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The female captain who piloted a flight on 9/11... and how Belfast’s Rachel Tucker ended up starring in a musical about her life

Beverley Bass, the captain of one of 38 planes forced to land in Gander in the wake of the Twin Towers attack, tells Harriet Marsden of how the small town took the stranded crews and passengers to their hearts after US airspace was closed ... and how she loves the Northern Ireland singer who plays her in the London production

Rachel Tucker on stage as Beverley in Come from Away
Rachel Tucker on stage as Beverley in Come from Away
Beverley Bass, first female captain of American Airlines in 1986
Beverley Bass with her daughter Paige Stawicki, who begins captain’s training next month
Beverley and the crew, on September 15 2001, the day they left Gander

By Harriet Marsden

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Bev speaking. There's been a crisis in the United States and all of the US airspace is closed. We're going to be landing our aeroplane in Gander, Newfoundland..."

On September 11, 2001, those words were spoken on a Boeing 777 somewhere over the north Atlantic. Bev was Beverley Bass, the first female captain in American Airlines history. And Bass's plane was one of 38 that landed at Gander international airport, northeastern Newfoundland, as part of Canada's Operation Yellow Ribbon when two airliners hit the North and South Towers of the World Trade Centre.

Bass, and about 7,000 crew and passengers, were grounded in the tiny town for nearly six days, almost doubling its population. The response of the islanders on "the rock" that took them in has been immortalised in Canada's now longest-running musical, Come from Away which is now running in London with Northern Ireland's Rachel Tucker in one of the lead roles.

By the time she was eight, the national airlines had launched their 727s, which they would fly every night from Tampa to the local Fort Myers airport. Her aunt would drive her to watch, parking her Volkswagen Beetle next to the chain-link fence. "I remember thinking, those pilots have the coolest job in the world. And that's when I announced to my parents that I was going to be a pilot."

Her first job in aviation was hardly lively. One of the planes at her flight school was owned by a mortician, Wynn Styles, and one day he needed someone to fly a body to Arkansas. "All of the guys were off on other trips, and I was literally the only one there. I volunteered to take this body: a 19-year-old girl who had died of a drug overdose. I got the job by default."

Bass would go on to fly his embalmed customers for two years, for $5 an hour, in a plane that was too small for a coffin: four seats, with the back two removed and the front right seat folded down.

"The body was strapped on to a stretcher with a sheet over it, right next to me. You had to tilt the stretcher at an angle to get it into the plane, so the sheet always fell off. I had to climb over the face to get to my seat."

From $5 an hour with a corpse as a co-pilot, she would go on to flight instructor, chief pilot of a charter department, a pilot for two corporations and night flights for Rockwell, before she built up enough flight hours to get her interview for American Airlines.

In October 1976, 24-year-old Bass became the airline's third female pilot, three years after Bonnie Tiburzi, the first, and so soon after the second that they trained together. To her teachers, and the seven men in her training class with her, she was a treat. "They were so good to me; I was the baby of the class because of my age - they were all 28, 29 - I was like their little sister. And the instructors loved knowing that they had one of the new female pilots."

Once she graduated and became first a flight engineer, then a co-pilot, it was a different story. "You have to realise that in every cockpit we walked into, the men had never flown with a female aviator. Once, I walked over to introduce myself to a captain, and he walked away from me. I was a brand new co-pilot - the only female co-pilot at American Airlines - and the captain literally did not speak to me, did not even look at me. The whole flight he looked out his left window." The captain flew the first leg of the flight, and Bass as co-pilot should have flown the second. "I assumed he wasn't going to let me fly. I mean, he hasn't spoken to me. But we landed on the runway and he opens up his hands by the throttle - in other words, it's your airplane. So I flew the next leg, and then he started talking to me.

"I think he was just stunned to be in the cockpit with a female aviator. And once I flew, and he realised, oh my gosh, she flies just like one of the guys, then I was OK; I was accepted into his world."

Bass says in almost 50 years of aviation, flying with thousands of pilots, she has only had one bad experience. Bass's daughter is now a pilot for EnVoy, and she is due to begin her captain's training next month. Every cockpit she walks into, Bass says, the pilots have probably flown with a woman somewhere along the line. I suggest to Bass that they've probably all heard of her. Her response: "Unfortunately, yes."

