Episode 69: Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

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Summary:

On December 7, 1987, Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 crashed into a hill in San Luis Obispo County, CA, killing all 43 people onboard. Soon, the investigation into the cause of the crash became a criminal one led by the FBI. And when investigators piece together what led up to the crash, they exposed vulnerabilities within airline security procedures that would lead to sweeping changes in airline security policies. Join Shelly for this week's episode, which is one we don't think you'll soon forget!



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On December 7, 1987, Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 crashed into a hill near Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County, CA, after a former PSA employee onboard killed the flight crew and pushed the plane into a deadly nosedive, killing all 43 people. The investigation into this crime revealed that existing screening measures for airlines employees could easily be bypassed, making a flight and its passengers vulnerable to any employee with sinister motives. Following the crash, the FAA changed airline employee security procedures to ensure all employees underwent the same screening process as passengers.

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 Begins as a Normal Commuter Flight

Pacific Southwest Airlines, or PSA, which was headquartered in San Diego, California, and operated from 1949 to 1988. We covered another PSA flight during episode 21, Flight 182. Basically, PSA is very much like Southwest Airlines of today – it was a large regional carrier very popular with short-haul flights. It was the first large discount airline in the United States. PSA called itself "The World's Friendliest Airline" and even painted a smile on the nose of its airplanes, known as the PSA Grinning birds. At the time of this story, US Air had purchased PSA. 

And on December 7, 1987, PSA Flight 1771 prepares to depart from Los Angeles, California, bound for San Francisco. This route is one of the most popular among PSA’s routes, and frequently, passengers take this flight to commute between the two cities. 

And on Flight 1771, we have several off-duty PSA employees who are doing just that. In all, there are 38 passengers and 5 crew onboard. 

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 is a BAE British Aerospace 146-200A aircraft, which was a short-haul and regional airliner that was manufactured in the United Kingdom by British Aerospace, later part of BAE Systems.  

The plane has a distinct T-tail design and four turbofan engines mounted on pylons underneath the wings. The aircraft was perfect for commuter flights since it was very quiet in the sky and earned itself the nickname the “Whisperjet”. 

Flying the plane is Captain Gregg Lindamood and First Officer James Nunn. Joining them from the cabin are three flight attendants: Julie Gottesman, Deborah Neil, and Debra (vool-stek) Vuylsteke.  Captain Lindamood is a decorated combat war veteran and has 11,600 hours of flight and has been with PSA for 13 years while First Officer Nunn has ample experience and has only joined PSA in the Spring. 

The flight from LA to San Francisco lasts only a little over an hour, and about halfway through the flight, 1771 is flying at 22,000 feet (or 6700 meters) and everything is going smoothly. First Officer Nunn, we think, radios into air traffic control (or ATC) to get a report on some turbulence they are currently experiencing. He asks when they can expect to be out of it, to which ATC responds that the turbulence improves up ahead. 

Though this must have been good news for the pilots, any type of feeling related to this news would have instantly been shattered by what happens next. 

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 Pilots Report Onboard Gunfire Right Before Crash

While still speaking with ATC, a noise rings out in the background. The pilots inform ATC crisply and plainly, “we have an emergency and gunshots have been fired on the airplane.” And just twenty-five seconds later, ATC watches their radar in horror as Flight 1771 goes into a rapid descent, suddenly and steeply from 22,000 feet (or 6700 m). As it does, witnesses on the ground watch in disbelief. One witness said, “It looked like a dart diving to the ground.”  Paul Wiley, a water well driller who lived nearby and could see the jetliner’s dive, said the aircraft “sounded like it was breaking the sound barrier” as it screamed toward earth, but that it appeared to be intact during the plunge.

