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On 9/11, Heather Penney Tried to Bring Down Flight 93

On 9/11, Heather Penney Tried to Bring Down Flight 93



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September 11, 2001 was supposed to be a typical day for Lieutenant Heather Penney of the District of Columbia Air National Guard. As Penney recalled in a 2016 interview with HISTORY, that morning she was attending a briefing at Andrews Air Force Base, planning the month’s training operations. At about 8:45 a.m., someone leaned into the room and said, “Hey, somebody just flew into the World Trade Center.”

First Lieutenant Heather “Lucky” Penney had graduated from Purdue University, majoring in literature. She’d planned on being a teacher. When Congress opened up combat aviation to women, Penney immediately signed up. She wanted to be a fighter pilot like her dad, John Penney, a retired Air Force colonel who had flown combat missions in Vietnam and was now a commercial pilot for United Airlines. After her training, she was assigned to the 121st fighter squadron of the Air National Guard.

The morning of September 11th

The weather in New York City that day was very clear with blue skies. "We thought it was a small general aviation airplane or, you know, some small aircraft that maybe had...messed up their instrument approach," Penney recalled. It was assumed that a general aviation plane had made a terrible mistake, and they went back to their meeting.

Within a few minutes, there was another knock on the door, and someone said, “Hey, a second plane just hit the World Trade Center.” It was clear: America was under attack. They rushed to a nearby television and saw the burning towers. As Penney said, that was when "we realized that our world had suddenly changed."

READ MORE: September 11: Photos of the Worst Terrorist Attack on U.S. Soil

There was no time to arm their F-16 fighter jets

As confusion enveloped the briefing room, Penney's commanding officer, Colonel Marc "Sass" Sasseville, locked his eyes to hers and said, “Lucky, you’re coming with me.” They scrambled to the pre-flight area and donned their flight suits. There was no time to arm their F-16 fighter jets, so they would be flying this mission virtually unarmed, packing only their undaunted courage.

But what was the mission? Where were they to go? What were they looking for? There were no clear orders as to what to do. Somewhere in the confusion as the pilots got into their flight suits and ran to their planes, the Pentagon was hit by hijacked American Airlines Flight 77. Reports circulated that a fourth plane, United Flight 93 out of Newark, New Jersey, was out there. Air command speculated it was also headed to D.C. for another strike on the Pentagon, or a strike on the White House or the Capitol building.

Normally, preflight preparation for F-16 fighter jets takes a half-hour, allowing pilots to methodically work through a checklist. Being a rookie, Penney’s only combat experience was in training. As they ran out to their planes, she started going through the checklist. Sasseville stopped her and barked, “Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” She quickly climbed into her cockpit. As she powered up the engines, she shouted to the ground crew to pull the chock blocks holding the wheels.

Receiving the go-ahead from flight control, both jets’ afterburners belched out thousands of pounds of thrust as they took off and headed northwest, the last known location of the fourth plane. Word came to them that they had shoot-to-kill orders. Knowing that they had taken off with unarmed aircraft, that could mean only one thing. They would be flying a kamikaze mission, ramming into Flight 93, a Boeing 757 aircraft, nearly 7 times the weight of their F-16 fighter jets. They had agreed upon the plan of attack. Sasseville would head for the 757’s cockpit and Penney would aim for the plane's tail. As they sped out beyond Andrews Air Force Base, flying low at about 3,000 feet, they could see black, billowing smoke streaming from the Pentagon.

READ MORE: Behind the 9/11 White House Order to Shoot Down U.S. Airliners: ‘It Had to be Done’

Heather Penney’s dad might have been the pilot of United Flight 93

Beyond the mission at hand, there wasn’t much else on First Lieutenant Heather Penney’s mind. She had accepted the fate of Flight 93’s passengers, believing whether she succeeded or not, they were going to die. She briefly toyed with the idea of ejecting from her plane just before impact, but quickly dismissed the idea, knowing she had only one shot and didn’t want to miss. It didn’t even cross her mind that there was a possibility the pilot of United Flight 93 was her father, who often flew out of East Coast cities. As it turned out, he wasn’t.

For the next 90 minutes, Penney and Sasseville made ever-increasing sweeps of D.C. airspace, looking for the fourth airliner. "We never found anything," Penney told HISTORY. After about an hour into their mission, Penney and Sasseville heard that the Flight 93 had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Passengers on the flight had heroically prevented the hijackers from reaching their target.

