I am the problem: PSA flight 1771
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Occurrence 1: LOSS OF CONTROL – IN FLIGHT
Phase of Operation: CRUISE – NORMAL
1. (F) SECURITY – INADEQUATE – COMPANY/OPERATOR MANAGEMENT
2. (F) PROCEDURE INADEQUATE – COMPANY/OPERATOR MANAGEMENT
3. (F) INSUFF STANDARDS/REQUIREMENTS,OPERATION/OPERATOR – FAA(ORGANIZATION)
4. (C) CONTROL INTERFERENCE – INTENTIONAL – PASSENGER
5. (C) SABOTAGE – INTENTIONAL – PASSENGER
6. (C) EMOTIONAL REACTION – PASSENGER
7. INCAPACITATION – PILOT IN COMMAND
8. INCAPACITATION – COPILOT/SECOND PILOT
9. SUICIDE – INTENTIONAL – PASSENGER
Occurrence 2: IN FLIGHT COLLISION WITH TERRAIN/WATER
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.