APHA
Chrome Feature

Me & The Sky

Beverley Bass’ tenacity propelled her into the wild blue yonder.

By Alison Foster

 

For as long as she can remember, Beverley Bass has been entranced by the sensations of flying—by the guttural roar of the engines, the rollercoaster punch of acceleration on a runway, the tranquility of a jet-black horizon, and the elation of being suspended between the possibilities of the stars and the comfort of earth.

Her passion started at a young age; her mother liked to say that even in the stroller, Beverley would kick her legs and cry out with joy when a plane flew overhead. At just 4 years old, Beverley remembers dreaming about taking wing, free to explore the heavens above.

“I would pick up my neighbor’s statue of Icarus, the Greek god whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, and stare at it. Turning it around in my little hands, I desperately tried to figure out how I, too, could sprout wings and fly away,” she said.

Beverley repeatedly proved her sincere commitment to flying as she leapt off her mother’s washing machine, landing in a heap on the floor.

At age 8, after reluctantly accepting the impossibility of growing wings, Beverley turned her focus to airplanes and the freedom and power the huge jets embodied.

“At 9 every night, I would beg my aunt to take me to the airport where we lived in Ft. Myers, Florida. We would park close to the runway and watch for the single jet to come in. I would wait breathlessly for the landing lights to turn on and would watch it, utterly entranced, from way up in the sky until it touched down,” Beverley said. “I thought that flying planes must be the coolest job in the whole world, and I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful. And, as it turned out, I was fortunate enough to live that life.”

Just a few years later, Beverley would pilot her dream down the runway of life and fly her first plane. Like Icarus, she found herself defying gravity, soaring close to the sun’s rays. But rather than melting wax, Beverley looked out the cockpit window to see the sun gleaming off metal wings. She knew with absolute certainty that this was her calling. Her journey to the azure expanse of sky would be a difficult one, weighed down by thorny realities and leaden roadblocks, but Beverley was undaunted.

Raised in sunny South Florida, Beverley grew up in the horse business, working alongside her mother and father as they raised, trained and showed Quarter Horses.

“I did everything from showmanship to speed [events],” she recalled. “It is embarrassing to admit now, but my family had this custom-built, front-load three-horse trailer that we pulled with a Pontiac Bonneville—both car and trailer were vivid lavender. I would walk out of high school, and my parents would be waiting in their jaw-dropping rig to take me to the horse show. It was wonderful, and—as my dad had hoped—the horses kept me distracted from any wayward choices I might have made during my teenage years.”

Inevitably, a life showing horses began to conflict with the young woman’s burgeoning love of flying.

“I started begging for flying lessons at 16, but my dad wouldn’t let me because he didn’t want me to lose interest in horses,” Beverley said. When she left for college, however, and her family sold their ranch, her desire to fly became undeniable. “I took my first flying lesson the summer after my freshman year at Texas Christian University; afterward I told my parents I would fly for the rest of my life.”

After that first tantalizing lesson, flying became more than a hobby—it was a way of life. Though she didn’t vocalize it to many people, Beverley was determined to become a commercial airline pilot—a career path wrought with obstacles and odds stacked against her. In 1971, when Beverley struck out to look for her first paying job, there were no female airline pilots in the United States. She had no role models, no mentors, no established routes to pursue her dream. Instead, she would have to rely solely on her tenacity, determination and passion for flying to propel her into the sky.

During college, Beverley would race from class to the airport to gain experience in the cockpit, but she found it nearly impossible to obtain a job flying corporate jets. She was told, “We just can’t have a female pilot flying our executives. What would their wives think?”

It was Lynn Stiles, a mortician in Fort Worth, Texas, who finally gave Beverley her break.

“Lynn needed someone to fly the body of a girl who had overdosed to her family in Arkansas, and I was the only pilot around,” Beverley said. “I wanted to fly so badly that for the next two years I would literally climb over the corpse I was flying to get to my seat in the plane. I was just 20 years old, and the pay was a mere $5 an hour.”

Over the next five years, Beverley began to establish her foothold in the airline industry. She was a flight instructor, chief pilot of a charter department, flying for two corporations and a late-night freight pilot.

“I just love every single thing about flying: The feeling of take-off, the excitement of an open sky, the sound of the engines, even the smell of the jet fuel and the airport,” she said. “When you line up on the runway and you start pushing the throttles up, you can literally feel it in your stomach: the vibration, the roar, the rumbling. It’s such an awesome feeling and responsibility, and that feeling never goes away, no matter how many times you do it. I love it all, and it is that love that kept pushing me forward toward my dream.”

But there was still something missing. In 1976, Beverley rallied her gumption and applied for an American Airlines pilot position.

“I wanted to fly the biggest and fanciest airplanes. I still remember filling out my application and desperately not wanting to check that box next to ‘Female.’ I remember thinking, ‘Maybe they won’t notice I’m a girl,” she said. Against all odds, Beverley got an interview with the airline giant, and in it she tried to alleviate the airline’s concerns about female longevity. “I remember emphatically telling them that I had no intention of getting married and having children. I assured them that I was here for the long haul, and I had every intention of flying the largest airplane in their fleet.”

