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Argyle pilot recalls diverting to Newfoundland on Sept. 11

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Lucinda Breeding

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second story in 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.

‘How could someone use something I love so much to do something so full of hate?'

Beverley Bass and a guest are drinking coffee at her home in Argyle. She remembers the day clearly.

It was early on Sept. 11, 2001, and she was the captain of an American Airlines Boeing 777 nonstop flight from Paris, France, to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

She and her co-pilot had their legs propped up, eating lunch.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass diverted her Texas-bound Boeing 777 from Paris to Newfoundland on Sept. 11.</span><br></p>DRC

Retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass diverted her Texas-bound Boeing 777 from Paris to Newfoundland on Sept. 11.

DRC

They were cruising high above the Atlantic Ocean when the cockpit radio came to life. A voice said an airplane had hit the World Trade Center.

That was strange, Bass said, because the weather in New York was clear with unobstructed views.

"I think even the news said at the time that it was a small airplane -- and so that's what we assumed it was," Bass said. "We were kind of surprised at that, but we went back to eating lunch."

A cataclysm on wings

People on the ground around the World Trade Center watched the horror unfold in real time.

News networks broadcast video of the scarred gouge on the World Trade Center's North Tower. Flames and smoke poured from the skyscraper. It was just before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday.

But it wasn't a small plane that had gone off course. It was a Boeing 767 -- American Airlines Flight 11.

Seventeen minutes later, hijackers crashed another passenger jet -- United Airlines Flight 175 -- into the South Tower.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">On Sept. 11, 2001, smoke rises from the burning Twin Towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City.</span><br></p>AP file photo

On Sept. 11, 2001, smoke rises from the burning Twin Towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City.

AP file photo

New Yorkers fleeing the carnage screamed as they watched the fireball billow out from the South Tower. Their screams said what words couldn't at that moment: Someone means us harm.

Bass and her flight crew had only heard the short, strange report about a small plane plowing into the North Tower. But passengers knew nothing.

"And then about 20 minutes later, they came back on and said the second tower's been hit," Bass recalled. "And they actually said an American 737. Well, what we were confused about [was] does that mean an American-registered airplane or American Airlines? And as it was, it wasn't even a 737. But with that came the word 'terrorism.'"

Looking back, Bass said she was naive about terrorism, a word she associated with far-flung places. She wasn't alone. Most Americans in 2001 associated terrorism with violence in hardscrabble places such as Israel, the Palestinian territories, Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

"I didn't even know what that meant," she said. "I mean, you know, we weren't used to terrorism in our country. It was so odd to me."

Change of flight plan

Bass and her flight crew started getting instructions as the Twin Towers burned.

"The next thing we hear, New York airspace is closed," Bass said. "But that's OK because our flight plan does not go through New York airspace. We come in way over northern Canada and down, kind of over [the] Chicago area."

But that plan was destined to change. The government closed all U.S. airspace to civilian traffic.

"So now we know we have to divert," she said. "So we're programming the computers and we're looking at Toronto and Montreal and Calgary and Edmonton. I've got enough fuel to go just about anywhere."

Another radio transmission followed. It instructed Bass to make contact with the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, and await further orders.

"We were like, 'Gosh, OK.' Normally we pick our divert airport," Bass said. "But Gander control came on and said, American 49er -- which was us -- land your airplane immediately in Gander. And that's not something we would normally hear."

Bass plugged the Gander airport into the computer and discovered her airplane was overweight. If she landed at Gander with a heavy aircraft, a specially trained mechanic would have to perform a required inspection before they could take off again.

Bass had no idea if Gander International Airport employed that kind of mechanic.

"Now I'm wrestling ... am I going to be able to get fuel when I'm in Gander?" she said. "I mean, I have no idea how long I'm going to be there, or any of that. So it's like, do I let go of some of this precious fuel and not land overweight, or do I keep the fuel and land overweight?"

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Beverley Bass piloted the Boeing 777 at top for American Airlines on Sept. 11, 2001. It was one of 38 jetliners diverted to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland after the Sept. 11 attacks.</span></p>Courtesy photo

Beverley Bass piloted the Boeing 777 at top for American Airlines on Sept. 11, 2001. It was one of 38 jetliners diverted to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Courtesy photo

With no details to go on, Bass made a judgment call. She dumped 7,000 pounds of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean. Then she flew to the airport, where her aircraft was No. 36 of the 38 airplanes diverted to a small airport in a town of 9,000 people.

