It’s just past nine on a balmy Friday morning in Brisbane, Australia and I’m dialling a number which will connect me to Texas. I’m not usually nervous about interviewing people but… today is special. My voice shakes as I hear the familiar Texan twang and before I can even compliment her terrific accent, my interviewee says in the friendliest voice, “I just love your accent. How great it is that we can find a time to talk ? It’s 7:05 at night here in Texas.”
I am immediately put at ease. The voice on the other end of the line radiates warmth, intelligence and confidence and I am truly moved by being able to speak to an American icon, one who has done so much for women pilots and women the world over and who has been immortalised on stage in Come From Away.
I am about to speak to Beverley Bass. Beverley is the trailblazing aviator who made headlines around the world after becoming the first woman captain for American Airlines in 1986. She’s also one of the ‘come from aways‘ whose story has been immortalised in the worldwide hit musical, Come From Away. This musical has been playing in Melbourne and has headed to my hometown of Brisbane from late March to May 9, 2021.
Beverley Bass was born in South West Florida and knew by the age of eight that she wanted to fly. It wasn’t something that many girls were doing at the time. She studied in Texas, which would eventually become her home, whilst also training as a pilot. Early in her career she flew bodies for a mortician and later freight through the notorious ‘ Thunderstorm Alley‘, before finally landing her dream job with American Airlines in 1976. Beverley was only the third female pilot employed by the airline which she says, “……has the prettiest planes.”
Reflecting on 1986, Beverley says, “I felt like I was in a fishbowl when I was promoted to Captain. All eyes were on me. By this time I had gained the respect of my fellow pilots and the guys were very supportive. My position was based on my seniority and my record.”
It was on a training mission from Paris to Dallas, where Beverley was the instructor, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. She continues, “We were over the North Atlantic and it was a gorgeous day. We were out of range of the radio frequency. Eventually we heard from another airliner that a plane had struck the World Trade Centre. We, of course, thought it must have been an incident with a small plane. Then we heard the second tower had been hit and we knew something was terribly wrong.”
I shudder and my eyes fill with unshed tears. Goosebumps cover my arms. It feels like only yesterday.
With all US airspace closed, their Boeing 777 was diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, along with 37 other planes. These planes were full of passengers from around the world. There were over 7000 passengers in all and 19 animals in the cargo. The town of Gander’s whole population was only over 9000.
In Gander was a large airport where planes had once stopped to refuel. The townspeople were shocked as more and more planes came in to land. Beverley’s plane was 36th in line.
Beverley says, “We landed at 10 am on September 11 and officials came on and said, ‘ You won’t be getting off until tomorrow ‘. Remember there weren’t many mobile phones in those days. Those passengers who did have phones were mostly out of battery with no way to charge them. We were getting all our news from the BBC in England. There were no visuals. The passengers were great. We held off on the dinner service, played movies and were bringing passengers up into the cockpit. We couldn’t disembark that day, so we were all on the plane for a total of twenty-eight hours.“
But during the night of that terrible day something magical was happening, “The people of Gander must have been working all night. Thousands of exhausted passengers and crew disembarked and entered the Gander airport at 7:30 am. There were rows and rows of tables lining the walls, filled with food and other essentials. They must have been cooking all night. You just grabbed a plastic bag and found what you needed. Gander only has 550 motel rooms….. so they closed the schools to create shelters, they opened their homes and the hockey rink was converted to one giant refrigerator.”
Beverley stayed at the local Comfort Inn where she watched by the phone, awaiting further news and instructions, “I went back to the Comfort Inn for the 10th birthday celebrations and it was a big event. I couldn’t believe it. It was so great to share Gander with my family. “
Beverley’s story is an integral part of the show, Come From Away, and writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein must have felt like it was their lucky day when they met her. She is an eloquent and interesting person to interview. We both agree that we all have stories to tell. It is a day etched in our memory.
Beverley says, “No-one will ever forget that day. When interviewed, I talked for four hours with writers, Irene and David, and then didn’t think much about it. It took them four years to go away and write the story, music and lyrics. I then received an invitation to the Opening Night of Come From Away at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve now seen the show 158 times.”
Beverley’s favourite moment of the show is the song, Me and the Sky, which she says, “Has pieces taken verbatim from the transcript of my original interview. It’s a four minutes and nineteen seconds chronicle of my life. I know every line and the words to all the songs and friends say, ‘Don’t you get bored seeing the same show over and over.’ I tell them NEVER. Come From Away shows how wonderful people can really be and reminds you to be a better person.”
Beverley has published a children’s book called Me and the Sky and still flies at the age of 69. She was 51 at the time of 9/11. She also raised two children with husband, Tom. Although she has retired from American Airlines, Beverley still flies a Phenom private jet for 84 year old businesswoman, Mo Anderson, and crews with another retired pilot.
She admires and has met Zoe Gertz, who plays the role of Beverley here in the Australian production. As I reluctantly say goodbye I mention that I haven’t yet seen the show. Beverley excitedly says, “You are in for a treat. Zoe is wonderful. Say ‘hi’ if you see her and remember to email me after you see the show.”
I do indeed meet Zoe later that very day and she tells me about her first meeting with Beverley, “I was asked to perform Me and the Sky at an aviation conference in Sydney and as I finished Beverley came out on stage as a surprise. I had no idea she was going to be there, so immediately burst into tears. We got to know each other and have hung out together in Sydney and again for the opening In Melbourne. We are now friends.”
This phenomenal story of a woman who has made history, championed women pilots and was part of a devastating moment in time, is both inspiring and uplifting. The name Beverley Bass will always be remembered, whether through the musical Come From Away, through the aviation milestones she’s achieved and for this writer through the gracious sharing of her story. We certainly could have spoken for four hours and I know that I would trust the indomitable Beverley in the cockpit of any plane I was flying on. #SheInspires.
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).