California Retrospective

Germanwings tragedy reminiscent of '87 jetliner crash in California

Germanwings tragedy is reminscent of '87 suicide crash of PSA jet in California

The troubling narrative emerging from the Germanwings crash in the French Alps -- that the co-pilot deliberately plowed the plane into a mountain after locking the captain out of the flight deck -- has some similarities to the 1987 crash of a jetliner in Central California.

As The Times reported, a Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner crashed near Paso Robles Dec. 7, 1987, after a former PSA employee entered the cockpit with a gun and attacked the pilot and co-pilot before committing suicide. All 43 people on board died in the crash.

The British-built BAe-146 jet went into a steep dive and slammed into a hillside.

Investigators concluded David A. Burke, 35, a former USAir ticket agent from Long Beach, smuggled a revolver aboard the flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and carried out a revenge murder of another passenger, Raymond F. Thompson, 48.


For the Record

March 28, 2015, 11:14 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that David Burke, whose gunfire caused the crash of the PSA airliner, had worked as a ticket agent for PSA. Actually, he had worked for USAir, parent company of PSA at the time of the crash.


The FBI said Thompson, Burke's former supervisor at USAir, parent company of PSA, had fired Burke a month earlier for allegedly stealing $69 in cocktail receipts.

In 1989, federal authorities provided their final report on what happened. Here's how The Times described it at the time:

Because of his status as a former employee, Burke was able to bypass security at Los Angeles International Airport and smuggle the .44-magnum revolver on board with his personal belongings, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI.

Investigators believe that at some point after Flight 1771 became airborne, Burke handed Thompson a note, scribbled on an air sickness bag. The note, recovered later from the wreckage of the plane, 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."

While there was no signature on the note, FBI experts said the handwriting matched Burke's.

Investigators say Burke then fired two shots--presumably at Thompson--somewhere in the main passenger cabin of the plane. The sounds of these shots were picked up on the "black box" cockpit voice recorder recovered from the shattered wreckage.

Air traffic controllers in Oakland heard the pilot radio that "there's gunfire aboard."

The recorder then picked up the sound of a female voice -- presumably a flight attendant's -- warning the captain of trouble.

"Immediately thereafter, there was an unlawful entry into the cockpit, followed by three sharp reports which sounded like gunshots," the FBI said. "Some commotion was heard in the cockpit area, and shortly before the recording ended, another sharp report which sounded like a gunshot."

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