From any angle you look at it, her life makes a good story. The headline could read Fort Myers Native Subject of Broadway Musical, or Local Girl Mid-Atlantic on 9/11, or Fort Myers Woman First Female Captain for American Airlines. Whichever angle you choose, the story begins with a freckle-faced little girl repeatedly jumping off her mother’s washing machine in the stubborn attempt to fly across the kitchen.
Her name is Beverley Bass. Born in Fort Myers to Bob (Bob Bass Realty) and Marge Bass, she is the fourth generation of a pioneering Fort Myers family. Her grandfather was Shep Bass, fire chief in Fort Myers for many years, and Bass Road is named for her great-uncle Donald Bass, who had potato farms there. Beverley’s great-great uncle by marriage was Dr. Miles, the founder of Miles Laboratories.
Obsessed with Flight
Beverley’s mother told her that from her baby stroller, she would squeal and reach with both hands for airplanes flying overhead.
When she got a little older, she would talk her aunt Ginger into taking her out to Page Field at night to park by the chain link fence and watch the airplanes land.
Later, Beverley asked her father if she could take flying lessons when she turned sixteen. He would not allow it. “We were very involved in horses, in training and showing, and he didn’t want me to lose interest in the horses because he felt it kept me away from 2 things: boys and drugs. And it worked,” she added with a smile.
But in 1970, Beverley’s parents sold their ranch and the following summer, home from her freshman year at Texas Christian University, Beverley began taking flying lessons. She was 19. “After my first lesson, I came home and told my parents that I would fly for the rest of my life.”
Back at TCU, Beverley would make a “beeline” for the Fort Worth School of Aviation every day after classes. She continued to earn her licenses and ratings until, at the age of 21, she got her first paying job as a pilot. The charter department in the flight school “desperately needed a body flown to Arkansas.” None of the available male pilots would do it, so Beverley seized the opportunity.
From transporting corpses for a mortician in an old 1953 D model Bonanza, Beverley progressed to piloting corporate executives and industrial freight, steadily pushing through the inevitable roadblocks of gender prejudices to fill positions vacated by male pilots as they advanced their own careers, determinedly proving herself time and again until, in 1976, she saw the opportunity she had been waiting for—a job with a commercial passenger liner, the golden ring of her career. She reached for it.
Beverley applied for the position of flight engineer with American Airlines and won it. She was 24 years old. From that seat she moved up to first officer, and in 1986, she became the first female captain for American Airlines.
Not long after, she was the first woman to command an all-female flight crew. The landing was covered by press from all over the world.
In 1994, Boeing rolled out the first “Triple Seven.” The Boeing 777, developed in consultation with 8 major airlines, was the world’s largest twinjet with the largest-diameter turbofan engines of any aircraft on earth. Beverley Bass was the first woman in the world to captain one in an airline operation. In fact, American Airlines chose her to be one of their first Triple Seven instructors.
She was, therefore, eminently qualified to deal with the emergency, unprecedented in commercial airline history that was to come.
AA FLIGHT 49-Paris to Dallas/Fort Worth
On the morning of September 11, 2001, at 39,000 feet, approaching 40 degrees west longitude, Captain Bass had her feet up and was enjoying her lunch when she heard, over her pilot’s special radio frequency, that a plane had hit one of the World Trade towers. Twenty minutes later, she heard that an “American 737” had hit the other tower. Captain Bass’s feet came down. She ordered a lock-down of the cockpit.
New York airspace was closed. AA Flight 49 tried repeatedly to contact AA dispatch for routing instructions around NY. And then Captain Bass saw “an unequaled aviation phenomenon.” International carriers around her were making 180 degree turns and heading back to Europe.
U.S. airspace was closed.
“Gander center American four niner three five zero.”
At 50 degrees west longitude, as she exited Atlantic international waters, Captain Bass made voice contact with Gander (Newfoundland) Air Traffic Control. The response was immediate. Circumventing established protocol, the controller issued, not a request, but an order.