Bass suggests that some women might see it as a hard job to have alongside a family, but insists that she didn't find it so. She met Tom Stawicki in 1985, introduced by a mutual friend who worked at American Airlines' headquarters where he was in the finance department. By 1989 they were married, their son was born in 1991 and their daughter the following year.

"I never missed an important event in their lives. That didn't mean that I didn't work hard to manipulate my schedule to make that happen, but I never missed anything big. I wasn't home every night, but my husband was -he was the stabilising force in the marriage."

On September 11, 2011, Captain Beverley Bass was in Paris on a layover from Charles de Gaulle to Dallas/Forth Worth international airport. During the flight a plane in front of Bass's Boeing communicated the message: a plane had hit one of the world trade centres.

"And my co-pilot and I were just sitting there having lunch," Bass marvels. "We assumed it was a light airplane, but couldn't imagine what in the world had happened; we knew the weather was good. And that was it. "

About 20 minutes later, that same plane came back on to the frequency to tell them that the second tower had been hit - and not by a light plane. "With that came the word airliner, and the word terrorism. So now, life for us is changing. For me, terrorism was something that happened somewhere else in the world. I had no idea what that meant."

Without access to television, radio or any news, they had no inkling of the enormity of the event.

"You have to understand, you people who were watching TV: you knew what was happening. We did not know; we didn't have visual. We didn't know that United flew into the tower and it was seen on TV. We didn't know that the planes had been hijacked, so we were operating blind."

Shortly afterwards, word came through that New York airspace would close. Then, all US airspace. Bass immediately started programming the computers to Toronto, Montreal, any of the larger cities in Canada. But when they approached 50 degrees west longitude, which is where pilots first come into contact with North America, Gander control, the message was unequivocal.

"Gander control called us and said, American 49, land your plane immediately in Gander, Newfoundland. And that's when I had to tell the passengers.

Bass landed her plane at 10.15am, the last of 38 wide aircraft to touch down in Gander. Almost 7,000 people, passengers and crew arrived in a three-hour time frame - to a town of about 10,000.

Any available community buildings in Gander were commandeered for shelters, while locals mustered blankets, bedding, medicine, toiletries and all the food they could find. Bass later learnt that the townsfolk filled over 2,000 medical prescriptions that night.

Meanwhile, the aircrafts were grounded. Including the flight time from Paris, Bass and her passengers were trapped in their plane for more than a full day and night. Bass, however, remembers the atmosphere as "really quite good", and the few cellphones they had helped to disseminate news among the passengers. They actually knew more than I did," she said. "The only radio wave reception we could get was from the BBC, so we were getting your version of what was happening in the US."

But many of the passengers spoke no English and most couldn't even comprehend what was happening even if they did. It would be almost a day before they would reach a television and see what the rest of the world had been watching on loop. It was then that Bass learnt the fate of Charles Burlingame, the pilot of American Airlines 77 that was crashed into the Pentagon. She had only just seen him at a pub in London.

At 7.30am, September 12, Bass, her crew and her passengers were allowed off the plane to be registered by the Red Cross. Every stove in Gander had been on all night. They had cooked enough food to feed 7,000 people. "It was at that moment," Bass says, "that we realised we had landed in the most unique place in the world. And that's how it continued throughout our stay."

The rest of Come from Away describes how the locals embraced the "plane people", helping them come to terms with what happened and dealing with the logistics of the community's population almost doubling overnight. Two passengers on Bass's flight, Nick from England and Diane from Texas, started to develop a romance. But Bass only learnt about all those events years later. It's a strange quirk of history that those most centrally placed in the action are often the most blind to it. "It took me months and months before I could even figure out which airplane hit which tower first," she explains," because everything that we were seeing on TV was the re-runs, and I was so confused about it, was it American or United, who hit the north, who hit the south? It took me a very long time to even process the order in which everything happened."

Bass and her crew had to stay sequestered at the Comfort Inn in Gander, waiting for the call from American to go to the airport. She ate every meal at the attached restaurant, so she would only learn later that the Ganderites served 285,000 meals during their five days.

The only local she mingled with was Pat Woodford, an air traffic controller who acted as a liaison between the plane crew and the passengers. Woodford gave her the keys to his brand new pick-up truck. "I said, you can't give me the keys to your truck, you don't even know me. And he said, that doesn't matter. I thought it was weird. But that made me realise, especially after seeing the show, that that's just how those people are."