At 4:16 pm local time, Flight 1771 crashes into an isolated hill 170 miles (or 270 km) northwest of Los Angeles, near Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County, CA. None of the 43 people onboard survive the plummet to earth though they were most certainly alive to experience the horrifying fall. Those onboard suffered an impact force 5,000 times the force of gravity. Let that sink in for a moment. To compare, as they spelled out in the Air Disasters episode for this crash, a human body can survive an impact force of 100 times the force of gravity for just a split second, but a force 50 times that strong is utterly incomprehensible. No one stood a chance. 

Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrive at the crash site since ATC conveys there were reports of onboard gunfire right before the plane fell into its rapid descent. 

In addition to the investigative team, a team of 100 searchers started at dawn the following morning, beginning the monumental task of locating and identifying wreckage and remains. They combed the steep incline where the airliner, after what was described by witnesses as a screaming, 45-degree dive, slammed to earth and exploded into thousands of tiny pieces.

Observations of the plane’s crash toward the earth would prove meaningful for investigators since a plane coming down intact tells us there was no midair breakup or explosion versus a plane coming down disintegrating in its fall. 

PSA 1771 Debris Field Reveals High Speed Crash

Investigators are shocked by the compact debris field that hold the remains of Flight 1771. When it crashed down, it compressed into the earth and then everything was released and blown back out of that hole. But large pieces of wreckage do not exist – there are no wings, no tail, no cockpit. Just tiny, disintegrated pieces. Patricia A. Goldman, vice chairman of the NTSB at the time of the crash, told reporters that the largest piece of wreckage she saw at the site was “only a couple of feet long.” But what remains are tiny shards of the plane’s fuselage, loose papers, and the smell of lingering jet fuel in the air. 

Pieces of aircraft and human remains that littered the crash site were tagged with fluorescent orange tape and recorded on a grid chart. The body parts were later removed and taken to a temporary morgue. Witnesses who ran to the crash said there were no human remains larger than a hand. 

One of the most startling things that investigators share with reporters right from the outset comes from Richard Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles. He said bluntly, “We’re looking for a weapon.” And not only are they looking for a gun, but they are also looking for anyone onboard who would have motive to shoot someone else on the flight and be able to get a gun on a plane in the first place. 

And since officials believe a gun was fired on Flight 1771 before it crashed, the public immediately wonders, was a bullet hole in the fuselage enough to bring the plane down? The short answer: no. Aviation experts said it seemed unlikely that damage to the plane from bullets fired in the passenger compartment could cause the aircraft to crash because of the redundancy built into the plane’s control systems. A single bullet hole in the fuselage, or even a few holes, would not be enough to cause an explosive decompression. When we think of flights that experienced an explosive decompression, we can refer to Turkish Airlines Flight 981, which we covered in episode 22. Four our listeners, that was when an incorrectly secured cargo door at the rear of the plane burst open and broke off, causing an explosive decompression that severed critical cables necessary to control the aircraft. That is the kind of hole that would cause a plane to go down. This is not what we have here on Flight 1771.

Richard H. Wood, a private aircraft accident investigator, suggested that perhaps a bullet went through the fuselage and into a wing fuel tank and ignited a fire. And he offered a much more chilling possibility: the plane could definitely go down if you shoot two of the most critical components – the pilots.

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 CVR Confirms Gun Shots Fired Before Crash

Thankfully, almost immediately, both flight reorders are found though both are badly damaged. And the flight data recorder (FDR) is especially damaged, so much so that investigators are unsure if the data is even retrievable. So, investigators start with the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) which is in better shape. 

On the CVR, the first 28 minutes of the flight is routine. Then as we know, the First Officer radios into ATC about the turbulence. And while on the channel with ATC, two muffled gunshots can be heard in the background. 

And then the sounds of the final two minutes of Flight 1771 play out in chilling detail on the recording. After the pilots hear and report the sounds of gunfire, the door to the cockpit can be heard opening. The voice of a flight attendant (we don’t know if it was Julie or Deborah/Debra) can be heard saying frantically, “We have a problem!” One of the pilots responds by asking, “What’s the problem?” And then another voice – that belonging to a man who is not either one of the pilots– says, “I’m the problem.”

