An American Airlines pilot got diverted on 9/11, and her story has landed on Broadway.
by Lisa Martin
More from Summer 2017
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by Lisa Martin
A lifetime of pursuing her passions put Beverley Bass ’74 on course for breaking barriers, shattering stereotypes and making history, even though she never set out to do any of those things.
The retired pilot instead credits the significant events of her career — becoming the first female captain for American Airlines and a momentous 9/11 experience that shaped a hit Broadway musical — to a simple principle: She followed her dreams.
A fourth-generation Floridian, Bass grew up riding horses in Fort Myers and the Everglades. When she was 9 or 10, she saw a handwritten sign offering plane rides for a penny a pound and set about collecting the three quarters it would take to become airborne. The aunt who was watching her at the time, however, had no intention of sending her young charge up, up and away.
“I adored my aunt Ginger, and that was the only argument we had in our lives,” Bass said.
Within a few years, Bass could count on her aunt to take her to watch National Airlines 727 jets land around 9 p.m. in Fort Myers. Her aunt parked her Volkswagen Beetle by the airport’s chain-link fence so Bass could behold the evening’s aviation spectacle.
“The pilots seemed like gods to me,” Bass recalled. “But for years my father said no to flying lessons because he thought I’d lose interest in the quarter horses we raised, and he was convinced the horses were what would keep me away from boys and drugs.”
Her father, a real estate broker who specialized in ranches, played golf with a couple who graduated from TCU in 1965. They were Bass’ introduction to the university.
“I was never a crowd-follower, so going to these big state schools where everyone else was headed held little appeal for me,” she said.
Bass also felt an affinity for the Lone Star State. “We would drive to Colorado every summer, and I loved Texas because it was a Western horse state.”
In August 1970, Bass moved into her dorm room on the third floor of Colby Hall to begin her freshman year with a singular ambition: “I knew I needed a degree to get hired by an airline, and I was 1,000 percent dedicated to becoming a pilot.”
Bass returned to Florida the following summer with an abiding affection for her new school — “TCU was the perfect size and was filled with the nicest people I’d ever been around” — but undeterred in her vision to take flight.
Her parents finally gave in and arranged lessons with the man who had offered those plane rides for a penny a pound. “I came home after my first flying lesson and told my parents that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” Bass said.
Back at TCU as a sophomore, Bass moved into Sherley Hall and began working toward a double major in Spanish and interior design. “I’d taken a lot of Spanish in high school, and it came easily to me,” she said. “Interior design was always something I enjoyed.”
But flying remained an obsession. During her senior year, Bass logged as many hours in the sky as she could manage while working as a flight instructor at Fort Worth’s Meacham Airport, about 10 miles north of campus. She arranged her classes to be free by early afternoon, spending from 3 to 9 p.m. at the airport each weekday.
One day, a local mortician needed a pilot to fly the body of a young woman who had overdosed on drugs to Arkansas. “I only had 300 hours of flight time rather than the 500 hours required by his insurance,” Bass said. After the mortician secured a waiver from his insurer, Bass took the controls of the single-engine Bonanza, an aircraft so tiny that she had to step over the corpse to climb into the cockpit.
“I was responsible for everything in that plane, and it felt so empowering,” Bass said. “I loved every minute.”
After graduating from TCU, Bass stayed at Meacham, eventually becoming the chief pilot of the airport’s charter department. “I was an only child, and my parents had never told me there were things I couldn’t do,” she said.
The real world, it turned out, wasn’t nearly as supportive as her parents, Bob and Marge Bass. “I was told there couldn’t be a female pilot flying executives around because what would the wives think.”
In summer 1976, Bass moved to Dallas’ Love Field to fly canceled checks for banks, Fotomat film and airplane parts overnight, building up more flight hours. She had her eye on a new prize, thanks to Frontier Airlines, which hired its first female pilot in 1973.
During fall 1976, Bass landed an interview with American Airlines. She nailed the simulator portion. What unnerved the young aviator was the panel of chief pilots firing questions at her that included what she would do if the captain started smoking a cigar during the flight. (“I wouldn’t say anything to him but could always wear an oxygen mask if the smoke bothered me,” Bass responded.)
Following the interview, Bass left for her family’s hunting camp in the Florida Everglades. In time, she heard that American Airlines hired her, at age 24, as its third female pilot. “It was one of the top five best days of my life,” Bass said, “but I almost had trouble believing it was true.”
American Airlines moved Bass to New York City to become a flight engineer on a 727 jet. She talked her way into sharing an apartment with five somewhat skeptical flight attendants, and they’ve been friends since. “I always say the best four years of my life were at TCU, but the next best years of my life were as a single woman living in New York.”
