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Beverley Bass: the Pioneering Pilot in Come From Away

Thu, Mar 7, 2019

Written by: Lily Rybarczyk

The critically acclaimed musical, Come From Away, tells the little-known story of what happened to 38 of the airplanes diverted on September 11, 2001 as terror unfolded in New York. The show weaves together tales of the “plane people” and the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, based on interviews conducted by writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Among the unusual personal tales unearthed is that of Beverley Bass, who was piloting a flight from Paris to Dallas when ordered to touch down in Gander.

A Pioneering Pilot

“Me and the Sky,” a rousing four and a half minute show-stopping solo, recounts the true story of Bass’ historic career in the male-dominated flight industry. A near-verbatim transcript of her interview with the show’s writers, the song plays as equal parts love song and empowering anthem, depicting Bass’ long-term affair with flying.

woman standing on a stage in a pilot outfit, arms outstretched, singing. Behind her stands five other women dressed in flight attendant outfitsBecky Gulsvig performing "Me and the Sky" during the first national tour of Come From Away, photo by Matthew Murphy

 

It’s clear speaking with Bass just how honest and true the song rings. “I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a pilot,” she shared in the lobby of the Benedum prior to the 2018-19 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh season announcement last year. “Since I was a little girl I was jumping off the washing machine trying to fly across the room.”

Although the first female commercial airline pilot was hired in 1973, very few women attained the role throughout the ‘70s. True to “Me and the Sky,” Bass began her career as a pilot flying for a mortician (she truly did have to “climb over their faces just to get to [her] seat”). As the song attests, Bass faced many barriers during her ascent to Captain. She entered the field when many World War II pilots maintained gendered stereotypes, she wasn’t allowed to fly charters for businessmen, and female flight attendants perceived her pilot status as giving her an air of superiority. Still, Bass pursued her dream. She began flying for American Airlines in 1976 as a flight engineer, at the time only the third female pilot hired by the airline. Ten years of perseverance and dedication later, Bass made history as the first female captain for American Airlines. Just months later, on December 30, 1986, she garnered international headlines when she led the first all-female crew in commercial aviation history on a flight from Washington D.C. to Dallas.

Despite the obstacles she overcame, the attention her accomplishments receive still seems to startle Bass. “I didn’t set off to shatter a glass ceiling, I wasn’t trying to break any barriers. I was just a young girl who wanted to fly airplanes and I didn’t want anything to stand in my way,” she states matter-of-factly about her career success. “It was powering through and overcoming barriers, a dream and a desire to do something I had wanted to do my whole life.”

From the Sky to the Stage

In the wake of her interview on the anniversary of September 11, Bass followed the development of Come From Away from La Jolla to New York (with stops in Seattle, Washington D.C., Gander and Toronto along the way). To date, Bass has seen the show more than 100 times. She now occasionally tours with the actresses who play her on stage to speak about the show and her experiences. Even after being in the audience countless times, the response to “Me and the Sky” continues to astound Bass. In addition to her impact on women aviators across the country (Bass sometimes takes groups to the show), she receives messages every day from young girls inspired by the song. “It’s probably one of the nicest things that happens to me now on a daily basis,” she comments, “if I’ve inspired any young girl, I feel very proud of that.”

one man and two women sitting together on a stage, smiling and looking outKen Rice, Beverley Bass and Julie Reiber at the 2018-2019 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh Season Announcement

 

Captain Bass’ advice to young girls who look to her as inspiration? She admits that pilots are a little bit unique: “If you ask a pilot how they learned to fly, they will tell you a love story. They are just insanely crazy about what they do.” But her advice stands strong for anyone in any field. “You have to be very good at what you’re doing and as a result of that you will gain respect. When you want it bad enough nothing stands in your way.”

Both Bass and Julie Reiber, the standby for Bass on stage in Come From Away, enjoy traveling in promotion of the tour, seeing the response to “Me and the Sky” and the public’s reaction to Captain Bass appearing on stage in person. It’s an incredible reminder that the show is based on real-life experiences.

Bass, who was eating her lunch at 35,000 feet when diverted to Gander, could not comprehend the severity of the attack at the time. She spent nearly 30 hours insulated on her plane before watching a newscast, and, a responsible pilot, she spent the following days focused on her plane and passengers. To this day, the beautifully authentic show, which sheds light on and ties together so many stories, brings back raw emotions for Bass. Living through the uncertainty, tragedy and compassion, Beverley Bass is grateful that “so many people are getting a chance to know this beautiful story that was occurring when our country was suffering so greatly.” Above all she hopes the audiences leave the theater with a renewed sense of kindness and empathy, compassion and generosity for the fellow human being. “Be good and give back,” she says simply.

Don’t miss Come From Away when it flies into the Benedum April 9-14 as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh season.

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  • Broadway