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Come From Away: “I was one of the first female airplane captains, and now I’m the star of a 9/11 musical”

Beverley Bass was the first female captain for American Airlines. She was also the inspiration behind the hit new musical about 9/11, Come From Away. Following the show’s opening in London’s West End, Beverley told Stylist her extraordinary story. 

The 11 September 2001 is a date synonymous with terror. It was the day when we all watched the TV in horror as news channels showed footage of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Centre towers. Four planes in total were hijacked and crashed by terrorists, causing the murders of 2,997 people. To this day, it remains the biggest terrorist attack ever to happen in America. 

And yet, somehow, a story of humanity, hope and heart managed to find its way through the ashes in the days following the attacks.

It’s one that I was completely oblivious to, until I went along to see a new musical in the West End called Come From Away. Billed as a show about 9/11, I was sceptical. But, knowing that it is also the winner of four Olivier awards, including Best New Musical, it also intrigued me. My interest positively piqued when I learned that the pilot who heavily inspired part of the story was American Airlines’ first female captain, Beverley Bass. 

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Come From Away is set in the quiet Canadian town of Gander, which has a population of less than 13,000 people. On the day of the terrorist attacks, Operation Yellow Ribbon saw 38 planes make an emergency landing in the town with their 7,000 air passengers. The small Newfoundland community invited the “come from aways” into their lives, showing kindness by taking them into their homes, schools and churches in the days following the attacks. The musical follows the stories of passengers and Gander locals, through a score of uplifting, heartbreaking and toe-tapping songs. As surprising as it might sound, this really is a beautiful retelling of the true tale that leaves you feeling hopeful and happy. 

Is also tells the true tale of Beverley, who was one of the pilots flying the planes on that historic day. 

Here, Beverley speaks to Stylist about her fascinating and ground-breaking career, and how she accidentally became a musical theatre icon.

My earliest memories of wanting to fly…

I honestly don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t fascinated with aeroplanes. When I was four years old, our neighbours had a statue of Icarus and I would go over to visit with my parents to study that statue with its wings made of wax and feathers. Even then, as a little kid, I thought that I wanted to be able to fly. Not just aeroplanes, I just wanted to fly for myself. 

Then, when I was about eight, my aunt would take me to the airport where we would park and wait patiently for the pilots to land. I would think, “Yeah, those guys have the best job in the world”. 

The first female airline pilot was not hired in the US until 1973, so it seemed like a dream that was going to be hard to catch. But that actually opened up in 1973 when the first woman, Emily Warner, was hired by Frontier Airlines. 

That’s what opened the door for the rest of us and I got hired in 1976.

Beverley Bass and her American Airlines colleagues.
Beverley Bass and her American Airlines colleagues.

At 19 years old, I knew I would be flying planes for the rest of my life

When I was 16 I wanted to take flying lessons. But as a family, I was an only child, and we were very involved in horse showing. We had a small ranch and I think my dad thought that if I started flying, I’d lose interest in the horses, which he loved because it was a family activity. Every weekend we would go to horse shows in Florida and I think he knew that it kept me out of trouble – away from boys and parties because I was always busy with the horses. 

I left for college in Texas and we sold the ranch. So, on my first summer back home, I got in the car, drove to the airport and signed up for flying lessons. When I walked into my parents’ house after my first lesson, I announced to them that I would fly for the rest of my life. I was about 19 at this point.

Back then I just thought, “If I want to fly airplanes, that’s what I’ll do”. My parents raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted as long as I was willing to work hard. I didn’t know that gender discrimination was a thing. I had no idea. I was very stubborn and headstrong and nobody was going to tell me no or stand in my way.

My first encounter of sexism in the workplace caught me by surprise

Everybody was very welcoming to me at the flight school, so the first time I really noticed [sexist] discrimination was after I got my commercial licence. I would apply for corporate jobs which involved flying executives and bigger airplanes. When I applied for those jobs, though, the boss actually told me: “You’ve got plenty of experience, but we just can’t have a female pilot flying our executives. What would their wives think?”

I just felt that was so astounding. I replied: “What do you mean, ‘what would the wives think?’ I just want to fly your airplane, I’m a pilot – it shouldn’t matter that I’m a female pilot.” But he ignored me, and I was turned down for the jobs regardless.

Beverley Bass was one of the pilots who landed in Gander on 9/11.
Beverley Bass was one of the pilots who landed in Gander on 9/11.

I was American Airlines’ first ever female captain – and proud of it, too!

