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A girl and the sky: Argyle woman reflects on history-making career in commercial flight

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Lucinda Breeding

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series about the remarkable life of Beverley Bass, a retired American Airlines pilot who lives in Argyle. She was the first female pilot American Airlines promoted to captain. On Sept. 11, 2001, she diverted her airplane to Gander, Newfoundland, when the United States closed its airspace after four commercial jets were used in an orchestrated terrorist attack that left thousands dead. Now, Bass is a character in the Tony-nominated musical "Come From Away," which tells the story of Gander taking in nearly 7,000 temporarily homeless passengers from 38 commercial flights for a week.

Retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass just seemed to be born with the gene for flight.

Her mother always insisted she had an almost involuntary response to airplanes.

"My mother, when she was alive, reminded me that when she would push me in the baby stroller, if an airplane went over, I would kick my feet and everything," said Bass, 65. "I was just obsessed with airplanes, and I really don't know why, because my father drove PT boats in the Navy. So that's the complete opposite from flying."

When Bass says she's was obsessed with flying, she means it.

"I wanted to fly, myself," she said. "When the washing machine was in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, I used to jump off the washing machine hoping I could fly across the room. Of course, I always ended up in a heap on the floor."

Bass begged her father to let her try flying lessons when she turned 16.

Her father told her to keep her head out of the clouds and her feet on the sawdust floor of the stables, where the Bass family spent much of their spare time. They raised, trained and showed quarter horses in Florida.

"I think my dad thought if I started flying, I would lose interest in the horses," she said. "And he didn't want that to happen because he felt like the horses kept me away from boys and drugs. And it did. I was so busy working with horses every afternoon and doing horse shows, I didn't have boyfriends."

Bass spent 12 years showing horses — mostly Western riding — before leaving Florida. She was bound for Texas Christian University. When she left home, her parents sold the ranch.

Up and away

When she came home to Florida after her freshman year in college in summer 1971, Bass registered for flying lessons. She headed off to her first lesson in Fort Myers. She came back with a message for her parents.

"I walked in the door of my parents' house, and I said, 'I will fly for the rest of my life,'" she said.

She returned to TCU, and continued her flight training at Meacham Airport in Fort Worth and at Love Field in Dallas.

Bass started her flight training in a Cessna 150 — a jaunty little two-seater just big enough for a student and an instructor. She made her first solo flight — flying the plane and making three landings while the instructor watched from the ground.

"You slowly upgrade to a 172 or, you know, something that's a four-seater," Bass said. "And then you get your private license, which means you can legally carry a passenger with you."

Aviation is a serious business, and pilots have to prove they can handle a plane in different conditions. When the time came for Bass to get her commercial instrument rating, she learned to fly a plane by reading the instruments in the cockpit.

"It means you can fly through clouds and don't have to have visual contact with the ground," she said. "And a lot of times, you don't see the ground at all. And then you get a multi-engine rating, so you can fly a twin-engine airplane. You just keep getting all these licenses and ratings."

Getting off the ground

Bass got her start flying remains for a mortician based in Fort Worth, ferrying bodies to their final resting places. Her ride? A 1953 Beechcraft Bonanza. 

"It was just me and the bodies," she said. "I had to step over them to get to my seat."

Flying as a private pilot got Bass in the air for a paycheck. But she had bigger dreams.

"When I came home from that first flying lesson, knowing I would fly for the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to do this every day," Bass said. "Now at that point, I didn't know in what capacity I'd be flying. Because again, back then it wasn't like there were any women airline pilots. What I did know is that I wanted to fly the biggest, fanciest jets."

Argyle resident Beverley Bass is pictured here with the 1953 Beechcraft Bonanza she used to carry bodies for a mortician. It was her first paying job as a pilot.
Argyle resident Beverley Bass is pictured here with the 1953 Beechcraft Bonanza she used to carry bodies for a mortician. It was her first paying job as a pilot.

The gender divide that kept women outside the cockpit door and working the aisles was a major barrier.

"My parents were always very supportive, and I always said that because I was raised as an only child, I believed I could do anything, and it didn't matter if I was male or female," Bass said. "I hunted in the Everglades with my dad on horseback at night, with a headlight on my forehead. And then Monday morning, I would be at a fashion show with my mother. I didn't know gender discrimination from my parents."

The aviation industry, though, seemed like a place for brass-plated men who ate adventure for breakfast. Women couldn't get into the military as pilots, either, when Bass was building up her flight time.

"Of course that has all changed, thank goodness," Bass said. "I didn't have the option of the military. ... So for me, the only way to fly the big fancy jets was the airlines. So that was my goal."

Frontier Airlines hired the first female pilot in 1973 — a tough, smart Colorado native named Emily Howell Warner.

"So that opened the doors, even though it was a very slow trickle of women being hired in the early '70s," Bass said.

