Pioneering pilot Beverly Bass has had the rare experience of watching someone portray a part of her life onstage. She's an inspiration for one of the characters in "Come From Away," the Broadway musical about kindness and community that lands Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.
"The first time I saw the show, I was gasping for air," Bass said. "The song, 'Me and the Sky,' chronicles my aviation life in 4 minutes and 19 seconds. I feel honored that they play me so magnificently."
If it gave Bass chills to see herself depicted by a live performer, one of the actors playing her got the willies.
"The first time she saw me do it was in the rehearsal room," said Becky Gulsvig, the Moorhead, Minn., native who has played Bass on Broadway and is doing so on the national tour. "We had just barely learned the show — it's like Jenga and pickup sticks and scrambled eggs all at once. And Bev and Tom, her husband, were sitting right there. My character rolls out her chair, picks up the phone and talks to Tom, and as I do it, Tom was 3 feet from me. I was just trying to survive."
Set in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "Come From Away" is about the 38 planes diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after U.S. airspace was shut down. Those planes brought nearly 7,000 passengers and crew members to a town with a population that was only slightly bigger.
Bass was overseeing one of those flights, a 10-hour trip from Paris to Dallas, Texas. She was instructing a student on the operation of the Boeing 777.
"We were over the middle of the North Atlantic — we didn't know any details," Bass recalled. "As we approached the Canadian coast, we knew all the airspace was closed. When you're ordered to land, we don't care what concrete we land on, we just want to put her down."
Her plane was the 36th out of 38 civilian jumbo jets to touch down at an airport that was a former military base. They sat on the plane for 28 hours before deplaning the next morning.
The Tony-winning musical, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, celebrates the cultural collision and acts of generosity as Gander becomes a mini-United Nations. The town sprang into action.
"As soon as we got off the airplane — it was 7:30 — we walked into the terminal and they were lined with tables and tables of hot food," Bass recalled. "That tells you that every stove in Gander was on all night. They made enough food to feed 7,000 people. Boy, we landed in a special place."
Even before becoming an important thread in a Broadway musical, Bass had a claim to history. In 1986, she became the first female captain at American Airlines. She was 34.
"I didn't set out to make history — I was just a stubborn child who wanted to fly airplanes," Bass said. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated with the theory of flight."
When Bass was growing up in Fort Myers, Fla., her neighbors had a statue of Icarus, the figure of Greek myth who flew too close to the sun.
"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, he gets to fly,' " Bass recalled. "So I went back home, climbed up on the washing machine, which was in our kitchen, and tried to fly across the room. I ended up in a heap on the kitchen floor."
At age 8 or so, she begged everybody she could to take her to the local airport so she could watch takeoffs and landings.
"In those days you could stand right next to the runway," Bass said. "I would watch those pilots land and thought, 'Omigod, they had the coolest jobs.' "
Bass enrolled at Texas Christian University in 1970, three years before Frontier Airlines hired Emily Howell Warner as the first female airline pilot.
Bass has been in the skies ever since. It's not uncommon to see women flying planes today, but stereotypes still persist.
"People expect to see a handsome man with gray hair at the controls of the airplane," Bass said. "In my era, the flight attendants were so supportive. They loved having the women pilots. But the business executives didn't like it, and they used their wives as an excuse. But once I got hired by American, we were treated very fairly. They were very proud of their female pilots and loved to promote us."
Bass piloted four different jets for American, flying all over the world. She became an instructor on the Boeing 777, the largest twin engine jet, before taking early retirement 14 years ago during one of the periodic crises that buffet the airline industry.
In March, she turns 70. She still flies corporate jets. She also flies to keep getting those chills. She has seen productions of "Come From Away" in London, Toronto and New York and on the road.
"I'm pretty used to it now having seen the show 166 times," Bass said, adding that she has become friends with the actors who portray her. "I'm so proud of them. I can't sing and I can't dance."
That would be among Gulsvig's specialties.
"It's always a thrill to represent a strong woman's story," said Gulsvig, who also played songwriter Cynthia Weil in the Carole King musical "Beautiful."
"This is my favorite show that I've been a part of, not just because I love playing Bev and others but it's being a part of the show as a whole. I love that it is a story about kindness, that it's true and inspires people to be better. It's theater for all the right reasons."
'Come From Away'
Who: Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley.
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Jan. 23.
Protocol: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test.
Tickets: $40-$146. 1-800-982-2787 or hennepintheatretrust.org.