Bass rose through the ranks to become American Airlines’ first female captain in October 1986. “The first airplane you captain is like your first boyfriend — it’ll always have a special place in your heart,” Bass said of the 727 jet.
On Dec. 30, 1986, Bass made international headlines when she led the first all-female crew in aviation history as they flew from Washington, D.C., to Dallas. “I told the other gals that day it was more important than ever that we all follow the checklist,” she said. “Still, I didn’t realize the extent of the hype there would be.” They met news crews on the ground after those initial landings; the company even allowed reporters in the cockpit.
By this time, Bass’ personal life also was soaring. She was dating Tom Stawicki, who oversaw the pilot pension fund for American Airlines. The pair wed in 1989 and welcomed their son, Taylor, in May 1991. Daughter Paige arrived in October of the following year. The family lived in Colleyville, a Fort Worth suburb near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. In 2005, the family moved to Argyle, about 25 miles northwest of the airport.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bass had her feet propped up on the dashboard of the 777 jet she was flying from Paris to Dallas when she learned that terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center in New York City. The federal government closed U.S. airspace.
As she cruised along at 39,000 feet with a first-time co-pilot, Bass was told little else beyond where she needed to land. “It was the hardest PA I ever had to make,” she said of addressing the passengers over the loudspeaker that fateful Tuesday morning. “I didn’t want to lie, but I had to protect the flight attendants because I didn’t want to cause havoc for them.”
Bass told passengers that “there was a crisis in the U.S. and that we would be landing in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, and that I would get back to them with more once we were on the ground.”
Flight AA49 was the 36th airplane out of 38 diverted to the eastern edge of Canada. Accommodating nearly 7,000 passengers and their flight crews from all over the world would occupy Gander’s 9,400 residents for the next five days.
Since the small town was in the midst of a school bus driver strike, Bass was informed upon landing that her crew and 156 passengers would have to spend the night on the plane as they awaited ground transportation.
Upon hearing about all the flight diversions, the town’s bus drivers left the picket line to help, but it took time to get people off the planes, account for them and find them suitable shelter in Gander and nearby towns.
“We had one meal left, which was more of a snack, and the flight attendants passed it out and then basically tucked everyone in bed,” Bass said. The Dallas-bound passengers and their flight crew spent 21 hours on the ground in Gander waiting after the seven-hour flight from Paris.
Bass borrowed a passenger’s cellphone and called her husband. During the three-minute conversation, Stawicki told her that he had picked up Taylor and Paige, then 10 and 9, from school after the news of the terrorist attacks broke.
“My daughter had always wanted to be a pilot when she grew up,” Bass said, “but she never mentioned it again after 9/11 until her junior year of college.”
I got home and saw my family but wanted to fly the next day. I was never going to let the terrorists ruin what I loved so much. Beverley Bass ’74
As the final person to deplane Flight AA49 the next day, Bass remembered stepping into an otherworldly scene inside the terminal. “There were all these tables of food,” she said. “At some point, I realized that the people of Gander had stayed up all night cooking for us.”
The Dallas-bound passengers boarded buses for the Knights of Columbus building while Bass and her crew of a dozen were dispatched to a nearby Comfort Inn.
“Passengers weren’t allowed to get their luggage because all the bags had to stay in the belly of the plane,” Bass said. “Local pharmacies filled something like 2,000 prescriptions for free, and people were allowed to go to Wal-Mart and a store called Shoppers to take anything off the shelves that they might need.”
Meanwhile, an air traffic controller assigned to be a local liaison for Flight AA49 handed her the keys to his new truck with instructions to use it whenever she wanted. (The man has become a good friend and has visited her in Texas.) Bass proceeded to shuttle back and forth to the Knights of Columbus Hall to brief her passengers with what little news she had.
Bass had just gone to bed when she heard at 11 that Friday night that Flight AA49 could leave for Dallas the next morning. She hauled herself to the airport to oversee the preparation of the 777 aircraft, which included taking every piece of silverware, glass and china off the wide-body jet lest they be used as weapons.
“Once we were in the air, the passengers wanted to know when we got into the U.S. and then when we were over Texas, and everyone cheered both times,” she recalled. “I got home and saw my family but wanted to fly the next day. I was never going to let the terrorists ruin what I loved so much.”
Gander remained in the veteran airline pilot’s mind for almost a decade. Of the 100 pilots who made emergency landings that historic day, Bass was the only one to attend the town’s commemoration ceremony on Sept. 11, 2011.
At the observance, she met a Canadian writing couple who asked if they could interview her about her experiences. Bass, who retired from American Airlines in 2008, spent four hours talking with Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
“Every part of her life inspired us, and her unique perspective on 9/11 was one we hadn’t heard before,” Sankoff said. “As a woman whose entire life was devoted to flying, there was a unique sense of loss, particularly because of the friends she knew who were flying that day and also because of the fear that her industry might not survive.”