Beverley Bass (center) was among the first all-female flight crews for American Airlines on Dec. 30, 1986. The trip made national news. Terry Claridge, left, was the co-pilot on the trip, and Tracy Prior, right, was the flight engineer.
Beverley Bass (center) was among the first all-female flight crews for American Airlines on Dec. 30, 1986. The trip made national news. Terry Claridge, left, was the co-pilot on the trip, and Tracy Prior, right, was the flight engineer.

Just because a door is open doesn't mean it isn't blocked. Bass learned that a lot of the booby traps were cultural, not technical.

"Because I did my flying in Texas — and Texas being, I would say, a little more on the conservative side — I would often apply for a job and they would say, 'Oh you've got plenty of experience in the airplane, but oh my gosh, the wives of the executives? What would they think?'"

A woman in the pilot's seat seemed like a huge step in the mid-1970s. But the bigger obstacle boiled down to the predicted grudges of pilots' wives, Bass said.

"They just couldn't have a female pilot," she said. "And I'm like, 'I just want to fly the airplane. I don't care what the wives think.'"

Even if Bass didn't care, she still had occasional doubts.

"You know, I didn't get some jobs because of that," she said. "And you know, my peers who were building flight time trying to get on with the airlines, I was always a little uncomfortable telling them that I wanted to be an airline pilot because back then, there simply weren't any women airline pilots. I struggled filling out my application when I got to the part where it said 'male or female.' I wanted to leave it blank. Because I was afraid if I said 'female' I wouldn't even get a shot at an interview."

But that little girl who hunted on horseback with nothing but a headlamp to light the Everglades wouldn't stay scared. The itch to fly was all-consuming, and she meant to get her hands on the instruments of one of those fancy jets.

In 1976, Bass was one of the first three female pilots hired by American Airlines.

"They had the prettiest airplanes," she said.

The dark hunting trips and the girl time with mom made for a woman who could face stress and danger while keeping every blond hair in place. And the signature Southern-girl grin — it reaches Bass' blue eyes in a second — that didn't hurt, either.

"I was promoted to captain in 1986, one day short of my 10th anniversary," Bass said.

At age 34, Bass was the first woman to become captain for American Airlines, according to the carrier's media relations. She broke ground again in 1986, as the captain of the first all-female flight crew. Bass joined co-pilot Terry Claridge and flight engineer Tracy Prior on the Dec. 30 flight. All three women wore red roses on their lapels, according to a news wire story.

Not everyone was happy to see women ducking through the cockpit door. But Bass doesn't seem too aggrieved remembering the resistance. Bass' years in aviation have honed a certain penchant for taking care of business — efficient, polite and cool as a cucumber.

"Some of those pilots were from the World War II days," Bass said. "It was a little bit of the boys' club. It was a balance, though, too, because the flight attendants at first thought you maybe thought you were better than them. You had to figure out how to keep people happy. We sometimes got the guys their drinks. And you just did it, no big deal."

Argyle resident and retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass is pictured in 1977, shortly after being hired as one of the first three female pilots for the carrier. In 1986, she was the first woman to be promoted to captain at American Airlines.
Argyle resident and retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass is pictured in 1977, shortly after being hired as one of the first three female pilots for the carrier. In 1986, she was the first woman to be promoted to captain at American Airlines.

An aviation family

Bass married Tom Stawicki in 1989. At the time, Stawicki worked in the investment division of American Airlines. The couple had two children, a son, Taylor, now 26, and a daughter, Paige, 24.

DFW International Airport became Bass' home base. Stawicki, a money manager, eventually left the airlines to commute to downtown Dallas, where he worked for Brown Brothers Harriman.

The couple settled in Colleyville. They moved to Argyle in 2005. The small town south of Denton was a better spot for the family, seeing how Taylor was into racing go-karts and Paige was devoted to horses.

The Bass-Stawicki clan dug in, happily building a life doing the things that gave their lives meaning. The industry had a mandatory retirement at age 60 at the time, and Bass was ready to fly until she reached that limit.

"You know, I have thousands of hours," Bass said. "Probably just a little less than 20,000 hours. So I don't even know how many take-offs and landings I've made, but thousands."

Bass retired in 2008 with 32 years at American. She was 56. 

"I must tell you that even towards the end of my career, there was never a take-off or a landing that wasn't exhilarating for me," she said.

Remembering the sensation of lifting a jet off of a runway, Bass still brightens.

"When you grab those throttles in your hand, and you have almost 300 people sitting behind you, and you throw forward and those engines spool up," Bass said. "The rumble in your stomach — I mean, I almost can't describe it. But it never goes away. Never."

There was a singular moment, though, that complicated Bass' feelings about airplanes and aviation.

That moment? Sept. 11, 2001.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.

COMING THURSDAY: Beverley Bass recalls the chaos of Sept. 11, 2001, when she was forced to divert her Boeing 777 to a tiny town in Newfoundland. Find her riveting story on DentonRC.com and on Page 1 in Thursday's Denton Time.

FEATURED PHOTO: Retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass diverted from Paris to Newfoundland on Sept. 11. while captaining a Boeing 777 aircraft. The story of that event was turned into a Broadway musical called Come From Away. Jeff Woo/DRC.