Now the mission changed from intercept to sanitizing the airspace. Not every aircraft aloft that morning was aware the FAA had ordered a national ban on takeoffs of all civilian aircraft regardless of destination. With the assistance of civilian air traffic controllers, Penney and Sasseville began to divert any aircraft away from the D.C. area and ordered them to land as soon as they could. They also identified the first-responding aircraft assisting the rescue at the Pentagon.

Penney and other pilots were instructed to guard the President of the United States as he flew home

At the time of the attacks, President George W. Bush was attending an elementary school event in Sarasota, Florida. When he was told a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and the country was under attack, he was escorted back to Air Force One and taken to the safest place at that moment, the open skies.

Now, in the evening hours, it was time to bring the president home. Penney's plane and the others patrolling the skies around Washington, D.C. had been equipped with live ammunition. They were also given “free-fire” authority, meaning pilots could make the decision to fire on any civilian aircraft deemed to be a threat, instead of waiting for authorization. Several hours after the initial attack, it was still unclear whether more attacks were pending.

Heather Penney was promoted to Major and served two tours in Iraq

Since that day, Heather Penney served two tours in Iraq, was promoted to Major, retired and currently works for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company. She has had time to reflect on her experience on September 11, 2001—and the bravery of the passengers on Flight 93.

"I made a decision with my life and I swore an oath to protect and defend, but these were just average, everyday people, mothers, fathers, school teachers, businessmen," Penney told HISTORY. "They're true heroes."

WATCH: 9/11: Inside Air Force One on HISTORY Vault


How F-16 Fighter Pilot Tried To Stop 9/11 By Sacrificing Her Own Life

On this day, Fifteen years ago, the world was changed in the most unimaginable way. The United States and the Western World as we know it was devastated when 2,996 people were killed in the most shocking terrorist attack in world history.

It always hard to look past the brutality and barbarianism of the heartbreaking events of September 11, 2001. But we must recognize the thousands of normal people – who, amidst the horror, surpassed their line of duty and did everything possible to save as many people as they could.

This is the story of one of 9/11’s most inspirational heroes – Lt. Heather Penney, an F-16 fighter pilot.

Lt. Heather Penney. /Facebook

The Washington Post reports that “when the news broke that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center, Lt. Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base and ready to fly. She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93. The fourth hijacked airliner which was heading towards Washington.”

Time was of the essence and if Penney didn’t act fast, another horrific atrocity could soon be making headlines.

She was told to stop it, so she roared into the sky. But she had a problem. Penney wasn’t equipped with any missiles, live ammunition, or anything at all that she could use to take down the hostile aircraft – except her own plane.

According to Central Command, all the fighter jets in the nearby area had been on a training mission just days earlier and were still loaded with dummy bullets and as unbelievable as it probably sounds today, nobody at all was prepared for any sort of homeland attack.

Somebody had to leave immediately. So Penney and her commanding officer headed up into the sky to crash their own jets into the approaching Boeing 757.

Commanding Officer Sasseville, planned to fly his jet into the cockpit of Flight 93, while Penney, who had never even scrambled a jet before, would take the tail.

Despite keeping her silence for years, a few years back Penney spoke with CSPAN about her mission.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

But after the attack on the World Trade Centre and the attack on the Pentagon word soon spread to the passengers on Flight 93, they began to realize what was about to happen next. At 09:57 they decided that they would revolt against the hijackers.

Using a food cart as a battering ram the passengers of Flight 93 attacked the cockpit. Although it is not known whether they managed to get into the cockpit or not, their actions, without a doubt, disrupted the hijackers’ plans.

At 10:03:11 in a green field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Flight 93 crashed, killing everybody on board.

Lt. Penney said: “I am not a hero. The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history.”

On this, the 15th anniversary of one of the darkest days to ever painfully scorch our history with terror, let us remember all those who died, all those who were injured, and all those who were affected in any way, shape, or form, by this terrible event.


Major Heather Penney & Her “Kamikaze Mission” Sept. 11, 2001



One of the many stories of American patriotism, acts of heroism – duty & honor on Sept. 11, 2001. These F–16 pilots & warriors were prepared to smash their planes into Flight 93 like kamikazes. God Bless the USAF – God Bless the United States.

F-16 pilot Heather Penney explains the actions she and her fellow NG pilots took in the initial response to the 911 attacks. She and her flight leader Col. Sasseville had to take off without AIM Missiles on board because there was not time to have them brought over from the arms depot some distance away. Shortly thereafter two other pilots from the squadron did take off fully armed with the air to air Sidewinder missiles.

