‘Tomorrow night I’m going on the Airbus A380. You know that beast? I’ve never been on one. I’m very excited. I’m going to go visit the guys in the cockpit. I’m so excited I can’t stand it.’
I’m talking to Beverley Bass, who became the first female captain for American Airlines in 1986, aged 34.
The trailblazer clearly still very much loves flying – whether as a passenger or on the flight deck.
Beverley Bass, pictured, was American Airlines’ first female captain – and the carrier’s third female pilot. She’s pictured here exiting a B727 in 1986, the year she became a captain
She says: ‘I have a job flying a jet that’s privately owned. I’m an old woman, I’m 67, and I still get to fly a beautiful jet. How lucky am I? I never lose the thrill of that take-off or that landing, in the front-row seat, with the view that we have. Very few people in the world ever get to have that.’
However, although she’s enjoying her current role, her move away from American Airlines was a huge wrench.
And the catalyst for her departure was 9/11.
She explains: ‘I flew for seven years after 9/11. American was the last of the major U.S airlines to file bankruptcy. Every airline in the U.S filed for bankruptcy and nearly went out of business.
‘So to protect our retirement fund, which was tied to the airline, a lot of us retired early.
‘I was only 56 and the retirement age was 65. And I’ve always said it was like taking a bottle away from a baby too soon.
‘I would go back today and do it all over again. But now I’m too old and I can’t go back ever.’
Beverley’s career with American was a remarkable one. She shattered the glass ceiling at a time when it was particularly thick.
How did she achieve this? I suspect using authority, charm, humour and determination, all qualities that it’s obvious, even from a 30-minute phone call – she has in abundance.
Hard work played its part too.
She recalls how it all began – and when it all ended: ‘I was eight years old when I told my parents I wanted to be a pilot. And I never lost that desire. When I went to college in Texas I enrolled in a flight school in Fort Worth and went to college every day and left at three and went straight to the flight school and stayed until 9pm.
‘I got all of my flight ratings and licences, which took about five to six years. And then I applied to American in the summer of 1976 and got hired in October of that year as the third female pilot. And back then we all started out as flight engineers on the 727. So I was a flight engineer, a co-pilot and then flew the DC-9, the DC-10. And then became a captain, ten years later in 1986 on the 727.
Family talent: Beverley with her daughter, Paige Stawicki, who’s also a pilot
AMERICAN AIRLINES FACTS AND FIGURES
- American Airlines operates 6,800 daily flights to more than 365 destinations in 61 countries from its hubs in Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.
- It has 130,000 employees that serve more than 200 million customers annually.
- Since 2013 American has invested more than $25 billion in its product.
- American was recently named a Five Star Global Airline by the Airline Passenger Experience Association and Airline of the Year by Air Transport World.
- American is a founding member of One World, whose members serve 1,100 destinations in 180 countries and territories.
‘And then in 1988, I became an instructor pilot on that airplane. And then in 1990 I went to the wide bodies and started flying international on the 767 and 757.
‘Then in 1998 I was one of 21 instructor pilots invited to introduce the 777 into the American fleet. So I picked up several brand new airplanes from the Boeing factory and brought them back to Texas. So I ended my career with nine years on the 777.
‘I was with American from 76 to 2008. That’s it in a nutshell.’
I ask what the attitude was like from colleagues and the public when she became a pilot. Were there raised eyebrows that they were being flown by a woman?
There were, she says, but not at American.
She says: ‘I did my flying in Texas before American and it was very challenging getting a corporate job because there were very few women corporate pilots back in the early 70s.
‘So I would apply for a job and the guys would say “well you have plenty of experience but we just can’t have a woman flying executives around, I mean what would their wives say?”
‘So that was very challenging. However, once I got hired by American I was treated so fairly. The guys were truly wonderful to me. I mean, I have flown with, I don’t know how many pilots… hundreds and hundreds. And I probably have only three stories that would be negative. I never focus on them because for the most part, they were so respectful.’
American, she says, was more accepting of female crew.
She continues: ‘Obviously every cockpit we walked into back then, the pilots had never flown with a female pilot. But I would say it was more intrigue than condescension. They were curious, but what I always tell young gals – if you are very good at your job and you maintain respect, the guys are a lot of fun to work with. They can’t berate you, or belittle you, if you’re great at your job. What can they say?
‘But I know that my story is not the same. A lot of women pilots have many battles along the way. I personally did not.’
The road to captain-dom wasn’t just something she wanted – but something that’s mandated by American Airlines.
She says: ‘I had always wanted to be a captain. And it’s the goal for every airline pilot.
‘You are hired to be a captain. And at American our system was mandatory upgrade to captain. You didn’t have the ability to remain a co-pilot. That is not true with every airline, but was true with American. It was up, or out.
‘But everybody wants to be a captain. That’s what I say to everybody. I can’t imagine not wanting to be a captain. And I’m very bossy so I’m a good captain. My husband will vouch for that.
‘But what I try to tell young gals is – being a captain is like being a boss, without being bossy. If that makes sense. You have to maintain control of your crew and the aircraft, but you have to do it in a very respectful manner.’
Her captain training lasted six weeks – and her first flight as a captain was with a plane full of passengers.