Once I was hired by American Airlines, I was treated so well by everyone, including my male colleagues. American was one of the airlines that was very proud to have women pilots, but that wasn’t true for some of the other airlines. They told their female pilots that they couldn’t wear fingernail polish or make-up, and that their hair had to be cut short. But American was the complete opposite: they let us pick out our uniform shirt and hats. I loved how I felt in my uniform.

I really think that the male pilots I worked with were just intrigued and fascinated to have a female pilot walking into the cockpit. There’s a point in the show – when my character is singing “the World War two pilots say, ‘hey baby, hey lady, get me a drink’” – which suggests that I was treated badly while working on American. But that is really artistic licensing.

However, I do know it wasn’t like that for all female pilots back then, because most of the men had never flown with a female aviator ever.

I think people’s attitudes to female pilots have changed immensely. My daughter is a pilot today, and most of the guys she has flown with have certainly flown with female pilots. But, for us, we were oddities, we were interlopers, no doubt.

In 1978 I started an organisation called ISA (International Society of Woman Airline Pilots). I co-founded it with another female airline pilot and at our very first convention we had 31 pilots show up. We’ve just had our 41st convention in Sydney, Australia, where 130 female pilots from 30 countries and 90 airlines attended. We have over 600 women pilot members, so we’ve grown a lot. But, that being said, there are 100,000 pilots in the US, and we are only 5,000 of that. So we are still only 5%.

We question that low number all the time.

Even now, there still aren’t enough women taking to the skies

One of the things that our organisation does is mentor young female aviators and we give out a tremendous amount of scholarship money to help them further their career. We’ve given over $1.4 billion and 100 of our applicants are currently flying for the airlines, so we work so hard to promote this wonderful career.

But you’d be surprised by how many people out there don’t even know that women can be airline pilots. It’s not even on their radar. I think that maybe a lot of people are a little bit intimidated because they see it as a world of “macho group of guys” who fly airplanes. Others think it would be a hard career to have if you have a family, because we travel all over the world all the time. In reality, my kids would tell you that I never missed one of their events. I only worked nine days a month when they were growing up, so I had 21 days off even as a working mother.

Beverley Bass with Rachel Tucker who plays her on stage in Come From Away.
Beverley Bass with Rachel Tucker who plays her on stage in Come From Away.

How my 9/11 story helped inspire a hit musical

I retired from American in 2008, I was only 56 but the airline filed bankruptcy – all the airlines filed bankruptcy after 9/11, and American was the last one. All my retirement funds were tied to the airline, so I retired early. I miss it every day of my life. but now I fly a lady’s private jet with another retired pilot who I’ve known for over 40 years.

In the summer of 2011 I got a call from a film crew, asking if I was going back to Gander for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. You see, I was one of the pilots who made an emergency landing there after news of the terror attacks broke. 

So I went back to Gander for the anniversary, expecting just to talk to the crew about how I ate every meal at the same restaurant for five days because I never ventured far away, knowing I could get the call to fly back to the States at any moment.

When I arrived, I was told that there were two playwrights in town and they wanted to interview me. I didn’t even know what playwrights were. So I did the interview with Dave and Irene and it lasted four hours. Then, I just went home and never thought much about it again.

In the summer of 2015, the producers of Come From Away called me. “Remember the couple who interviewed you in Gander?” they asked. “They’ve written a musical about what happened there.” And so I flew to San Diego, knowing nothing about the show, to attend the opening night.

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Becoming a musical theatre star wasn’t part of the plan

I had no idea how prominent my part in the play would be, but there’s a song that totally chronicles my aviation career which lasts for… ooh, about four minutes and 18 seconds? It was astounding. By the end of it, my head was buried in my hands because I was just sobbing.

 “A pilot will fight till the ends of the earth to save his airplane” – most pilots will tell you that this is the most profound statement in the show. And that is what I said. A pilot will fight till the end of the earth to save his – or her -plane. They just will.

The musical is so true, it is so real and I felt so honoured. I think it is so beautiful - what a gift it has been to the world. The show gets a standing ovation every time because people like how something so beautiful managed to come out from such a tragedy in our country.

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My advice for aspiring female pilots in 2019…

What young women and girls ask me the most today is: “how do you survive in a man’s world?”.

I always tell them to be exceptional at their job. You have to be great. The next thing is that you have to maintain respect. Yes, it’s a male field – but if they respect you and you are great at your job, what is there to dislike? They can’t not like what you’re doing.

I would also say don’t try to be “one of the guys”. Don’t walk into the cockpit of an aeroplane and lower yourself or talk trash – you’re exceptional at your job and you maintain respect. 

I always said: “I am a girl first, I wear nail polish and make up – I just happen to be a girl pilot.”

Come From Away is currently playing at The Phoenix Theatre in London. You can book tickets here.

Images: Beverley Bass, Getty