May 29, 2023

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9/11 pilot sees her life story come to the stage in ‘Come From Away’ | Arts and Theatre

Beverley Bass vividly remembers the first time she heard “Me and the Sky.”

It was on June 13, 2015. She was in the La Jolla (California) Playhouse. About halfway through the debut performance of the new musical “Come From Away,” the song from a character named Beverly, who was one of the pilots who flew airliners into Gander, Newfoundland on Sept. 11, 2001, came up.

“I was gasping for air, I needed oxygen, it was so overwhelming,” Bass said. “I was looking at my husband. And I remember I said to him, “Oh my god, this is my life story in 4 minutes and 19 seconds, my aviation life story.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was fabulous.”

She’s heard the song many times since — so many renditions from professionals and school kids alike. And she’s still touched in the same way.

Beverely Bass

Beverley Bass

L. Kent Wolgamott

“It has just become something that a lot of people have latched on to and it’s not an easy song to sing,” she said. “So the actress has told me I would never try this thing but they say it’s not easy.”

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“Me and the Sky” traces, with a bit of artistic license, the story of a girl who fell in love with flying at age 4, decided she wanted to fly the biggest airplanes at 8, went to flight school while she was in college and got her license in 1973 – when Frontier Airlines had hired the first female commercial airline pilot

“So there was hope,” Bass said, to fulfill her childhood dream. But there were dues to pay and sexism to overcome.

“My first flying job was flying for a mortician,” Bass said in a Zoom conversation last week. “I flew bodies on an airplane that was so small, it couldn’t hold a casket. The body was just on a stretcher next to my right leg. And I flew for him for about two years.”

Hired as American Airlines third female pilot in 1976, she became a captain a decade later and on Dec. 30, 1986 was the captain of the first all-female airliner crew ever, attracting attention from media around the world.

By Sept. 11, 2001, Bass was an experienced pilot and trainer, who was in the cockpit of a Boeing 777, the largest airliner in the American fleet, on a routine flight from Paris to her home base in Dallas.

Midway across the Atlantic, the crew learned that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Then came the report of the second airliner, another American plane, hitting the second tower.

“They told us American 49 land your airplane immediately in Gander, Newfoundland,” she said. “So off we go to Gander. It was one of the hardest PAs I’ve ever had to make because I made up my mind that I was going to not make up a story about why we were going to Gander.

“We were the 36th out of the 38 wide bodies to touch down in a three-hour timeframe. We got parked and the Canadian officials came on the airplane and they said ‘You will not be getting off until sometime tomorrow.’ We landed at about 10:15 in the morning on Sept. 11. So we were on the airplane a total of 28 hours before we were deplaned “

Deplaning began the crew and passengers’ five-day stay in Gander, part of the 7,000 people who were stranded in the town of 9,400. The townspeople welcomed them with food – some 285,000 meals were served – while opening their homes and treating strangers like long lost friends.

That relationship is the core of the musical, which comes to the Lied Center for Performing Arts for the first of seven performances Wednesday.

The musical’s writers interviewed many of those stranded, including Bass, who was asked questions at a 10th-anniversary reunion in Gander in 2011. “Come From Away” takes everything, including its title, from real people and events.

“We’re called the ‘come from aways,’” Bass said. “Do you know why that it is? In Newfoundland, if you are not born there, you have come from away. So we were the ‘come from aways.’”

Bass retired from American at age 56 to protect her pension when the airline was facing bankruptcy. She’s now 70 and flies a private jet – when she isn’t going to see “Come From Away.”

She’s seen the musical 172 times and will soon be going to a couple more performances. Her critique:

“They rarely ever make a mistake, but I know every word, every line,” she said. “However, I cannot sing and I cannot dance. So they’ll never ask me to fill in. 

“… At the end of the show, every single performance people just bolt to their feet. .. It makes me very proud. And anybody who had any hesitation about seeing the show because of its connection to 9/11, they quickly learn that they did not need to worry about that. At all.”

Asked about “Me and the Sky” becoming her last legacy, Bass acknowledged that she will be remembered because of the song, but it’s not going to be her legacy.

“What’s really fun is my daughter is a pilot for American now,” she said. “So what I say is the legacy will live on through my daughter.”

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