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9/11 and the first female American Airlines captain who spoke the words no passenger ever wants to hear

9/11 and the first female American Airlines captain who spoke the words no passenger ever wants to hear

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Bev speaking. There’s been a crisis in the United States and all of the US airspace is closed. We’re going to be landing our aeroplane in Gander, in Newfoundland…”

On 11 September 2001, those words were spoken on a Boeing 777 somewhere over the north Atlantic. Bev was Beverley Bass, the first female captain in American Airlines history. And Bass’s plane was one of 38 that landed at Gander international airport, northeastern Newfoundland, as part of Canada’s Operation Yellow Ribbon when two airliners hit the North and South Towers of the World Trade Centre

Bass, and about 7,000 crew and passengers, were grounded in the tiny town for nearly six days, almost doubling its population. The response of the islanders on “the rock” that took them in has been immortalised in Canada’s now longest-running musical, Come from Away. In the show-stopping solo “Me and the Sky”, the fictional Beverley sings Bass’s entire biography. It begins: “My parents must have thought they had a crazy kid/ ’Cause I was one of those kids who always knew what I wanted…”

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The real Bass says the seeds of theatricality were apparent during her childhood in Fort Myers, where she was born in 1952. “As early as four years old, I remember having a real interest in flight,” Bass says, in a soft Texan lilt. “But it wasn’t airplanes.” Bass would study her neighbours’ statue of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, melted the wax of his feathered wings and fell out of the sky. She did not heed the fable’s warning. “I would get back home, climb up on the kitchen counter and try to fly across the room. And of course, I ended up on the kitchen floor covered in bruises.”

Luckily by the time she was eight, the national airlines had launched their 727s, which they would fly every night from Tampa to the local Fort Myers airport. Her aunt would drive her to watch, parking her Volkswagen Beetle next to the chain-link fence. “I remember thinking, those pilots have the coolest job in the world. And that’s when I announced to my parents that I was going to be a pilot.”

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This might have seemed an odd proposition from an only child of ranch-owners. A girl, no less, even one who went hunting on horseback at night in the Everglades with her father, rifle slung over one shoulder. The three of them ran the ranch together, without a foreman or trainer, showing registered horses every weekend for 10 years – “keeping me away from boys and from going to parties”, she says, ruefully. Her parents never discouraged her, but Bass couldn’t get serious about flying lessons until they sold the ranch and she left for Texas Christian University. As soon as her freshman year was over, she enrolled in a flight school. 

Every day she would go to class in the mornings, studying for a double major in Interior Design and Spanish, then drive to the airport and stay there until 9pm, training for six hours. “That consumed my college life, so I still didn’t date or go to parties,” she laughs. 

Her first job in aviation was hardly lively, either. One of the planes at her flight school was owned by a mortician, Wynn Styles, and one day he needed someone to fly a body to Arkansas. “All of the guys were off on other trips, and I was literally the only one there. I volunteered to take this body: a 19-year-old girl who had died of a drug overdose. I got the job by default.”

Bass would go on to fly his embalmed customers for two years, for $5 an hour, in a plane that was too small for a coffin: four seats, with the back two removed and the front right seat folded down.

“The body was strapped on to a stretcher with a sheet over it, right next to me. You had to tilt the stretcher at an angle to get it into the plane, so the sheet always fell off. I had to climb over the face to get to my seat.”

Sometimes, she remembers, the bodies were too badly damaged to be on a stretcher. One man had been in an airplane accident, and she was taking him home to his parents. His remains were in a garbage bag, and his uniform in another. Every day, she went to college, and every afternoon, she flew the dead, either delivering bodies elsewhere in the country or flying out to bring them home. The only problem, she said, was the smell of formaldehyde, a “very toxic odour” that made her eyes water and clouded her vision.

From $5 an hour with a corpse as a co-pilot, she would go on to flight instructor, chief pilot of a charter department, a pilot for two corporations and night flights for Rockwell, before she built up enough flight hours to get her interview for American Airlines. 

Bass (front left) and her crew on the morning of 12 September 2001 after they had spent 28 hours on the plane (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

In October 1976, 24-year-old Bass became the airline’s third female pilot, three years after Bonnie Tiburzi, the first, and so soon after the second that they trained together. Three girls, among 4,000 pilots on American’s seniority list. Unsurprisingly, they bonded quickly.