Then the sound of three more gun shots is heard. Investigators deduce this is when the gunman kills the Flight Attendant and both pilots. Then chillingly, the door to the cockpit clicks shut again. The CVR picks up one final, muffled gunshot. And then the final seconds of the recorder are filled by a single sound: wind. This is most certainly the sound a plane would make that is entering into a steep, rapid dive.

Additionally, an NTSB official said that a secret cockpit distress signal had also been activated, apparently by Captain Lindamood, and flashed to air traffic controllers “a minute or two” before impact. The Captain had only seconds to act, and he did his job during that split second moment. That is to be heralded. 

The CVR proves that there is evidence of a heinous crime onboard Flight 1771, and from this point forward the FBI takes over; however, the NTSB still stays on to offer its technical guidance and explanation throughout the investigation. 

Evidence of PSA Flight 1771 Murder-Suicide Emerges

The second recorder, the FDR, had to be carefully handled. Only about 6 inches of tape survived the extreme impact, and on it, mere seconds of data. It first confirms that all systems were operating normally leading up to the time of the crash. And it holds a second piece of data investigators are looking for: the FDR confirms that someone pushed the control column all the way to forward in the last half-minute or so of the flight, forcing the plane into a dive. This maneuver would have put Flight 1771 into a dive – at the speed of sound. In fact, investigators believe the plane literally broke the sound barrier while it screamed toward the ground. The plane had been going 660 mph (also 1,062 kmh or 574 knots) when it impacted. We have never had a story before where a plane was clocked going that fast. According to physicists who study structural load limits of aircraft, Flight 1771 remains today the worst-case scenario for an airplane crash. The plane was essentially vaporized upon impact. 

The investigation heats up when a partial passenger seat is found in the rubble with two bullet holes in the seat, which confirms that shots were fired inside the passenger cabin. Discovering who was in that seat could help investigators pin down the motive for the crime. 

Now the search for the gun intensifies – and finally pays off. Investigators find the broken barrel of a 44-caliber magnum, one of the most powerful handguns, in the debris field. They also then find the cylinder and six spent cartridges. 

Astonishingly, investigators find a partial finger still stuck in the trigger, and they know this is the finger of the person who fired the gun, so they send the finger off to see if forensics experts can retrieve a fingerprint from the skin. And they do. 

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 Crash Investigation Zeroes in on Terminated PSA Employee Onboard Flight 

The investigation is now focused on the passenger manifest, and they return to the question of who had motive and access. The one type of person they immediately suspect who could smuggle a gun onboard would be a PSA employee. 

At the time in 1987, airline employees were allowed to bypass security screenings, which meant they could simply show their badge, and then not have to go through the x-ray or metal detector. 

In addition to the pilots, there were several PSA employees on board. But the fingerprint retrieved from the partial finger matches only one of them: airline employee David Burke. 

According to co-workers and company officials, Burke worked as a uniformed customer service agent and transferred to Los Angeles in late 1986 after working 14 years for the airline in Rochester, N.Y.

Burke’s former colleagues and his current neighbors uniformly expressed surprise that he might be implicated in the air crash. His co-workers said he had a reputation for being, as one put it, “very intelligent and very cool.” And people who lived near him described him as “always very nice, congenial.” However, other perspective painted a very different picture of Burke as a person. Some former girlfriends, neighbors, and law enforcement officials described him as a violent man.

Ex-PSA Employee Fired Before Crash of Flight 1771

Investigators quickly review Burke’s employment background and find that Burke had recently been terminated due to allegations that he stole $69 from a recent flight’s onboard alcoholic beverage sales. An airline official said that this allegation led to consideration of misdemeanor charges against him. 

Burke had appealed his termination, as was his right, and he attended his appeal on November 18th, just a little over two weeks before Flight 1771 crashed. Presiding over the hearing was airline station manager Ray Thomson. Thomson later denied Burke’s appeal, which meant that Burke was now officially terminated. This clearly points to potential motive. 