F–16 Pilot Major Heather Penney on 9–11

When a group of fighter pilots in Washington, D.C., were told a plane had struck the World Trade Center, they assumed it was an inexperienced pilot in a Cessna.

But as the rest of 9/11 unfolded, the pilots realized it was their turn to act.
Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney was one of them, a young blonde in her 20s so enamoured with flying that jet fuel practically coursed through her veins.

Her father John, also an avid pilot, flew in Vietnam, and she was following in his footsteps.

Miss Penney is now the director of the F–35 program at Lockheed Martin and part-time National Guard pilot who has not lost her passion for flying.

But 10 years ago, she was one of the first rookie female fighter pilots, who signed up as soon as she heard the news that combat aviation was being opened to women.


On the morning of September 11, she was first again, this time for a task involving a fourth hijacked plane on a course for Washington, and possibly others.

Her mission: Find United Flight 93 – and destroy it however she could.

But in a fighter jet absent of missiles and packed only with dummy ammunition from a recent training mission, there was only one way to do it.

‘We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,’ Penney recalled in an interview with the Washington Post. ‘I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.’

Back then, there were no armed F–16s at the ready at Andrews Air Force Base, and it would take nearly an hour to get them armed. There was no time.

Combat jets needed to be in the air to protect Washington, and they had to get there immediately.

‘Lucky, you’re coming with me,’ Colonel Marc Sasseville shouted.
Mr Sasseville, who is now stationed at the Pentagon, said: ‘We don’t train to bring down airliners. If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.’

He admitted he thought about the possibility of utilizing his ejection seat to bail out just before striking the jet.

But Miss Penney said it was of much greater concern to eject from her plane and risk missing the target and fail the mission, even if it saved her life.

Sass, as Miss Penney called him, said he would take out the cockpit. She would take the tail.

She said: ‘I knew that if I took off the tail of the aircraft, it would essentially go straight down and so the pattern of debris would be minimized.’

Ditching the usual pre-flight preparations, she shot into the sky, following Sass at speeds of 400 mph.

The jets passed over the ravaged Pentagon, flying low and scouring the sky.
It wasn’t until hours later that they would find out United 93 had already gone down in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

But that didn’t mean their job was done, as Miss Penney spent the remainder of that day in the air, clearing airspace and escorting the president as he flew in Air Force One. After the mission, Miss Penney went on to become a major and fly two tours of duty in Iraq.

Now a mother of two, she didn’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11 – a group of courageous passengers did instead.

She said: ‘The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history.’


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Her mission: Find United Flight 93 – and destroy it however she could.

But in a fighter jet absent of missiles and packed only with dummy ammunition from a recent training mission, there was only one way to do it.

‘We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,’ Penney recalled in an interview with the Washington Post. ‘I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.'

Back then, there were no armed F-16s at the ready at Andrews Air Force Base, and it would take nearly an hour to get them armed. There was no time.

Combat jets needed to be in the air to protect Washington, and they had to get there immediately.

'Lucky': Penney signed up to be a combat pilot as soon as she learned the opportunity was being offered to women

Keeping the skies safe: Heather Penney spent the remainder of September 11 in the air, piloting an F-16 like this one, seen escorting the president in Air Force One

'Lucky, you’re coming with me,' Colonel Marc Sasseville shouted.

Mr Sasseville, who is now stationed at the Pentagon, said: 'We don’t train to bring down airliners. If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.'

'Heroes': United Flight 93 crashed in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 during a passenger revolt to take the plane back from terrorists

He admitted he thought about the possibility of utilizing his ejection seat to bail out just before striking the jet.

But Miss Penney said it was of much greater concern to eject from her plane and risk missing the target and fail the mission, even if it saved her life.

Sass, as Miss Penney called him, said he would take out the cockpit. She would take the tail.

She said: ‘I knew that if I took off the tail of the aircraft, it would essentially go straight down and so the pattern of debris would be minimized.'

Ditching the usual pre-flight preparations, she shot into the sky, following Sass at speeds of 400 mph.

The jets passed over the ravaged Pentagon, flying low and scouring the sky.

It wasn’t until hours later that they would find out United 93 had already gone down in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

But that didn't mean their job was done, as Miss Penney spent the remainder of that day in the air, clearing airspace and escorting the president as he flew in Air Force One.

After the mission, Miss Penney went on to become a major and fly two tours of duty in Iraq.