Meanwhile, no one on Bass' flight knew that the Twin Towers were crumbling. And they certainly had no idea that an obscure terrorist group, Al-Qaida, was responsible for the disaster unfolding in Manhattan.

In 2001, cellphones weren't as ubiquitous as they are today. Airline passengers didn't have instant access to the internet in their pockets.

Bass' crew and passengers were flying blind.

Little information, big problems

Bass and other pilots forced to make emergency landings in Gander faced a big decision -- what to tell the passengers. Some attributed the emergency to mechanical problems, but Bass decided to tell the truth.

"My exact announcement was: 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Bass. There's been a crisis in the United States and we are going to be landing our airplane in Gander, Newfoundland. As soon as I find out more details, I will get back with you when we are on the ground.'"

As she descended, Bass saw the small airport with its two active runways. DFW Airport has seven, and Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta has five. Bass said she saw something that gave her pause.

"I'm coming in on final approach and ... as I looked to the right and looked to the left, there are cars lined as far as I can see," she said. "It's like everyone in Newfoundland came to see. There had never been 38 wide-bodies on that airport, ever. I mean, it's used to having a lot of airplanes, certainly during World War II, but they were all little airplanes."

Bass wasn't sure where air traffic control would put her big jetliner. But they found a spot, and she taxied onto the space at 10 a.m. on Sept. 11. She soon learned from airport officials that dumping the fuel in the ocean had been the right call.

"When they came on the airplane, the very first question they asked was, 'Did you land overweight?' And I said 'no' and they were like, 'Thank you,' because some of them did land overweight."

The passengers and flight crew had to stay on the plane for the next 28 hours while authorities conducted security sweeps to make sure no explosive devices or suspects were aboard.

One passenger made a fuss.

"She was claiming to be claustrophobic, and she needed to sit in first class," Bass said. "She had given my flight attendants problems for hours and hours. I went back and talked to her and I said, 'You have to understand every passenger on this airplane would like to be in a first-class seat but it just doesn't work like that. ... You can walk up to first class, but I kind of need you to stay in your area. So she was good for a while."

The passenger made waves again, and this time, Bass called Canadian police for backup.

"They came on board with handcuffs," Bass said. "And they said, '... If you think you are claustrophobic on this massive 777, you are going to find out what it means to be claustrophobic, because the cell we're going to put you in is about 4 by 4. And she behaved the rest of the time. Never had another problem with her."

At the homefront, on tenterhooks

Back in North Texas, Bass' family anxiously waited to learn her whereabouts.

"I knew she was in the air," said Tom Stawicki, Bass' husband. "I called American, which was like trying to call your cable company. A real stupid thought. I couldn't get through."

Stawicki said he got in touch with one of Bass' colleagues while driving back home to Colleyville to pick up their two children, Taylor and Paige.

"During that time, I left the office to go pick up the kids and in that drive to Colleyville, he called back. He said 'All I can tell you is she was on the ground.'"

At 4:30 p.m., Bass borrowed a passenger's cellphone to call home.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Beverley Bass is pictured at the 10th anniversary of Operation Yellow Ribbon, the official Canadian response to the events of 9/11, in 2011. Claude Elliott, left, has been the mayor of Gander, Newfoundland, since 1990. Bass' husband, Tom Stawicki, is on the right.</span></p>Courtesy photo

Beverley Bass is pictured at the 10th anniversary of Operation Yellow Ribbon, the official Canadian response to the events of 9/11, in 2011. Claude Elliott, left, has been the mayor of Gander, Newfoundland, since 1990. Bass' husband, Tom Stawicki, is on the right.

Courtesy photo

"She said, 'I'm fine, I'm fine. I'm in Gander and that's all I know,'" Stawicki said.

He and the kids took a world map off the wall and searched it for Gander.

"Looking for Gander on the map, it was like Where's Waldo," Stawicki said. "We found Newfoundland, no problem. But we couldn't find Gander. We knew she was in Gander and here was Dallas. It was a long way."

