even though it happened in 1986, I will not reveal the location.
    In those days photography was still done with film. I had a lead-lined bag to protect film from exposure to X-ray by airport security scanners.
    We flew in and out of this airport on a regular basis and were on very good terms with customs and police.
    I made a bet with the head of Special Branch that I could get a handgun through security unnoticed. He disputed this, so we put it to the test.
    He was wise enough to call his superintendent to tell him that we were going to carry out an experiment. The staff who were at the scanner were not aware of this. We took his handgun and put it in the safe bag (I still have it), together with some crumpled-up aluminium foil and a few other metal objects, like keys and coins to disguise the shape of the gun, should it show up in the scanner.
    It went through without any problem. The Special Branch man went visibly pale when he realised what had just happened.
    No doubt modern scanners will pick up anything suspicious, but proper gun control should be the first line of defence. Hand guns should not be sold over the counter. I prefer the European ways and gun laws.

    • You ask “What kind of society has America become?” The bleak answer is that US society has always been violent, always believing in the hero-with-a-gun; this has been aggravated by politicians discovering they can fool some of the people all of the time, which is enough to get elected. It doesn’t help that the so-called National Rifle Association was taken over by gun nuts decades ago, or that the White House was occupied for eight years by a senile, superstitious fool who’d learned to prize form over substance.

    • 9/11…2996 killed by box cutters. That number includes the so-called terrorists, because surely they succumbed to the evil inherent in their weapons…they too were victims.
      I have never liked box cutters, nor the people who have them.
      Especially, the deranged individuals who swear they need more than one!
      I had a box cutter once, but hammered it into a small peace sign, and a little spoon that I plant flower seeds with.
      But when I held that hammer, I felt a murderous rage for a moment…!
      Ohhhgodd…we should only have soft things!

  • Another post about an individual who caused a horrific event, and instead of holding the individual responsible, it is blamed on the inanimate gun. I suggest you move to Europe if you feel safer there.

    • It’s definitely a problem in Los Angeles, too, everyone’s got a baseball bat. Drive-by battings happen all the time. Sometimes they even stop, get out of the car, and go bat some otherwise innocent bystanders. The police, reacting to a man with a bat, beat innocent women to death and smash up the neighbor’s apartments with their bats too.

      It’s all the people, not the bats. If they didn’t have bats, they’d use something else, right?

      • When one cannot argue with facts, they resort to sarcasm. This is one of the reasons the world is as it is today. Most people who don’t like firearms have no idea about their function, design or anything about them. People argue about guns/gun control using emotion, not facts. There are better than 3000 gun control laws in the U.S. Are they working? They are passed as a “feel good” measure after shootings. I support background checks and several other things. Quit passing laws based on how a firearm looks. There can be no agreement between sides of this debate because both sides are in polar opposition to one another. I’m glad our legal system is not based solely on emotions. As this is a great site for information on airplane incidents, This will be my last off-topic post. Stay safe!

    • It’s not about blaming anyone or anything, it’s about preventing repeat occurrences. Changing how we socialize boys would help. The policy changes around security checkpoints and employee termination will help. But even if we take the other measures, gun control would still be helpful in preventing recurrences.

  • I am baffled by “Since this crash, it is federal law in the US that all airline and airport employee credentials are seized immediately when an employee is terminated.” I’ve been laid off four times (it goes with being in computers); in the first three of those cases (dating back to 1979) I was supervised off the premises, turning in my access card and/or key as I went. (In the last case, the card \was/ the access, so it was simply removed from the security computer’s list of legal cards when a snowstorm prevented my last day from happening.) I had no idea that any airline was ever this slack, especially when somebody was terminated for cause rather than being RIFed because business was down; it’s good to know that procedures are better now.

  • I remember that day well. I worked for Pacifc Bell at the time. Hearing about the plane crashing and knowing that Pacific Bell employees are on every flight between Northern and Southern California we were wondering how many and which colleagues perished. It was an awful feeling that I never forgot. I did not personally know any of the victims but I knew it could have easily been me on that flight.