Burke had been seen at USAir offices (remember, they just bought PSA) on the same day as the flight and was seen leaving after talking with Thomson’s subordinates. Thomson was not present at the time, but the early visit could explain how Burke knew which flight his former supervisor was taking. Thomson took the flight regularly to commute to and from the office and home. Police said Thomson had never reported being threatened by Burke.

Officials at USAir said that Burke’s plastic identification card was recovered when he was dismissed November 18 and that the card was destroyed. But, The San Diego Union cited a source who requested anonymity saying Burke’s employee identification badge was recovered at the crash site. That was later confirmed. Another co-worker of Burke’s said in one article that, “It’s always possible to get through if they know your face.” The co-worker also suggested that Burke would know how to operate the combination locks on doors that limit access through the terminal to the Tarmac and conceivably could have boarded the airplane through that direction.

Burke was in fact a familiar face around Terminal One--suggesting this might have assisted him in slipping by security even without a proper badge. And, shockingly, a PSA employee confirmed to investigators that they let Burke borrow the same type of gun that was used in the shooting on Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771.

If there were any doubts in anyone’s minds that Burke was responsible for bringing down the plane, all doubt vanished when investigators find remnants of a paper sick bag from the airplane in the debris field. On it, they find a note scrawled in Burke’s handwriting, written out to supervisor Ray Thomson. It said, “Hi Ray. I think it's sort of ironical that we end up like this. I asked for some leniency for my family. Remember? Well, I got none and you'll get none.”

Investigators Piece Together What Happened Onboard Flight 1771

Investigators use all these pieces of evidence to sequence out the events as they unfolded onboard Flight 1771. After his termination, Burke bought a ticket on the flight, knowing that Ray Thomson would be on it. He likely retrieved the gun from an onsite locker, and then either boarded the plane by bypassing security, or by using his employee badge to open doors only accessible by employees. 

Investigators next only can deduce what happened while onboard. Halfway through the flight and when it is at its cruising altitude of 22,000 feet, investigators believe Burke left his seat and went to the restroom. The CVR in the cockpit recorded background noises, and one of those noises was the bathroom door opening and shutting. Investigators believe while he was in the lavatory, Burke got the gun ready and loaded. Then, he steps back out of the bathroom shutting the door behind him. He confronts Ray Thomson with the gun and shoots him two times – the bullets are so powerful, they pierce through Thomson and his seat and go through the seat directly behind him. This is the seat later found by investigators at the crash scene. And, by the way, as investigators said later, Ray Thomson actually had the most merciful death out of everyone onboard. Because things only get worse from here on.  

Then, as we know, Burke stealthily followed the Flight Attendant into the cockpit, killing her and then shooting each pilot. So far, that accounts for five out of six bullets (two for Thomson and one each for the three crew members). That’s one bullet left.

Investigators know Burke left the cockpit after he pushed the control column all the way forward. What they think happened next, they will never know for sure. But there was one passenger onboard Flight 1771 who would have very likely been making his way from his seat toward Burke, either to plead with him or to confront him in hopes of subduing Burke and regaining control of the plane. That person was Douglas Arthur, PSA’s Chief Pilot. Everyone who knew him said there would be no way that he’d just sit there and do nothing. Investigators believe that Arthur is the final person shot by Burke. And the reason they think Burke did not save the last bullet for himself is because 1) no one ever took control of the plane again (which Arthur would have done had he been left alive) and 2) had Burke shot himself, the gun likely would have fallen from his body instead of remaining in his hand when the plane crashed. This is how investigators were able to pull prints from the trigger – his finger was still there holding the gun.  

We have also explored murder/suicide before – Germanwings Flight 9525 in episode 5. And a disgruntled employee who tried to crash Federal Express 705, covered in episode 9.

The Profile of a Mass Murderer

The crash left the aviation industry and the traveling public asking questions of why someone would do this. And unfortunately, decades of mass murders have taught us a lot about the kind of people who commit these heinous acts. So, let’s sprinkle in some true crime and talk about the profile of a mass murderer. 