“American four niner, proceed direct to Gander and land immediately.”
They were above their maximum landing weight in fuel. Captain Bass gave the order to jettison fuel and then began “the longest instrument final approach that I have ever flown, a 95-mile final approach to runway 22.”
They were the 36th plane to land in Gander that day. This small community of some 9,000 people was frantically making preparations to receive, in the next few hours, more than 7,000 passengers off 38 international airliners. For 3 hours that morning, the wide-body jumbo jets came roaring down in steady succession from all over the world for, lining up wing tip to wing tip “on every available bit of concrete” at the Gander airport. The heroic work of Gander Air Control in managing this unprecedented operation, of guiding, on an instant’s notice, these massive airliners out of a sky filled with thousands of incoming and homeless aircraft, was of staggeringly superhuman proportion.
Simultaneously, the instant mobilization of buses and taxis, customs officials, police and Red Cross workers, of restaurant and motel staffs and shop owners and the citizens of Gander, who without reserve, opened their arms and homes, and bathrooms, to the stranded passengers, was surreal. Women dashed into their kitchens and started cooking, running dishes of food as well as blankets, pillows and extra clothing to the airport and to emergency shelters. Bus drivers immediately suspended their strike and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police hit the ground running. Shop owners opened their doors and gave freely. Even “the Wal-Mart store’s generosity was beyond description,” Captain Bass noted in her journal.
Among all the hardships and heroics of the next 5 days, however, the memory of Gander that will linger longest in Beverley’s memory is of 2 elderly women who “waited with us one dark and stormy night as we braved the rain and wind trying to return to our motel.” Beverley and her crew wept as one of the ladies opened her bag, pulled out a small accordion, and began to play God Bless America.
It was not until the early morning of September 15 that Captain Beverley resumed her captain’s seat and prepared her crew and passengers for takeoff. “Welcome,” she said as her B-777 descended to the runway at Dallas/Fort Worth that evening, “Welcome to the United States of America.”
“I had no idea that my life had been put to music.”
Come From Away, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, premiered in the La Jolla (CA) Playhouse in June, 2015. A live-theater musical about the Gander rescue of more than 7000 international travelers in September, 2001, the musical is breaking box office records. After a 2-month extension of its run time in La Jolla, it broke a 53-year box office record at the Seattle Repertory Theater, finally selling to standing-room-only audiences. In March, 2017, Come From Away opens on Broadway.
The character of Beverley Bass is central to the production.
Jenn Colella, Tom and Beverley at opening night in Seattle
Beverley’s eyes fill with tears when she speaks of Gander and of the musical. “It is the most emotionally uplifting play you can ever imagine. It’s not about the sadness of 9/11; it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
On closing night in Seattle, Beverley presented to Jenn Colella, who portrays her character, the flight jacket, wings and service pin she was wearing on 9/11. “The whole cast went crazy,” Beverley says, her eyes filling. “She’ll wear them on Broadway.”
Bruised Knees and Golden Wings
In Greek mythology, a boy named Icarus attains flight on wings fashioned of willow and feathers. Unheeding the advice of his father, who warns him not to fly too near the sun, Icarus becomes delirious with the exhilaration of his new-found freedom and flies higher and higher until the heat of the sum melts the wax that holds the feathers of his wings to their willow frames and Icarus falls into the sea.
When Beverley was a child, a friend of her parents had a statue of Icarus. While the grownups visited over cocktails, Beverley would sit quietly holding the statue and studying its wings. Her subsequent plunging leaps off her mother’s washing machine left her bruised but determined, and her determination, ultimately, gave her wings.
Eight years now into her retirement, having earned a permanent place in flight museums all over the world, Beverley sighs and gazes out the picture window of her condo in St. James City. The view is of shimmering sea and sky. “It’s been an unbelievable ride,” she says and her next words are her epitaph. “I’m not finished. I have to fly one more time.”