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"The Smile of Stockton"

Near Harmony, California

December 7th, 1987

When Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) Flight 1771 unexpected crashed on a hillside near San Luis Obispo, California, killing all 43 aboard, few at the time would have guessed that the wreck of the British Aerospace BAe 146-200, registered as N350PS, would have been the result of the actions of one man, and the chain of events that set the mishap in motion had started several months prior.

USAir, a large nationwide airline, purchased PSA in May of 1987. The acquisition of the smaller regional carrier created new opportunities for veterans of USAir, and new chances to escape – such was the case of David Burke.

A Charmed Life...

David Burke was born in 1952 in Britain of Jamaican parents, and had been an employee of USAir for 14 years. Previously, Burke had worked for USAir airline in Rochester, New York, and had never married but had fathered seven children by four women. In New York, he was a suspect in a drug-smuggling ring that was alleged to be bringing cocaine from Jamaica to Rochester via the airline – but he was never officially charged. But, to distance himself from the environment that lead to the suspicions, and to be closer to his girlfriend, he relocated to Los Angeles.

But, he did not find a new life on the west coast. Rather, he was fired from being a passenger ticket agent on November 19th, 1987, because he was reported to have committed petty theft by stealing $69 from the airlines' cocktail sales fund – an act that was caught on a hidden camera.

Burke had flown to San Francisco and had borrowed a .44 magnum pistol, along with a box of 12 shells, from a fellow USAir employee, Joseph Drabik. With a gun, he turned moody and violent – going so far as to hold his girlfriend, and her six-year-old daughter, at gunpoint on a forced six-hour auto drive the weekend before the crash.

Begging Forgiveness...

On December 7th, 1987, after meeting with the supervisor who fired him, Raymond F. Thomson, on the afternoon of the fatal flight – where Thomson refused to give Burke his old job back, Burke bought a one-way ticket on Flight 1771, knowing that Thomson was a regular on the flight, since he lived in the San Francisco Bay area, but worked at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

But before boarding, Burke left a message on the answering machine of his enstranged girlfriend, USAir Ticket Agent Jacqueline Camacho, in Los Angeles - "Jackie, this is David. 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."

Using his USAir badge credentials, which had not been revoked from him after he was fired, Burke, armed with the borrowed .44 Magnum revolver, was able to bypass the security checkpoint and metal detection system at LAX. After boarding the plane, Burke wrote a message on an air-sickness bag. The note read: “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.”

Taking Action...

As the plane cruised at 22,000 feet over the central California coast, it is generally thought that Burke left his seat and headed to the lavatory, dropping the note on Thomson's lap. As he exited the lavatory a few moments later, Burke took out his handgun and fired twice at Thomson, as the cockpit voice recorder later confirmed. The pilot and co-pilot heard the two shots in the passenger cabin and radioed a frantic message to Oakland air traffic controllers: “There’s gunfire on board!”

The door to the cockpit was heard opening, and a female, presumed to be a flight attendant, told the cockpit crew that, "we have a problem."

The flight recorder from PSA Flight 1771, as seen at NTSB Headquarters in Washington DC

The captain replied, "What kind of problem?"

Burke then appeared at the cockpit door and announced "I'm the problem," simultaneously firing three more shots that likely killed the pilots.

Several seconds later, the cockpit recorder picked up increasing windscreen noise as the airplane pitched down and began to accelerate. A final gunshot was heard and it is speculated that Burke fatally shot himself. The plane then descended in a steep dive, nearly breaking the speed of sound, and crashed into the hillside of a cattle ranch at 4:16 in the afternoon in the Santa Lucia Mountains near the small coastal town of Cayucos, California. Not one of the 43 aboard survived.

Sifting Through the Mud...

Patricia Goldman, head of the National Transportation Safety Board's on-site investigators, said they could find "no apparent problems with the aircraft, frame, structure or engines" that would have led to the crash. But it was determined several days later by the FBI and NTSB investigators, after the discovery of both the handgun containing six spent bullet casings and the note written on the air-sickness bag, that Burke was the person responsible for the crash.

In addition to the evidence uncovered at the crash site, other factors surfaced: Burke's co-worker admitted to having lent him the gun, and Burke's farewell message on his ex-girlfriend's telephone answering machine. But the “smoking gun” came with a grisly discovery: one of Burke's thumbs, identified by its print, proving he had boarded the flight, and a Smith and Wesson .44 magnum revolver with six empty casings.

As a direct result of the mishap, strict federal laws were passed, including a law that required "immediate seizure of all airline employee credentials" upon termination from an airline position, and another policy that was put into place where all members of any airline flight crew, including the captain, were to be subjected to the same security measures as are the passengers.

 

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