Deplaning in a small town

Everyone got off Bass' plane at 7 a.m. on Sept. 12 and registered with the Red Cross. When they walked into the terminal, they were given plastic bags emblazoned with a local liquor store's logo.

What Bass saw in the terminal floored her.

"There were tables and tables and tables just full of food," she recalled. "And that told me that they had literally been up all night. All night. Because they prepared food for nearly 7,000 passengers. It was like Halloween. You just went down the tables and took anything you wanted. It was astounding. My flight attendants just broke down crying."

From there, flight crews were booked into the 500 motel rooms in Gander. Bass stayed at a Comfort Inn, where she was required to stay close to a phone in case airspace opened and flights were scheduled. An air traffic controller was assigned to Bass' passengers and crew as a sort of local point man.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Gander air traffic controller Pat Woodford, left, is pictured next to retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Bass was piloting a Boeing 777 that was diverted to Gander when U.S. officials closed American airspace. Woodford gave Bass the keys to his brand-new truck while crews and passengers were grounded in Gander. Also pictured are Linda Woodford and Bass' husband, Tom Stawicki.</span></p>Courtesy photo

Gander air traffic controller Pat Woodford, left, is pictured next to retired American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Bass was piloting a Boeing 777 that was diverted to Gander when U.S. officials closed American airspace. Woodford gave Bass the keys to his brand-new truck while crews and passengers were grounded in Gander. Also pictured are Linda Woodford and Bass' husband, Tom Stawicki.

Courtesy photo

"He gave me the keys to his brand-new truck," she said. "He told me, 'You keep these the whole time.' I couldn't believe it."

Gander's public buildings -- schools, churches, gymnasiums and the local fire department -- hosted passengers.

When all of the public spaces were filled, the people of Gander literally opened their homes to thousands of strangers -- some of whom didn't speak English or French. Some families housed as many as 10 passengers. They offered showers, beds and Canadian home cooking.

"My passengers were at the Knights of Columbus lodge," Bass said. "I did go over there every day. I would brief them every day, but of course I had nothing to tell them because nothing changed in five days. But of course, they wanted face time, and I wanted to give that to them."

Home again, home again

On Saturday, Sept. 15, the travelers were ready for takeoff, though Bass said a hurricane was threatening to make landfall and ground them even longer.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">American Airlines recognized the Comfort Inn in Gander, Newfoundland, for hosting the airline's flight crews Sept. 12-15, 2001.</span></p>Courtesy photo

American Airlines recognized the Comfort Inn in Gander, Newfoundland, for hosting the airline's flight crews Sept. 12-15, 2001.

Courtesy photo

But they got the green light from the U.S. government, and the passengers boarded their planes and waited patiently to take off.

"There were a couple of things the passengers asked for," Bass said. "They wanted me to announce when we crossed the Canadian border into the United States. So I made that [announcement], and usually I can't hear because I'm so far up in the cockpit. But the whole airplane clapped."

The passengers also asked Bass to announce their crossing into the state of Texas. She obliged.

Passengers were still learning about the Sept. 11 attacks from the news coverage. Bass said her first duty was to be calm for her passengers.

"It never entered my mind to cry," she said. "Never. No. It was so incredibly important that when I face those passengers every day that I was confident. They had to know that I was pretty stoic at that point, and I remained that way. And I would say my crew members did also."

Bass and her flight crew all knew someone who died on one of the hijacked airliners.

"How could someone use something I love so much to do something so full of hate?" she said.

The first chink in her pilot's armor came when she taxied to the gate at DFW.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Beverley Bass never removed the Gander pin she received while stranded there following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She kept it on her uniform lapel beneath her 30-year pin from American Airlines.</span><br></p>Dallas Morning News file photo

Beverley Bass never removed the Gander pin she received while stranded there following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She kept it on her uniform lapel beneath her 30-year pin from American Airlines.

Dallas Morning News file photo

"When you're rolling down the runway, the pilot normally is looking straight ahead," she said. "Something made me turn my head to the right momentarily, and when I did that there was an American flag. It was draped between Terminal A and Terminal C. It was the most massive thing I've ever seen.

"That was when I cried," Bass said.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

COMING FRIDAY: The third and final installment of Beverley Bass' story recounts how a new Broadway musical, "Come From Away," pays homage to her love of aviation and the dramatic events in Gander.