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Year after Gunman Brought Down Jet, Airport Security Has Improved

December 3, 1988

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ One year after a fired airline employee smuggled a gun aboard a jet to kill his former boss, traces of the crash that killed 43 people have disappeared from a cow pasture but left their mark on the nation’s airports.

Since the Dec. 7, 1987, crash of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771, all airline employees, including uniformed pilots, must pass through security checkpoints.

The FBI has closed its criminal investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to issue its report this month.

In April, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed computed-coded cards that would allow employees only into areas where they work. The system would reject cards of former employees and note when someone tries to reach a restricted area.

The FAA has yet to require the computerized system, said FAA spokesman Fred Farrar. But Los Angeles International Airport, where Flight 1771 originated, has adopted a similar computer-aided card that gives security guards instant access to information about the employee, who must also give a personal identification number.

The airport also plans to erect concrete barriers and fences topped with barbed wire to keep intruders off the airfield, said manager Steve Yee.

Could a gunman carry a weapon onto Flight 1771 today?

″Nothing is absolutely impossible but it would be extremely more difficult to accomplish that,″ said Clifton Moore, airport executive director.

Farrar also called it unlikely, adding, ″At that time he shouldn’t have gotten through, but he apparently used a card that he kept after he was fired.″

David Augustus Burke, 35, of Long Beach, a 14-year USAir employee, smuggled a .44-caliber Magnum revolver aboard the plane that day and probably shot both pilots en route to San Francisco, federal authorities said.

The cockpit voice recorder picked up six shots and fell silent with the plane at 22,000 feet. In seconds, the BAe 146 four-engine jetliner smashed into the pasture, killing all aboard.

Burke’s airline badge was found amid the wreckage, providing a clue to how he bypassed security with the gun. USAir maintains Burke turned in his badge.

Burke had been fired as a ticket agent three weeks earlier by USAir, PSA’s parent company, for allegedly stealing $69 in cocktail receipts. Raymond Thomson, 48, Burke’s former boss was on the plane.

Investigators at the crash site found a note on an air sickness bag that read: ″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.″

At least 31 lawsuits have been filed on behalf of passengers’ survivors, according to attorney Mimi Blakeslee. Many of the cases were consolidated and are scheduled for trial May 1. Several cases have been settled.

In June, a granite and bronze memorial was erected at a Southern California cemetery where 11 never-identified victims are buried.

Bill Hartzell has reseeded his pockmarked pasture.

″You’d never be able to tell that anything happened,″ said Sgt. Jim Mulhall with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department. ″It looks like any other hillside.″

Gloria Gottesman of Veradale, Wash., whose daughter Julie was killed in the crash, said she remembers taking the 20-year-old flight trainee to the airport a week earlier. She watched pilots walk unchecked through security and recalled thinking, ″Boy, if you wanted to sabotage a plane it’d be really easy to do it.″

Like other relatives, she remains bitter about the security system that allowed Burke to smuggle the gun aboard. ″It would be nice if it didn’t happen; if they were doing their job,″ she said. ″Who can say? It’s just a damned shame.″

Burke’s mother said her son is missed. ″I don’t believe he do any of those things,″ she said in a telephone interview from her home in Rochester, N.Y. ″I don’t know what to say. What happened, only the Lord knows.″