“We were interlopers. Whenever we were in terminals around the US, people would whisper about us, they would stare us, smile at us, come up and talk to us. We were oddities, because most of the population back then were very unaware that there was even such a thing as a female airline pilot. In their minds, airline pilots were handsome tall men with great hair.”

But to her teachers, and the seven men in her training class with her, she was a treat. “They were so good to me; I was the baby of the class because of my age – they were all 28, 29 – I was like their little sister. And the instructors loved knowing that they had one of the new female pilots.”

Once she graduated and became first a flight engineer, then a co-pilot, it was a different story. “You have to realise that in every cockpit we walked into, the men had never flown with a female aviator. Once, I walked over to introduce myself to a captain, and he walked away from me. I was a brand new co-pilot – the only female co-pilot at American Airlines – and the captain literally did not speak to me, did not even look at me. The whole flight he looked out his left window.

The captain flew the first leg of the flight, and Bass as co-pilot should have flown the second. “I assumed he wasn’t going to let me fly. I mean, he hasn’t spoken to me. But we landed on the runway and he opens up his hands by the throttle – in other words, it’s your airplane. So I flew the next leg, and then he started talking to me. 

“I think he was just stunned to be in the cockpit with a female aviator. And once I flew, and he realised, oh my gosh, she flies just like one of the guys, then I was OK; I was accepted into his world.”

Which is, in fact, exactly what she now advises young girls not to do: to try and “be one of the guys”. “I wore nail polish, jewellery, make-up. I always say, I’m a girl first, I just happen to be a pilot.” 

So far, the lyrics of “Me and the Sky” could have been lifted verbatim from our conversation. But here her story deviates from that of Come from Away’s Bev, who sings: “The World War II pilots, they all complained/ They said girls shouldn’t be in the cockpit, hey lady, hey baby, hey why don’t you grab us a drink?”

But Bass says in almost 50 years of aviation, flying with thousands of pilots, she has only had one bad experience. The Second World War pilots found it fascinating to have a female in their cockpit. “Nobody’s ever even flirted with me,” Bass says in mock outrage. “And I was single for eight years at American! Sometimes a co-pilot would say to me, ‘I bet every guy in this airline has hit on you.’ And I would say, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ve never even been asked out.’ And they’d say, ‘That’s because they’re afraid of you.’”

Were they right? “I think so.”

Bass’s daughter is now a pilot for EnVoy, and she is due to begin her captain’s training next month. Every cockpit she walks into, Bass says, the pilots have probably flown with a woman somewhere along the line. I suggest to Bass that they’ve probably all heard of her. Her response: “Unfortunately, yes.”

Beverley with her daughter, who begins captain’s training next month (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

When Bass became, as the song goes, “1986, the first female American captain in history”, 10 years after they hired her, she didn’t anticipate the furore. But American Airlines was ostensibly proud of their new female captain; they didn’t shy away from publicity. “Every day there were people swarming the simulator, they just wanted to peak in the window. If I made a mistake, everybody at the flight academy knew about it. It was a lot of exposure; I felt like a fish in a bowl.”

That would pale into insignificance a month later. She had taken the captain’s position in Washington DC, where there was one female first officer and one female flight engineer. These days, planes are flown with just a pilot and co-pilot, but in the 1980s you still needed all three. The three women traded their trips and manipulated their schedules until, against every mathematical odd, Bass assembled the first all-female crew in the history of commercial flying. It made headlines across the world. “It made the papers in Oman. I didn’t even know where Oman was.”

The minute the plane landed in Dallas, it was swarmed by camera crews, reporters and company personnel. “We just wanted to fly together because we were three girls,” she laughs. 

All these decades later, it might still be news. Women still only account for about 5 per cent of pilots, estimates Bass. Why is that? “Oh gosh, I don’t know,” she laments. “I worked so hard to recruit young women. I started an organisation with female pilots in 1978 [the International Society of Women Airline Pilots]. When we had our first meeting, there were 21 of us. Today we are more than 600 strong.

