3 Shots Fired at PSA Pilot and Co-Pilot, Tape Reveals

Times Staff Writer

The cockpit voice recorder from the Pacific Southwest Airline jetliner that crashed Dec. 7 near Paso Robles indicates that the man who invaded the cockpit fired three shots at the pilot and co-pilot and then, an instant before impact, fired a last shot that may have taken his own life, the FBI revealed Tuesday.

The PSA jet went into a steep dive and slammed into a hillside in the rugged coastal backcountry of San Luis Obispo County, killing all 43 aboard.

Authorities believe David A. Burke, 35, of Long Beach smuggled a six-shot, .44 Magnum revolver aboard the flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and carried out a revenge murder scheme against the man who had fired him last month from his job at USAir, parent company of PSA. Burke’s former supervisor at USAir, Raymond F. Thomson, 48, also was aboard the flight.


Confirms Earlier Reports

FBI spokesman Fred Reagan in Los Angeles said Tuesday that enhanced readouts from the “black box” cockpit voice recorder recovered from the shattered wreckage of PSA Flight 1771 confirmed earlier reports that two shots were fired in the passenger compartment--apparently by Burke at Thomson--as the British-built BAe 146 jetliner cruised at an altitude of about 22,000 feet over San Luis Obispo County.

Those earlier reports were based on the pilot’s radio message to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Oakland air traffic control center that “there’s gunfire aboard.”

The recorder readout released Tuesday showed that, “after declaring an emergency, one pilot was heard to state that he was taking the aircraft to a lower altitude,” the FBI said.

“A female was then heard to say in a controlled voice a one-word warning to the captain,” the FBI said. “Immediately thereafter, there was an unlawful entry into the cockpit, followed by three sharp reports which sounded like gunshots.

“Some commotion was heard in the cockpit area, and shortly before the recording ended, another sharp report which sounded like a gunshot.”

Gun Recovered

The FBI’s statement thus accounts for all six bullets in the revolver. The bureau had reported earlier that a gun recovered from the wreckage and traced to Burke contained six empty shell casings.


Earlier reports from sources close to the investigation said the recorder picked up a mechanical scream--probably the sound of the plane’s four engines--as the jet went into a power dive that ended with the high-speed, nose-down crash into a grove of oak trees.

Commercial aviators have noted that if either the pilot or co-pilot slumped over his control wheel after being shot, the forward movement of these controls could have switched the plane off of self-correcting autopilot and thrown it into a nose-down, high-speed dive from which it never recovered.

Three days after the crash, searchers combing the impact site found a note penned on an airsickness bag, buried amid the debris.

“Hi, Ray.” the message began. “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.”

Agents believe the note was slipped to Thomson by Burke before the attack began. While there was no signature on the note, FBI experts said the handwriting matched Burke’s.

While Burke left no suicide note, there is evidence that he had been a troubled man in the days before his death.


In early November, a former girlfriend, Jacqueline Camacho, 23, of Hawthorne, claiming he had twice tried to strangle her, obtained a court order barring Burke from her residence.

A week later, on Nov. 18, he was fired by USAir, which took over PSA in a $400-million merger last May, for allegedly stealing $69 from in-flight cocktail receipts. USAir also was seeking misdemeanor charges against him at the time of his death.

Two days before the crash, Camacho told Hawthorne police that Burke had pulled a gun on her--apparently the same one he took with him on the plane--and talked to her for several hours before leaving her home.

According to a sworn affidavit by the FBI, Burke left a message on Camacho’s telephone answering machine a few hours before the crash that said:

“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.”

One source close to the investigation, asked if the final shot may have been Burke’s suicide, responded: “That’s the assumption people around here are drawing.”


National Transportation Safety Board investigators are continuing efforts to retrieve information on the plane’s control settings and flight path from the flight data recorder, which also was recovered from the wreckage. The flight data recorder was severely battered by the impact, which some experts think may have occurred at greater than the speed of sound.

“It was one of the most damaged recorders we’ve ever recovered,” said Alan Pollock, a spokesman for the NTSB. “We’ve been able to extract some data, but whether they’ll be useful, we don’t know yet.”

The cockpit voice recorder was similarly damaged in the crash, and initial attempts to retrieve information from it met with only limited success, according to FBI sources.

Initially, the FBI said it was unclear whether shots were fired in the cockpit and there were early reports that instead of a one-word warning, the female voice warned the pilot and co-pilot that “We have a problem here.” The early reports indicated that a male voice--presumably Burke’s--was then heard saying, “I’m the problem.”

Readouts Enhanced

The correction of these early, unconfirmed reports was made possible Tuesday only after experts enhanced their readouts, working for almost two weeks to retrieve comprehensible sounds from the voice recorder tape.

FBI and NTSB experts said such enhancements are usually achieved by two methods.

The first involves the use of electronic filters to screen out background noise.

The second involves the use of spectrum analysis, in which graphic, visual representations are made of the sounds on the tape. These visual representations are compared with others of known sounds to help identify what is heard on the tape.


But in the end, the human ear is still the most acute instrument, according to Jim Cash, an NTSB sound engineer.

“I have some really nice, state-of-the-art filters,” he said. “But machines are never going to be able to differentiate between noise and voices . . . .

“The human ear is attuned to discerning a voice amid ungodly amounts of noise.”