The passengers were sad to leave Gander, Bass said, because they had lived "such a beautiful life. But there was almost a guilt complex, a survivors' guilt feeling that we were treated so beautifully while our country was suffering through the worst tragedy in American history."

Bass says that day, she had two things on her mind: "I wanted to tell the world about Gander, and I wanted to return to my family. I knew it would always be a part of history."

Michael Rubinoff, a Toronto lawyer and part-time theatre producer, is the man who conceived Come from Away after the attacks.

Rubinoff believed that the story of Gander and the 38 planes would compel audiences with its narrative of hope through tragedy. It was the story, he said, that made him proud to be Canadian. In 2009, Rubinoff attended a David Mirvish production of My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, written by married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff. He was so impressed that he messaged them both on Facebook, asking for a meeting. A month later, he pitched the Gander concept to them over lunch in Yorkville. The couple had been living in New York when 9/11 happened, and Hein had grown up in Newfoundland, so it was a good fit.

Hein and Sankoff also flew to Gander in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, to interview the locals. Reg Wright, the airport president, said: "You're doing a musical about people giving out sandwiches and letting people use their showers? Good luck with that."

But the couple persevered with their interviews. That's when they met Beverley Bass, who they interviewed for four hours. But after that, she said, she didn't think about it again. Earlier that year, Bass had received a phone call from an Austrian film crew asking if she was going back to Gander for the anniversary, but she didn't know anything about it. The film crew were going to film Nick and Diane, who struck up a romance in Gander. They were now a married couple.

"To this day," says Bass, "I don't know how they learned about me."

But she and her husband headed off to Gander, along with (unbeknown to Bass) most of the other passengers. "I didn't know what was going on. But when we got there, there's an envelope at the front desk, and it detailed one event after the next."

The first event was the Give Back Breakfast, in the hockey rink. The passengers assembled, and were invited to serve breakfast to the Ganderites, to be on the other side. The whole community, and the thousands of honorary Newfoundlanders, celebrated the lifelong bonds that had been forged. "It was just one beautiful event," says Bass. "But that is normal for them. That's how they live their life. They don't find it unusual."

It wasn't all the come-from-awayers gave back. The passengers raised millions of dollars in scholarship money for Gander. Two years ago, Bass flew back with her husband and children, and personally went and thanked the mayor of each community mentioned in the show. That was set up by Pat Woodford, the man who had so blithely lent her his truck keys.

Bass explains it: "They commemorate 9/11. We memorialise it; Gander commemorates it, because for them, it was about all the good that happened."

Pilots talk about a "lost decade" after 9/11, says Bass. Every airline felt bankruptcy or nearly went out of business. Pilots took enormous pay cuts, flight schools went out of business, and a huge trickle-down effect was felt in the airports: cab drivers, kiosks and restaurants and workers.

"It literally took 10 years for the airlines to start a recovery process from the events of 9/11," says Bass. "American didn't hire a single pilot for 10 years."

But one of the first pilots they did hire was Tom McGuinness Jr. He was the son of Tom McGuinness Sr, the co-pilot on American Airlines 11, who was killed when his plane hit the north tower."

Over the next four years, the show was workshopped in Sheridan's Canadian Musical Theatre Project with students as a cast. The full production, directed by Brian Hill, was selected by the National Alliance for Musical Theatre in New York in 2013. In the summer of 2015, Bass got a call from the producers inviting her to the world premiere opening of Come from Away.

"Tom and I went to the show, not knowing anything about it. I did not know how prominent my role was. I did not know that a song called 'Me and the Sky' had been written. And I just couldn't believe it. The song literally chronicles my life in four minutes and 19 seconds. I was so shocked, I probably missed 25% of the first show. It's a good thing we've seen it 138 times."

The show is about Bass's life, and since its debut, her life has become about the show. Now, semi-retired at 67, she has been to every opening all over the world, with her free airline passes, and she's sent more than 2,000 friends to see the show.

She has also developed a strong friendship with Jenn Colella, who originated the role of Bev.

"I'm really friends with all the gals who played me. There are six now. I absolutely love Rachel Tucker; Lily in Australia is adorable, and I just sent a big basket of flowers and cookies to Becky in the US for her final performance."

She says she's probably only home four or five days a month because she is either at the show, or promoting it all over the country. "But I still fly. I'm still a pilot. Once a pilot, always a pilot."

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