She says: ‘Even if you have been flying that particular airplane for years, when you transition from the right seat to the left seat it is a six-week training course. You go through ground school, and CRM, which is cockpit resource management training, and then, of course, ground school and systems training. So that by the time you get out of our flight academy, you are really ready to move to that left seat. Then you spend probably 30 or 40 hours with an instructor pilot.
‘But your first trip as a captain is with a full planeload of passengers.’
And how did that feel?
She says: ‘Very exciting. It is a monumental time in your career, because like I said, for every pilot, it’s there, to eventually move to the left seat. That’s the ultimate goal.’
In 1998 Beverley became one of 21 instructor pilots that was invited to introduce the 777 into the American fleet
Shortly after becoming a captain, Beverley took charge of American’s first all-female crew, in December 1986.
She recalls: ‘The conversation changed to hair and fingernails, which is something that was never talked about when you fly with the guy pilots.
‘That was probably the best part, the conversation. It was very very different.
‘And then I headed up the first all-female crew ever in the triple seven, with any airline. That was 1999, and we flew to London, and we brought back 30Ibs of chocolate for the crew schedulers.
‘And I remember thinking “god forbid, if this airplane went down, I can see the headlines now, all-women crew, and the only thing found in the cockpit was 30Ibs of chocolate that they were flying back”. That probably wouldn’t be a good thing to print.
‘We honestly said that to each other. Only women would bring back chocolate for the crew schedulers. We had such a good time.
‘It does change the environment when you have women flying the airplane. It brings about a little bit of extra excitement. We loved all of our flights.’
Life at the airline changed profoundly from September 11, 2001.
It was an American Airlines plane that was flown into the North Tower.
Beverley says: ‘There is no one factor that changed the airline world more than the events of 9/11. It affected all of us and it affected everybody in the world. But the airlines took a very heavy hit. As a result of that. And American did not hire a single pilot after 9/11 for ten years. We in the airline business we refer to that as “the lost decade”.
‘Ten years, we did not hire a single pilot.’
On the actual day Beverley was flying and was forced to divert to Gander, along with lots and lots of other planes.
From this event a musical called Come From Away was born, which features a character based on Beverley.
American Airlines flight 49, captained by Beverley, deplanes in Gander on the morning of September 12, 2001
Diverted long-haul jets, including airliners belonging to Air France, BA and Virgin Atlantic, parked at Gander after 9/11
The diverted airplanes had to be carefully arranged on the Gander runways and taxiways
Beverley was flying in from Paris on 9/11 when she got the order to divert to Gander
Beverley in Gander watching a news report on the 9/11 attack
The story behind this production is truly fascinating, and heart-warming.
On September 11, 2001, Beverley was captain of an American Dallas/Fort Worth-bound flight from Paris. Her Boeing 777 was halfway over the North Atlantic when she heard on the cockpit radio that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
The FAA immediately closed United States airspace. Beverley continued flying westbound, planning for a diversion. She soon came into contact with Canadian air traffic control, which ordered the aircraft to land in Gander, Newfoundland, where it became the 36th of 38 diverted planes.
As a result of the detour, almost 7,000 passengers — and 19 animals — descended on the small northeastern town, nearly doubling its population.
Residents came from all over to see what was happening.
Upon landing, passengers were told they wouldn’t be able to leave the aircraft until the following day to allow for customs and security to get set up.
It was a long night for passengers aboard Beverley’s flight. They would spend 28 hours in total on the plane. But the kindness of the town’s residents got them through.
While those on the planes were sleeping, residents of Gander stayed up all night making preparations for their unexpected guests. In the morning, Beverley remembers walking through the airport’s small terminal and seeing tables upon tables set up with food.
During one of the darkest times in history, the residents of Gander were there to comfort the passengers, who would soon become their lifelong friends and honorary Newfoundlanders. The town even gave their guests a nickname: the plane people.
On the morning of September 15, Beverley was finally cleared to board her aircraft and transport her original passengers to DFW. But Gander never really left them.
The morning of September 12th at around 7.30am. ‘This is what we looked like after 28 hours on the plane,’ says Beverley
Passengers enjoying a hot meal, thanks to the generosity of the locals in Gander
This picture of Beverley’s crew was taken on their day of departure from Gander – September 15. Beverley says: ‘We look a lot better all cleaned up’
Noteworthy: Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass in the hit musical Come From Away, which Beverley has seen now over 60 times
Thankful: Beverley gave this plaque to Comfort Inn on behalf of her crew
Many returned to the small town on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Also present for the occasion were husband and wife Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who were working on a musical about the events of those four days in Gander. The duo interviewed locals and returning passengers, including Beverley, who spoke to the couple for four hours.
Based on this interview Sankoff and Hein created a character that sings a four-and-a-half-minute song called Me and the Sky, about Beverley’s career and passion for aviation.
Beverley has seen the musical over 60 times – and is simply thrilled by it.
She says: ‘If you had told me when we left Gander on the morning of September 15 that someday I would be watching our stories play out across the world in a musical I would have been in total disbelief!
‘I remember wanting the world to know about the folks in Gander and what they did for us and Come From Away has made that happen.’
Well, it has to be said, she’s a pilot who truly deserves to have her name in lights.