  • Everyone should have to pass through the metal detector. No exceptions except the flight marshal, the only person who should be allowed to carry weapons on the flight.

    • A/P mechanic and 135 charter pilot here. I used to do line maintenance for all airlines serving a class c airport. Maybe about 5 airlines at any given time..they came and went over the years.
      Regarding the “everyone should go through the metal detector” comment… depending on how I got to the broken plane, I sometimes was asked to go through a metal detector. I would comment, “what are you going to check for, my tool bag is full of ‘weapons’ ?”. I always had a knife and other sharp things. If they don’t like it, I could either not fix the thing, or use my ID to walk out onto the ramp via another exit. If raining, I preferred to go through the terminal and then then the jet way.
      Anyone WITHOUT an ID would be let onto the ramp by the FBO at the same airport by simply mentioning the n-number of an aircraft sitting on the ramp and saying “I’m with n123xx”, or they are crew, or here to work on it. The security is a sham. This is post 9/11.
      After becoming a charter pilot, on a trip to the Caribbean, I picked up a crushed, empty (fired) case from an airport parking lot and stuck it in my suitcase. I’m a gun enthusiast, do reloading, etc., and intended to measure it to see what round it was..the stamp was illegible. It looked like 5.56×45, and was probably from whatever the police there used. It was in a pocket of my suitcase for probably a year, I forgot about it.
      One day, at my home airport, the same one with the lax security where I was a mechanic, I had to go through the airline security for a ‘repositioning the pilots” flight, an enthusiastic bag screener found it and made a big deal out of it. Because it was related to a gun.. A crushed piece of brass with no sharp edges. I started to disagree on principle, but was working and in a hurry, so threw it out to make them happy.
      Depending on where we are going, we are sometimes armed. We haul passengers and guns on trips to hunt.
      The crew of PSA 1771 could have saved the day if armed. The 9/11 hijackers used little box cutters to kill thousands.
      People are clearly the problem. I wish all flight crews were armed. A person who can’t operate a firearm with judgement and competence shouldn’t be trusted with an aircraft…much more complicated. Take it from someone familiar with both.
      Don’t even mention the ridiculous argument about making a 10mm hole in a pressurized aircraft. While not desirable, if a pilot feels the need to shoot, that little hole is the least of your problems. If you’ve ever worked on the pressurisation system, you know that they are pretty leaky on a good day. Cabin pressure is controlled by an outflow valve, which is a regulated leak, and there are many more leaks than just that!

  • I am not sure what Tim is driving at. I AM a European and live in Ireland where the ordinary cop-on-the-beat still does not carry a handgun. Of course, if someone wants to do harm he (or she) will find a weapon, or use whatever suitable is within reach. But a too easy access most certainly will increase the risk factor by a very high degree. I have served my time as a conscript in the Dutch army and do know the basics of firearms. But that will not make me feel justified nor comfortable with a legal system that issues a blanket permit to carry a gun, even heavy military style ones, wherever, and whenever someone choses. And the Second Amendment never intended that, it was not written as a “constitutional right to bear arms” as is too often misquoted. Read it for yourself: “The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” ” The article, I quote from the Legal Information Institute, continues to discuss the various interpretations given. Personally, I think that it is clear intention to restricting it to a WELL REGULATED Militia and also refers to the “security of a free State”. This eliminates the nonsense that claims that right for everyone in the USA. Some year ago a lawyer argued that his client had been deprived from this right and should be allowed to have a gun. The client in question was blind! In the USA many households have a gun, often
    more than one, somewhere. It can be in a desk, or even in a kitchen drawer. Small children have been maimed or killed when they found a gun, and started playing with it. And if people get in a heated argument, which happens everywhere, a gun happening to be easily at hand can all too often put an abrupt, and unwanted end to the argument.
    Sylvia has presented her readers with a story that easily is, and in fact has, morphed into a discussion about gun control. So be it, it is interesting and has the potential of pitching readers against one another. I do not think that she will object, as long as we keep it civilised.
    Just to finish off: Mike is correct, and nowadays at virtually every airport all people, crew included, will have to pass through scanning equipment.
    But the credentials of staff being seized upon termination of their working contract? No, that is news to me. It would make it nearly impossible to change employers and that would really violate their basic rights.