Added Hein: “She was so generous with her time. By the end of our interview we were ready to write Beverley Bass: The Musical!”
Instead, Sankoff and Hein wrote the book, music and lyrics for Come From Away, an acclaimed musical playing at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Set in Gander in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the show starring six women and six men offers a glimpse into what the experience was like for the stranded passengers and the town’s surprised residents. (To the people of Newfoundland, outsiders “come from away.”)
Thanks to Facebook, Bass knew a theatrical production was in the works. In spring 2015, Sankoff and Hein invited Bass and her family to the opening-night performance at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.
“Bev and her husband and daughter had gotten into town the night before the first performance just in time for a party we were having,” said Sue Frost, a producer of Come From Away. “When they got there, Bev started talking about her life, but we kind of knew everything already.”
Bass also introduced herself to Jenn Colella by saying she thought the actress, who had dyed her hair to match Bass’ color, might be playing her role. “Jenn said, ‘You don’t say,’ and we were fast friends from that moment on,” Bass said. “I was the second person Jenn called when she was nominated for the Tony.”
“I fell in love with Bev the moment I laid eyes on her,” Colella said. “She has this confidence about her and this light about her that really draws you in.”
But meeting her onstage doppelganger did little to prepare Bass for the emotion of seeing her story come to life onstage. Less than five minutes into the performance, Colella borrows a passenger’s phone onstage and says into it, “Tom, I’m fine.”
“Hearing that while sitting in the audience,” Bass said, “I buried my face in my hands, sobbing, and missed 75 percent of the rest of the show.”
Fast-forward to July 2017: Bass has seen Come From Away a staggering 73 times, joking she knows “every line and every word of every song.”
Bass said she still feels moved by the musical, no more so than when watching Colella perform the show’s only solo, “Me and the Sky.” The song manages to condense Bass’ professional life story into 4 minutes, 19 seconds.
“It’s my favorite moment in the show,” Bass said. “I feel my heart pick up for Jenn right before she begins singing, and I take a deep breath.”
For Colella, “most of the show is direct-address to the audience so I know where she is in the audience. I have a master’s degree in acting, but nothing prepared me for being onstage with the person I’m portraying watching in the audience. She is the most identifiable person in Come From Away, and she’s my biggest fan, though at this point she feels more like family.”
During a section of “Me and the Sky,” Colella sings about the takeoff: “And suddenly the wheels lift off/The ground is falling backwards/I am suddenly alive.” The joy of that moment seems palpable.
“It’s such an impactful song and really captures who Beverley is,” said R. Michael James, a theatre instructor at TCU and a friend of Bass. “I go to 20-30 Broadway shows a year, and Come From Away is one of the best I’ve ever seen for its concise and tight storytelling. It also leaves you feeling better about our world. You don’t want it to end.”
Producers extended the La Jolla show run twice. At the end of 2015, Come From Away moved to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where producers added shows to accommodate demand. After an eight-month gap, the musical opened in fall 2016 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., getting an extended run there as well.
Before the show’s March 12 debut on Broadway, Bass spent four days in New York City on a publicity junket with Colella. She even cut her hair to match Colella’s in the musical.
“Bev is so excited about the production, but it has nothing to do with herself and everything about highlighting what the people of Newfoundland did,” Frost said. “She will do anything we ask to promote the show.”
Bass was also in the audience for the Tony Awards on June 11. Her daughter, who is now a pilot for Zetta Jet, presented Bass with the tickets as a Mother’s Day gift. That night, Christopher Ashley won a Tony Award for best direction of a musical, which only added to the buzz surrounding Come From Away.
A separate production in Toronto is scheduled to start in February 2018, and a national touring show is scheduled to kick off in the U.S. in 2018. Meanwhile, Frost said there’s no end in sight for the musical’s sold-out run on Broadway.
“It’s a true honor to be sharing Beverley’s story with the world,” said Sankoff. “Every night we watch audiences cheer her, and we join in cheering as well.”
For Frost, part of the joy of having Bass attend so many of the show’s performances is seeing her become a role model for a new generation.
“One night in D.C., I noticed these two girls, probably 10 or 11 years old, waiting after the show to meet one of the actors, I assumed. My husband said he thought they were waiting instead for Beverley’s autograph — and they were! She is a true pioneer. People love her message of letting your passion take you where you want to go and not letting anything stand in the way.”
Your comments are welcome
Thank you TCU for writing this article. I am parent of a TCU alumni. Beverly Bass won’t know me, but I remember her from my days at American Airlines as a customer service agent. Loved having her land in Gunnison, Colorado. Tried to see the play in NYC, but tickets are hard to come by. Will try again in January. Love her story and how she came to TCU. Forever a FROG and forever in hearts at American Airlines.
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