“We are the single largest contributor to scholarship money for aspiring female airline pilots; we give them $1.4m in scholarship money. I don’t know why our percentage is still so small. And just like when I started, there are still people in society that don’t even know that female airline pilots exist.”

Bass suggests that some women might see it as a hard job to have alongside a family, but insists that she didn’t find it so. She met Tom Stawicki in 1985, introduced by a mutual friend who worked at American Airlines’ headquarters where he was in the finance department. By 1989 they were married, their son was born in 1991 and their daughter the following year. 

“I never missed an important event in their lives. That didn’t mean that I didn’t work hard to manipulate my schedule to make that happen, but I never missed anything big. I wasn’t home every night, but my husband was – he was the stabilising force in the marriage.”

Beverley and the crew, 15 September 2001, the day they left Gander

On 11 September 2011, Captain Beverley Bass was in Paris on a layover from Charles de Gaulle to to Dallas/Forth Worth international airport. She received a phone call from operations: their plane had arrived but was late coming in, so their departure was delayed by about an hour and a half. 

A turning point, as Alan Bennett might have put it: subjunctive aviation. If they had left on time, they would have reached US airspace before it enclosed the country like a protective net. They never would have landed in Gander. Over international waters, out of range of air traffic control, pilots monitor a frequency that Bass refers to as “air-to-air”, where pilots talk to pilots. A plane in front of Bass’s Boeing communicated the message: a plane had hit one of the world trade centres.

“And my co-pilot and I were just sitting there having lunch,” Bass marvels. “We assumed it was a light airplane, but couldn’t imagine what in the world had happened; we knew the weather was good. And that was it. We didn’t even talk about it much more. We weren’t worried, we didn’t even think one thing about it; just that it was unfortunate that a small plane would hit the world trade centre.”

About 20 minutes later, that same plane came back on to the frequency to tell them that the second tower had been hit – and not by a light plane. “With that came the word airliner, and the word terrorism. So now, life for us is changing. “For me, terrorism was something that happened somewhere else in the world. I had no idea what that meant.”

Without access to television, radio or any news, they had no inkling of the enormity of the event. “You have to understand, you people who were watching TV: you knew what was happening. We did not know; we didn’t have visual. We didn’t know that United flew into the tower and it was seen on TV. We didn’t know that the planes had been hijacked, so we were operating blind.”

Shortly afterwards, word came through that New York airspace would close. Then, all US airspace. Bass immediately started programming the computers to Toronto, Montreal, any of the larger cities in Canada. But when they approached 50 degrees west longitude, which is where pilots first come into contact with North America, Gander control, the message was unequivocal. 

“Gander control called us and said, American 49, land your plane immediately in Gander, Newfoundland. And that’s when I had to tell the passengers.”

“On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland. It used to be one of the biggest airports in the world. And next to it is a town called Gander.”

The runway at Gander airport as Bass’s American 49 approached (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

The musical Come from Away begins with Claude, the mayor of Gander, introducing the “rock”, so called for its isolation. Gander is “on the edge of the world, where the river meets the sea”.

But its location proved strategic for a refuelling stop – or emergency landing – between the United Kingdom and North America, and in 1938, Newfoundland Airport was open for business. By 1949, after US and Canadian army planes and the first commercial transatlantic flights had begun to regularly pass through, it had been renamed Gander international airport. In turn, most of the streets in the town are named after famous pilots, including Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.

In “Welcome to the Rock”, the islanders explain what they were doing the morning of 11 September, before they turned on the radio, and heard the news. The US airspace was shut, and planes would be diverted to the Rock. One, then another. Bass landed her plane at 10:15am, the last of 38 wide aircraft to touch down in Gander. Almost 7,000 people, passengers and crew arrived in a three-hour time frame – to a town of about 10,000. 

Any available community buildings in Gander were commandeered for shelters, while locals mustered blankets, bedding, medicine, toiletries and all the food they could find. Bass later learnt that the townsfolk filled over 2,000 medical prescriptions that night.

Bass with the mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

Meanwhile, the aircrafts were grounded. Including the flight time from Paris, Bass and her passengers were trapped in their plane for more than a full day and night. The song “28 Hours/Wherever We Are” vividly describes the passengers going stir crazy confined to their cages. 