A few weeks later, Beverley got the call that she had been hired. In that moment, she burst through the glass ceiling and into the sky, becoming only the third female pilot hired by American Airlines and the 17th woman flying for a commercial airline in the United States.

Despite these achievements, Beverley never thought of herself as a trailblazer. She simply loved flying and was willing to do whatever necessary to be in the cockpit.

“I have never really thought of myself as a pioneer,” she said. “I was raised without gender barriers. On Friday night, my dad would take me hunting in the Everglades on horseback, and on Saturday morning, my mom would take me to a fashion show. My parents taught me that I could do anything, that no dream was too big so long as I was willing to work hard to achieve it. I wasn’t going to listen to the good-ole boys telling me that women couldn’t be pilots. I’m not a quitter, and I certainly wasn’t going to let the disappointments deter me from my dreams.”

Even though she didn’t give gender much of a second thought when she was hired at American, Beverley slowly began to realize her position in the company was somewhat unique.

“It felt very natural to me because I had always worked with men, but what I didn’t realize was that it was not natural for them—almost every cockpit I walked in to, the guys had never flown with a female pilot. There were 3,700 pilots when I was hired by American and three of us were women—we were one half of one percent,” she recalled. “I was an oddity. People would stare as I walked through the airport because they didn’t know female pilots existed. On one occasion, I heard an elderly passenger peek into the cockpit and comment on how she didn’t know the captain had a secretary.”

For the most part, however, Beverley recalls flying for American as being one of the most exciting times of her life. The company had special uniforms made for its female pilots—their white blouses, white ascots and hat brought a touch of femininity to the standard outfit. She found that most of her male counterparts were intrigued, rather than angry or intimidated, that a woman took charge in the cockpit.

“They quickly realized that I didn’t have to look like them to do my job well,” Beverley said.

Wanting to connect with other women like her, Beverley reached out to the handful of other female pilots, and together they started an organization that is still going strong today: The International Society of Women Airline Pilots. The group provides mentorship and scholarship opportunities, awarding more than a million dollars to aspiring female airline pilots over the years.

With American, Beverley surpassed even her wildest dreams. Not only was she a pilot, traversing the skies for a living, but she also became American’s first female captain, had the first all-female crew and was promoted to captain check airman (instructor) in 1988. Over the course of her career, Beverley would uphold the core of the promise she made during her initial interview: She would fly every airplane she wanted to, including the largest in American’s fleet—the brand-new Boeing 777 in 1999.

 

There was one promise to American, however, that Beverley did break. Despite adamantly assuring the airline she never intended to marry or have children, Beverley fell in love with Tom Stawicki, got married in 1989 and had two children in quick succession: Taylor and Paige. She was determined to have it all—a brilliant and successful career, as well as the joys of love and a family.

It was Paige who unexpectedly brought Beverley from the blue skies back to the sienna and chestnut tones of dirt and horses after a 30-year hiatus. For more than a decade, the close-knit mother-daughter duo bonded over Paint Horses, crisscrossing the United States in a truck and trailer rather than by plane. Beverley reveled in the title of “Horse-Show Mom” and at helping her daughter succeed at the APHA World Show and as a varsity equestrian competitor for the University of Georgia.

Not to be outdone, Beverley got back in the saddle herself and, at age 60, heard her name called as a reserve world champion at the 2011 APHA World Championship Show aboard Paige’s longtime Youth mount, HR Zip Me.

“Being there for Paige was one of the joys of my life, and being back in the saddle myself was just so exhilarating!” Beverley said. “I never rode English until I was 60 and I told our trainer, Erica, that I was going to show at the World Show in hunter under saddle. I just thought it looked like so much fun, even though I’m from a thoroughly Western background. I started riding in September, went to two horse shows and then showed at the World Show.”

Beverley was reserve world champion in Masters Amateur Senior Western Pleasure and placed in the Top 10 in Masters Amateur Senior Hunter Under Saddle.

The family sold “Speck” when Paige went off to college, but Beverley has a sneaking suspicion they will be back—she still makes time to connect with her Paint Horse friends at the APHA World Show each year. In the meantime, Paige has also become a pilot.

“It is one of the great honors of my life, that she would want to follow in my footsteps,” Beverley said.

“My mom was an inspiration in so many ways,” Paige said. “She taught me that hard work, rather than just luck, would get me to where I wanted to be in life. I traveled the world with her as a kid, and I just couldn’t imagine ever giving that up. I still remember her flying home from Tokyo, loading my horse up and hitting the road for a horse show; I took that all for granted when I was younger, but now I understand what she went through to haul me all over the country. I appreciate her endless love and support; she’s truly the reason I’m where I am at today.”

While Beverley successfully managed the delicate balancing act of having a career and a family, she admits that being a pilot sometimes put stress on those she loves most. After planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the demanding and sometimes dangerous nature of Beverley’s job hit home, requiring strength and fortitude from her and her family.

“I was flying a [Boeing] 777 from Paris to Dallas, and we were over the middle of the North Atlantic when an airliner came over the radio and said an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. The co-pilot and I were eating lunch; we assumed it was a little airplane. Then about 20 minutes later, they came back on and said a second airplane had hit the second tower, and with that came the word ‘terrorism.’ We knew at that point that something had to be done,” Beverley said.

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This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.

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