According to Psychology Today, Dr. James Knoll, a leading forensic psychiatrist with special expertise in mass murders, says the mass murderer is an injustice collector who spends a great deal of time feeling resentful about real or imagined rejections and ruminating on past humiliations. He has a paranoid worldview with chronic feelings of social persecution, envy, and grudge-holding. He is tormented by beliefs that privileged others are enjoying life’s all-you-can-eat buffet, while he must peer through the window, an outside loner always looking in.

Aggrieved and entitled, he longs for power and revenge to obliterate what he cannot have. Since satisfaction is unobtainable lawfully and realistically, the mass murderer is reduced to violent fantasy and pseudo-power. He creates and enacts an odious screenplay of grandiose and public retribution. 

So, does this mean a mass murderer is also someone who suffers from a mental disorder? Surprisingly, the answer is, not always. The frequency of mental disorders in mass murderers is controversial because it is not clear where to draw the line between "bad" and "mad." The paranoia exists on a spectrum of severity. Some clearly do not meet criteria for any mental disorder and often may justify their acts on political or religious grounds. Others have the frank psychotic delusions of schizophrenia. But many perpetrators are in a middle, gray zone where psychiatrists will disagree about the relative contributions of moral failure versus mental affliction.

It is also very important that we also say, who knows if Burke was depressed or had diagnosed mental illnesses. But not everyone who has a mental illness is suicidal or homicidal, and not everyone who is suicidal is homicidal. It’s sad that this was a time where mental illness was still poorly understood and certainly not accepted. 

Takedown of PSA Flight 1771 Leads to Improved Airline Employee Screening

Several federal laws were passed after the crash, including a law that required "immediate seizure of all airline and airport employee credentials" after an employee's termination, resignation or retirement from an airline or airport position. A policy was also implemented stipulating that all airline flight crew and airport employees were to be subject to the same security measures as airline passengers. 

Notable Victims of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 Remembered

Among the five crew members and 38 passengers lost in the crash were James Sylla, 53, president of Chevron USA Inc., and three other executives of the oil company. 

Douglas Arthur, PSA’s chief pilot, also was riding as a passenger on the flight. Arthur joined PSA in 1975 and had logged 7,500 flight hours. In a terrible twist of fate, Arthur’s wife, Nikki St. Germain, had a brother, Donald, who was a flight attendant and died on PSA Flight 182, which took 144 lives total. 

Wolfgang Studeman, a prominent West German scientist, was also aboard and was traveling to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

PSA Supervisor Ray Thomson was also onboard and was described by employees as a firm but fair supervisor. His wife, Dorothy, worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines. 

Following the crash, relatives attended memorial services. PSA paid for the burials and transportation of relatives to and from their homes, as well as a marker bearing the victims’ names.

There was a casket and grave for unidentified victims. The funeral director handling the service was adamant that this not be a mass burial. Each family was picked up by an individual limousine and returned to by an individual limousine. 

The airline wanted to avoid any feeling of a mass service. Later, 41 out of 43 passengers were eventually positively identified and that was made possible in part by the preservation of tissue samples which could be used later to make the identifications. 

And the service itself was inclusive. A Roman Catholic priest, Protestant minister, a rabbi and a Korean Presbyterian minister presided over the ceremony at Los Osos Cemetery near San Luis Obispo.

Following the crash, the victims’ families made settlements with PSA totaling $37 million. 

In the "Garden of Hope" section of the Los Osos Valley Memorial Park, a granite and bronze marker honors the 42 true victims of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771, and a number of the passengers and crew are buried in that cemetery.

Show Notes:

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Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Podcast Engineers
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

The aircraft that was Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771. Source: Ted Quackenbush

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

Investigators working at the crash site of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771. Source: LA Times

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771

Investigators working at the crash site of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771. Source: Plane Crash Wiki