Bass, however, remembers the atmosphere as “really quite good”, and the few cellphones they had helped to disseminate news among the passengers. “They actually knew more than I did,” she said. “The only radio wave reception we could get was from the Bioreports, so we were getting your version of what was happening in the US.” 

But many of the passengers spoke no English and most couldn’t even comprehend what was happening even if they did. It would be almost a day before they would reach a television and see what the rest of the world had been watching on loop. It was then that Bass learnt the fate of Charles Burlingame, the pilot of American Airlines 77 that was crashed into the Pentagon. She had only just seen him at a pub in London. 

At 7.30am, 12 September, Bass, her crew and her passengers were allowed off the plane to be registered by the Red Cross. Every stove in Gander had been on all night. They had cooked enough food to feed 7,000 people. “It was at that moment,” Bass says, “that we realised we had landed in the most unique place in the world. And that’s how it continued throughout our stay.”

Jungle Jim’s, where Bass ate every meal for five days (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

The rest of Come from Away describes how the locals embraced the “plane people”, helping them come to terms with what happened and dealing with the logistics of the community’s population almost doubling overnight. Two passengers on Bass’s flight, Nick from England and Diane from Texas, started to develop a romance. On their last night, the passengers gather in a bar and are initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders, provided they kiss a fresh cod fish. 

But Bass only learnt about all those events years later. It’s a strange quirk of history that those most centrally placed in the action are often the most blind to it. “It took me months and months before I could even figure out which airplane hit which tower first,” she explains,” because everything that we were seeing on TV was the re-runs, and I was so confused about it, was it American or United, who hit the north, who hit the south? It took me a very long time to even process the order in which everything happened.”

Bass and her crew had to stay sequestered at the Comfort Inn in Gander, waiting for the call from American to go to the airport. She ate every meal at the attached restaurant, so she would only learn later that the Ganderites served 285,000 meals during their five days.

The only local she mingled with was Pat Woodford, an air traffic controller who acted as a liaison between the plane crew and the passengers. Woodford gave her the keys to his brand new pick-up truck. “I said, you can’t give me the keys to your truck, you don’t even know me. And he said, that doesn’t matter. I thought it was weird. But that made me realise, especially after seeing the show, that that’s just how those people are.”

The plaque Bass gave to thank the Comfort Inn on behalf of her crew (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

The passengers were sad to leave Gander, Bass said, because they had lived “such a beautiful life. But there was almost a guilt complex, a survivors’ guilt feeling that we were treated so beautifully while our country was suffering through the worst tragedy in American history.”

Not everyone was treated so beautifully. When they had finally got the aircraft through security as the sun rose on 15 September, a flight attendant approached Bass about two passengers of Middle Eastern appearance (in the show, it’s just one). Bass wasn’t to know this, but the men – Egyptians, as it turned out – had been a concern for some passengers the whole time in Gander: they had been off alone, on their mobiles, making people wary.

She told Bass she did not want to let them back on the plane, so Bass fetched the head of security. The two passengers were plucked out of the waiting area and made to submit to a strip search in their underwear. 

Bass insisted on remaining in the room. “In order for me to go back to my flight attendants and tell them everything was OK, it was imperative that I be there. I didn’t want somebody to just tell me that. I wanted to know firsthand.”

After the plane landed back in Dallas, Bass ran up to the two passengers waiting on the curb for a ride. She apologised profusely for what had happened. “And they both looked at me and said, don’t you worry about a thing. Under the circumstances, we totally understand.”

Bass says that day, she had two things on her mind: “I wanted to tell the world about Gander, and I wanted to return to my family. I knew it would always be a part of history.”

Bass with Karen Mills, manager of the Comfort Inn. Bass sends flowers every year (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

Michael Rubinoff, a Toronto lawyer and part-time theatre producer, is the man who conceived Come from Away after the attacks. But an uplifting Broadway musical about 9/11? It seems like a farce straight out of the “Springtime for Hitler” playbook. One recalls the disastrous ‘Osama: the Musical’ in the second season of Skins.

