From the Archives: Report confirms that gunman caused 1987 crash of PSA jet

Workers examine one of the four jet engines of the ill-fated Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1987, Cayucos, Calif.
Workers examine one of the four jet engines of the ill-fated Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1987, Cayucos, Calif.
(Lennox McLendon / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded officially Thursday that a Pacific Southwest Airlines jetliner crashed near Paso Robles Dec. 7, 1987, because a gunman invaded the cockpit and attacked the pilot and co-pilot before committing suicide.

The British-built BAe-146 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.

The NTSB final report issued in Washington confirmed what the FBI concluded months ago: That David A. Burke, 35, a former PSA ticket agent from Long Beach, smuggled a revolver aboard the flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and carried out a revenge murder against another passenger, Raymond F. Thompson, 48.

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.


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 NTSB and FBI.

Investigators believe that at some point after Flight 1771 became airborne, Burke handed Thompson a note, scribbled on an airsickness 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.”

The FBI report accounts for all six bullets from the gun, which contained six empty shell casings when recovered from the wreckage. Investigators presume Burke fired two of them at Thompson, three of them at the cockpit crew and the sixth to claim his own life.

While no details are given in Thursday’s NTSB report, its findings include “incapacitation pilot,” “incapacitation co-pilot” and “suicide.” Sources close to the investigation say the bodies were so severely mangled by the impact that it may have been impossible to determine whether victims suffered gunshot wounds.

The NTSB report noted cryptically that there were three probable causes of the crash: “control interference,” “sabotage” and “emotional reaction (by Burke).” The report added that “inadequate” security and procedures were “factors relating” to the incident. The crash prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to tighten security measures at airports.


For the Record

The Times incorrectly reported on Jan. 6, 1989, that David Burke, whose gunfire caused the crash of a PSA airliner on Dec. 7, 1987, had worked as a ticket agent for PSA. Actually, he had worked for USAir, parent company of PSA at the time of the crash.