In 1976, Beverley Bass became the third female pilot to be hired by American Airlines. She went on to become the carrier’s first female captain, in 1986. Her story makes up part of Come From Away, the longest-running Canadian musical.
As told by Beverley Bass to Stephanie Taylor
“I took my first lesson, came down from the sky and told my father I’d fly for the rest of my life.” These words are sung by my character in Come From Away, during a number called “Me and the Sky.” The musical is based on what happened when 38 airplanes (mine included) were diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Little did I know, when I was telling David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers of Come From Away, about my life when I was back in Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, that my teenage resolution would be immortalized in a song, and that those lyrics would end up being one of the reasons I have been able to stay true to my dream of becoming a lifelong pilot.
I retired from American Airlines just over a decade ago. But then, a little over two years ago, a pilot friend I’ve known forever – we were both hired at American in 1976 – called to congratulate me on the show. His daughter is a theater buff and she had been reading about Come From Away on Broadway and asked him if he knew me.
During that conversation, I told him that I missed flying, and that if the right job came along, I would come out of retirement and go back to work. Two days later, he e-mailed asking if I had been serious on the phone. His copilot on a business jet had left for an airline job – and I’ve been my friend’s flying partner ever since.
I never thought of myself as a pioneer. I wasn’t trying to break down barriers – I had to google what “glass ceiling” meant!
I’ll admit, there are some pretty big differences between flying a commercial airliner and a business jet. I was used to signing the flight plan, getting into my seat and having 12 flight attendants offer me a cup of coffee. Now I’m the one who puts oil in the engine, helps with the bags and fills the coffee thermos – I never did that in my Boeing 777! But I love it, because it’s like going back to my early flying days, although back then I never got to fly anything as nice as I do now.
The jet I fly is owned by an 82-year-old woman, and she thinks it’s the coolest thing to have a female pilot. It’s funny, because when I was with American, people would often say to me, “You know you’re a pioneer, right?” But I never thought of myself like that. I’ve just turned 67 and it’s still hard for me to process everything. I wasn’t trying to break down barriers – I had to google what “glass ceiling” meant!
So, when Random House approached me to write an autobiography, I told them I wouldn’t do it because my story alone just isn’t that inspiring. What makes my story interesting is how the events of 9/11 have impacted my life today, and that’s mainly because of Come From Away. I get e-mails and Twitter notifications every day, and I am amazed by the number of people who take the time to contact me.
Just recently, I received an e-mail from the mother of a 13-year-old girl, who sent me a photograph we had taken together on the way into the theater in New York. She told me how much I’d inspired her daughter – believe it or not, this kind of thing really does happen every day! In the last year, I’ve worked on no fewer than 10 school projects with high school and college kids who have chosen to either write about me, or about aviation or about Come From Away.
She told me how much I’d inspired her daughter – believe it or not, this kind of thing happens every day!
So, after all, I’ve decided to work with Random House on an illustrated autobiography for children. If I could influence even one more girl to have a career in aviation, then it wouldn’t be fair for me to not let the book happen.
I go to the American Airlines captains’ dinners every other week, and so I know that the number of pilot retirements is going to be just unbelievable in the next 10 years – I think we’re going to lose about 60 percent of our pilots due to the mandatory retirement age. So, we’ll need lots of new pilots coming up through the ranks.
My daughter is actually one of them. She’s coming up to five years of flying in August; she’s currently working for American Eagle, flying an Embraer 145.
As for me, I’m enjoying flying as a passenger more often now. I’ve traveled across North America and to London to see Come From Away being performed – to see my aviation life chronicled in four minutes and 19 seconds during “Me and the Sky.” In fact, I’ve seen the show 126 times (that number will probably have gone up by the time this piece is published!). The next stop is Melbourne, Australia, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the show Down Under.
“Me and the Sky” was originally published in the 9.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.