What was it like to fly a plane on the day of the 9/11 attacks?

US airspace was closed following the attacks

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Beverley Bass was the pilot of an American Airlines plane heading to Dallas when she heard that the 9/11 attacks had occurred. She tells talkRADIO what the experience was like.

I was flying from Paris to Dallas. I was right over the middle of the north Atlantic.

That day, an airplane that was ahead of us came on and said that one of the World Trade Centers had been hit by an airplane, and like many, we thought it was a small airplane.

About 20 minutes later, they came on that frequency and said that the second tower had been hit.

With that came the words "airliner" and "terrorism". It was at that moment that we knew things were changing rapidly; we heard New York airspace was closed.

Then, most dreaded information we received was that all of the US airspace was closed. That meant that every single airplane that was airborne that day over the US, and those of us that were proceeding to the US, would not be landing there.

For us it meant a diversion to Canada. I was number 36 of 38 [planes] to land in Gander that day.

We were on our airplane for 28 hours. We had flown for seven hours. When we touched down in Gander at 10.15am the morning of 9/11 they said 'You will not be getting off until tomorrow'.

Twenty-one more hours on the ground and we got off at 7.30am the next morning.

Beverley Bass, centre, was informed of the 9/11 attacks whilst in control of an airliner headed to the US

In a three-hour time frame we nearly doubled Gander's population. They had a population of 9,400 and we were nearly 7,000 passengers and crew. We stayed for five days.

We had very little information as we were not seeing the visuals on TV that the rest of the world was seeing. We were insulated from that, and it wasn't until 30 hours after the attack when we got to our motel rooms that we saw the images, and could begin to comprehend what had happened.

You could not imagine that your fellow crew members had their throats slit with box cutters. It was unthinkable.

We didn't have a checklist for that. A routine. We didn't have a plan. It wasn't something we had ever rehearsed or trained for.

I'm not sure it would ever happen on an airplane today because I think that passengers would be so vigilant of anything abnormal. Not to mention that our procedures have changed immensely. We have a lot of things that are not like they were on that day.

A friend of mine was the captain of the plane that went into the Pentagon. I lost a friend.

When I was finally able to talk to my husband late in the afternoon on 9/11 and he read the crew list to me, I couldn't believe it. I had just seen that captain in London the week before.

We were treated beautifully in Gander. It was like we were living in a different world. There were some passengers who did not want to leave.

In the aviation world, we as pilots have what we refer to as the lost decade. It took 10 years after 9/11 for airlines to thrive again. In 2001, the airlines lost $22.1bn.

American Airlines went 10 years without hiring a single pilot.

But I was never going to let the evilness ruin what I had loved my entire life.

When we got back to Dallas, I called American Airlines every single day and said 'I'm ready to fly, I'm ready to go'. They said no, 'We think you should take a few days off'.

I flew for seven more years after 9/11 before I retired. The only reason I retired early was because of the threat of bankruptcy, and our retirement plan was tied to the viability of the airline.

A lot of us went earlier than we would have had 9/11 not occurred.

To listen to the full interview with Beverley Bass, click here.