Pilot recalls kindness in Canada as musical inspired by true 9/11 story opens in Philly

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Beverley Bass was the captain of a flight from Paris to Dallas when the attacks of September 11 closed U.S. airspace. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Beverley Bass was the captain of a flight from Paris to Dallas when the attacks of September 11 closed U.S. airspace. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

If you listen to the air traffic control tapes from Sept. 11, 2001 – which you can because they have been uploaded to a Rutgers University internet archive – you can hear that it took a while to figure out what was happening. Air traffic controllers had never dealt with something like this before, and they decided to get everyone out of the air, pronto.

“We’re gonna shut Boston down,” said the Boston air control center. “I suggest the same elsewhere.”

The FAA center in Herndon, Virginia replied, “You’re going to do what?”

“We’re shutting the airplanes down. We’re not letting anyone go right now,” said Boston.

“That’s a good move,” said Herndon.

Beverley Bass was flying a wide-bodied Boeing 777, crossing the Atlantic from Paris to Houston, and told not to enter U.S. airspace. She didn’t know what to tell her passengers.

“It was one of the hardest PAs [public announcements] I ever had to make,” said Bass. “I wanted to tell the truth, even though I didn’t know a lot at the time. I didn’t want to make up a mechanical problem, because I would lose my credibility as a captain. So I said, ‘This is Captain Bass, there’s been a crisis in the U.S. All of the airspace is closed. We’re going to be landing in Gander, Newfoundland.’”

What happened in Gander is the subject of “Come From Away,” a musical that premiered on Broadway in 2017 and subsequently won a Tony Award. It’s opening in Philadelphia on Tuesday for a two-week run at the Kimmel Center.

Authors Irene Sankoff and David Hein based the musical on interviews with the pilots, passengers, and residents of Gander. They often lifted entire sections verbatim from those interviews and composed music to fit them.

Gander is a tiny Canadian town of about 9,000 people. It had no infrastructure to handle the roughly 7,000 people that suddenly landed on 9/11 in the aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attacks on Americal soil in U.S. history.

“We actually refer it to it as a 9/12 story. It’s really about the events that occurred after that day,” Bass said during a stop in Philadelphia in support of the musical.

The song “Costume Party” describes the morning after the thousands of people landed in a place many of them had never heard of before. The residents of the town make a massive breakfast for everyone as the passengers emerge into a strange, anxious new day.

“The people of Gander were just so generous with us. They opened their homes to us. They worked non-stop for five days,” remembered Bass, who is portrayed in the music with her own song.

In addition to being caught up in a national disaster, she has her own story of being one of the first commercial passenger jet pilots in America. She started flying for American Airlines in 1976, and became the first female captain for that airline.

“There were over 100 pilots land in Gander. I was the only female pilot,” she said. “I was not only the female pilot, but the captain of that triple-7 [Boeing 777]. I was the only woman in the world that was a captain of a triple-7.”

The song “Me and the Sky” is a solo number describing Bass’ fascination with flight as a child and her persistence in an industry that was not initially friendly to her.

Becky Gulsvig sings Me and the Sky, a song written about pilot Beverley Bass for the musical Come From Away. (Matthew Murphy)

“But, you know — this isn’t going to be the right thing to say — I wasn’t a feminist,” Bass admitted. “I was a young girl with a dream to fly airplanes. I wasn’t trying to start a movement.”

She has since embraced her status as a role model. She co-founded the International Association of Women Airline Pilots, which has given away $1.4 million in scholarship money for young women pilots to date.

Now 67, Bass is retired from flying wide-bodies for American Airlines. But she’s still in the air, piloting a private jet.

“I fly an Embraer Phenom 100,” she beamed. “It’s a four-passenger, very fancy and adorable jet.”

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