    • Sylvia is moderating these comments heavily. However, all civilised comments are put through, of course. I think that it is a bit damning to condemn a nation based on an incident which involves a man with criminal intent who illegally gained possession of a gun and then used it. There are better examples if arguing in favour of gun control (or bat control, or where-ever this conversation ends up).

      I think the security issues (do pilots need to go through the metal scanners when they could have control of the plane and access to an axe up front? Should access passes be relinquished once your job is terminated?) are better topics here but I am not halting the other conversations, just watching carefully.

    • As far as credentials are concerned, there’s a difference between those issued by some regulatory authority (e.g. a pilot’s license) and those issued by some corporation (e.g. You are allowed to access the company database).

      Sometimes, however, I think it can be a bit mixed – if you are a baggage handler, you may have a permit to be on the apron issued by both the company and the government.

    • What you’ve done is interpret the Second Amendment as you wish it was, an unfortunately rather common event. It is a fact that Madison and others had a very difficult time holding those 13 colonies together. There were many compromises on many things, slavery being a prominent one. The “well-regulated militia” part was put in there because some states wanted to be independent countries and if they couldn’t be an independent country they at least wanted their own militia. This by the way was the nucleus of the Confederate Army. It wasn’t lost on the men that wrote the Constitution that the first thing the British did, or attempted to do, when they suspected trouble was confiscate private firearms. It’s also worth noting that Madison and all the rest of them owned firearms. At the time you could even have a private warship. They were privately owned cannons, the military had nothing the civilians didn’t have. Now nobody today knows exactly what they were thinking when they wrote those amendments but we do have a pretty good idea and I suspect I know a lot more about the birth of them than you do. It is worth keeping in mind the one of the founding principles of the United States was that you govern with the consent of the governed . No divine right of anything here, and it was the full intent of the founders that those in power be kept in check. The first and second amendments are first and second for a reason. Which brings me to something else, what is a military grade firearm or weapon? What is not? Maybe terms like “weapons of war” just sound good to some people.

  • The pilots and their luggage need to go through screening just like everyone else. A huge part of the screening is searching for illicit drugs, and pilots are not exempt from that, nor are they immune to having things put into their bags beyond their control.

    Wasn’t there a movie once, where the bomb in the airliner was put into the captain’s luggage?

  • The reaction the faintest criticism of gun availablity in the US gets from pro gun people never fails to amaze me, even in a cordial website like this. As an Australian I have never held a gun let alone fired one. They are just not part of most of our lives who don’t need to work with them. That some Americans can’t see the slightest link between gun violence and the incredible death toll from them is classic cognitive dissonance. I gave up trying to understand it after Sandy Hook and wanting to aim teachers as the solution [if you believe the shooting weren’t a hoax at all]. I know you love guns and what they represent to you so go for it, but just admit that, nothing will make you give them up, and drop the arguments about baseball bats etc, they just sound ridiculous.

  • No surprises on security together with guns acessing flight side. Strange experiments on how to fool the scanners by a fool who has provided other lunitics with unformation that should not be published in detail. It is lunacy having an 18C constitution giving carte blanche rights to lethal weapons to frighten, maim or kill others. It is impossible to control weapons with such laws which is evidenced daily. Until another law is in evidence such as a requirement to have been taught by the military during military service. This is evidenced infrequently when intervention by trained people can result in save lives and property. Insurgents such as those who thought a protest with their weapons to replace the legal course of government gives a clear message — the risk of insurrection still exits. Wake up America before you self destruct.

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