Groundbreaking Pilot Beverley Bass Talks Amelia Earhart

Did you know that today is Amelia Earhart Day? To celebrate, I spoke with Captain Beverley Bass, who in 1976, became the third female pilot to be hired by American Airlines. Ten years later, she became the first female captain for American Airlines. On the morning of the September 11th attacks, Beverley was flying a plane which was grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, and her experience would later be written into the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, “Come From Away.”

I assume you and Ms. Earhart probably have a lot in common. If you could meet her today, what would you say?

I’m not sure we have a lot in common because she is much braver than I ever would have been! But if I could meet her today, I would love to ask her how she mustered the courage to fly the way she did. If you told an airline pilot today “I’m going to put you in an Electra,” like she flew, “and I’m going to give you a few hundred gallons of fuel, and you’re going to venture off over the pacific and hopefully land on an island… good luck!” They would look at you like you were crazy! The average pilot today wouldn’t even think of doing something so extraordinary, it was amazing that she even attempted it. I’m very impressed with what she did. It was heroic.

Do you have any theories of what happened to her?

When there are airplane accidents today, we eventually learn what went wrong because we can usually recover black boxes. In her situation… I don’t know. I can only surmise that maybe she got off course and ran out of fuel. But there’s no way to really know that. I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories. Without all of the facts — and I don’t know if we’ll ever have all of the facts about her last flight — we can only speculate. It’s one of the great mysteries of our time. And I think we have to accept that.

When you first decided to become a pilot back in the 1970’s, did you expect to be treated differently because you were a woman?

I never once thought about the challenges. I grew up doing both “boy things” and “girl things.” I hunted in the everglades on horseback with a rifle when I was 10 years old. I thought that was normal. But I also loved doing fashion shows with my mother. So I didn’t grow up feeling any gender discrimination. I was so supported by both of my parents through my whole life, and when I told them I wanted to be a pilot, they thought it was very cool. When I started flying, I couldn’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t let me fly an airplane just because I was a girl. But before I started at American Airlines I applied for several jobs where the owners of the airplane would say, “Well you’ve got plenty of experience and lots of hours in an airplane, but we can’t have our executives being flown by a female, because what would their wives think?”

When young women today ask how I survived in a man’s world, I tell them three things. One — you have to be great at your job. Two — you have to maintain respect. I always felt like I had to be just a little bit better than the guys. I couldn’t give them a reason to criticize my skills. Because when your ability is called into question, then people lose respect for you. So those things go hand in hand. And three — don’t try to be one of the guys. I always felt: I’m a woman first, I just happen to be a pilot. I’m not going to try to change myself just because I fly jets.

What did it feel like seeing yourself played onstage for the first time in Come From Away?

When my husband and I went to see the show for the first time, there’s this moment in the very beginning when the actress who plays me picks up the phone and says “Tom, I’m fine.” When my husband saw that, he buried his head in his hands and started sobbing. What I realized seeing the show for the first time is that that day was much harder for my family at home than it was for me. I had an airplane to manage. I had 156 passengers and a crew of 15. I had a job to do. My family was at home dealing with the unknown. They knew I was flying, but they didn’t know where I was. The attacks happened at about 8:45 in the morning and I didn’t talk to my family until 4:30 in the afternoon. And seeing the show the first night, that’s when I realized how hard it was for the families.

This interview appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.