But Rubinoff believed that the story of Gander and the 38 planes would compel audiences with its narrative of hope through tragedy. It was the story, he said, that made him proud to be Canadian. In 2009, Rubinoff attended a David Mirvish production of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, written by married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff. He was so impressed that he messaged them both on Facebook, asking for a meeting. A month later, he pitched the Gander concept to them over lunch in Yorkville. The couple had been living in New York when 9/11 happened, and Hein had grown up in Newfoundland, so it was a good fit.

Hein and Sankoff also flew to Gander in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, to interview the locals. “Newfoundland is based on this culture of freezing cold winters and gathering in the kitchen telling great stories,” says Hein. “But they couldn’t understand why we were doing a musical because for them, this was not an extraordinary event.”

Reg Wright, the airport president, said: “You’re doing a musical about people giving out sandwiches and letting people use their showers? Good luck with that.”

But the couple persevered with their interviews. That’s when they met Beverley Bass, who they interviewed for four hours. But after that, she said, she didn’t think about it again. Earlier that year, Bass had received a phone call from an Austrian film crew asking if she was going back to Gander for the anniversary, but she didn’t know anything about it. The film crew were going to film Nick and Diane, who struck up a romance in Gander. They were now a married couple.

“To this day,” says Bass, “I don’t know how they learned about me.” 

Bass and her husband at the Give Back Breakfast (Beverley Bass/American Airlines)

But she and her husband headed off to Gander, along with (unbeknown to Bass) most of the other passengers. “I didn’t know what was going on. But when we got there, there’s an envelope at the front desk, and it detailed one event after the next.”

The first event was the Give Back Breakfast, in the hockey rink. The passengers assembled, and were invited to serve breakfast to the Ganderites, to be on the other side. The whole community, and the thousands of honorary Newfoundlanders, celebrated the lifelong bonds that had been forged. “It was just one beautiful event,” says Bass. “But that is normal for them. That’s how they live their life. They don’t find it unusual.”

It wasn’t all the come-from-awayers gave back. The passengers raised millions of dollars in scholarship money for Gander. Two years ago, Bass flew back with her husband and children, and personally went and thanked the mayor of each community mentioned in the show. That was set up by Pat Woodford, the man who had so blithely lent her his truck keys.

Bass explains it: “They commemorate 9/11. We memorialise it; Gander commemorates it, because for them, it was about all the good that happened.”

Pilots talk about a “lost decade” after 9/11, says Bass. Every airline felt bankruptcy or nearly went out of business. Pilots took enormous pay cuts, flight schools went out of business, and a huge trickle-down effect was felt in the airports: cab drivers, kiosks and restaurants and workers.

“It literally took 10 years for the airlines to start a recovery process from the events of 9/11,” says Bass. “American didn’t hire a single pilot for 10 years.”

But one of the first pilots they did hire was Tom McGuinness Jr. He was the son Tom McGuiness Sr, the co-pilot on American Airlines 11, who was killed when his plane hit the north tower. As Claude sings in the Finale of the show: “Tonight, we honour what was lost/ But we also commemorate what we found.”


 

Over the next four years, the show was workshopped in Sheridan’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project with students as a cast. The full production, directed by Brian Hill, was selected by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre in New York in 2013. In the summer of 2015, Bass got a call from the producers inviting her to the world premiere opening of Come from Away

“Tom and I went to the show, not knowing anything about it. I did not know how prominent my role was. I did not know that a song called ‘Me and the Sky’ had been written. And I just couldn’t believe it. The song literally chronicles my life in four minutes and 19 seconds. I was so shocked, I probably missed 25 per cent of the first show. It’s a good thing we’ve seen it 138 times.”

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The show is about Bass’s life, and since its debut, her life has become about the show. Now, semi-retired at 67, she has been to every opening all over the world, with her free airline passes, and she’s sent more than 2,000 friends to see the show. She has also developed a strong friendship with Jenn Colella, who originated the role of Bev.

“I’m really friends with all the gals who played me. There are six now. I absolutely love Rachel Tucker; Lily in Australia is adorable, and I just sent a big basket of flowers and cookies to Becky in the US for her final performance.”

She says she’s probably only home four or five days a month because she is either at the show, or promoting it all over the country. “But I still fly. I’m still a pilot. Once a pilot, always a pilot.”

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