Now a mother of two, she didn’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11 – a group of courageous passengers did instead.

She said: 'The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history.'

10 years later: Heather Penney is now a mother of two who hasn't lost her passion for flying


  • On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked with two being flown into the Twin Towers in New York and a third into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
  • A fourth plane was known to be hijacked and also thought to be heading to D.C.
  • A group of F-16 pilots were scrambled to intercept the jet and bring it down
  • But the planes were not armed with any type of weapons - their only option was to ram into the hijacked plane and make it crash
  • In the end, the pilots never even got close to the aircraft after United Flight 93 was brought down by the passengers on board the airplane
  • The pilots have told of how the country was unprepared for a surprised attack

Published: 01:26 BST, 6 September 2019 | Updated: 14:16 BST, 6 September 2019

Dick Cheney gave the go-ahead for the interception to take place to Commander Anthony Barnes, pictured, who was liaising directly between the Vice-President and the Pentagon

A Navy Commander has spoken for the first time about a phone call he made on 9/11 to then Vice-President Dick Cheney to gain the authority to shoot down a commercial aircraft.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked by Al-Qaeda militants who used them to topple the World Trade Center's twin towers and hit the Pentagon. Flight 93 was the fourth plane.

During the chaos of the morning, the only plane in the sky appeared to be a United 757 heading directly for the nation's capital.

Worried for the safety of those on the ground, F-16 fighters were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland under direct orders from the Vice-President to bring the plane down, United 93, at all costs.

Dick Cheney gave the go-ahead for the interception to take place to Commander Anthony Barnes who was liaising directly between the Vice-President and the Pentagon.

'Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren't part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn't have any choice. It wasn't a close call,' then Vice-President Dick Cheney said

Vice-President Dick Cheney is pictured watching the events of September 11th unfold

'I asked the vice president for permission to shoot down an identified hijacked commercial aircraft that question and he answered it in the affirmative. I asked again to be sure. 'Sir, I am confirming that you have given permission?' For me, being a military member and an aviator—understanding the absolute depth of what that question was and what that answer was—I wanted to make sure that there was no mistake whatsoever about what was being asked. Without hesitation, in the affirmative, he said any confirmed hijacked airplane may be engaged and shot down.

Commander Barnes startling phone call is detailed in a new book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.

He continues: 'I knew, without a doubt in my mind, that that was a historical precedent—that never before had we given permission to shoot down a commercial airliner. I got back on the phone—it was a general of some sort in the Pentagon—and on that secure line I was talking on, made sure that he understood that I had posed the question to the National Authority [the vice president] and the answer was in the affirmative. We made sure that we did not stutter or stumble because the emotion at that point was very, very high. Fortunately we didn't have to use that authority.

'Once the plane became hijacked—even if it had a load of passengers on board who, obviously, weren't part of any hijacking attempt—having seen what had happened in New York and the Pentagon, you really didn't have any choice. It wasn't a close call,' then Vice-President Cheney said.

He continued: 'As bad as the events of 9/11 were, some of us had practiced exercises for far more dangerous and difficult circumstances—an all-out Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. That helped—that training kicked in that morning.'


Heather Penney, Female Fighter Pilot, Tells of Her Would-Be Kamikaze Mission on 9/11

Everyone has a 9/11 story, and each is important in its own way, but the story of Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the first generation of U.S. female combat pilots, comes with a special kind of bravery and doing what you need to do in the face of unprecedented tragedy and danger. Penney, a rookie at the time and one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning — a woman who “wanted to be a fighter pilot like [her] dad” — had been ordered to bring down United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth plane to be hijacked that day, to prevent it from reaching Washington.

Penney gave no interviews about her experience on 9/11, until this year. The Washington Post has her story.

There was no time to arm a plane, so she had no ammunition or missiles, and wouldn’t be shooting down the plane at all but instead,

“We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.

Things, for the record, have now changed, with armed fighter planes ready at all times in case of necessity. But at the time, things were different.

Her commander, Col. Marc Sasseville, said he was hoping at the time that he might be able to eject in the instant before impact — “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping” — while Penney was concerned that if she bailed she’d miss the target, and genuinely believed that this would be her last mission.

In the end, we all know what happened — United 93 went down in Pennsylvania after the people aboard fought back against their hijackers. For the rest of the day, Penney and Sasseville cleared airspace and escorted the president on Air Force One back into Washington.

“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”

Now, she has two daughters, and, per the Post, “she still loves to fly.”

In another story of heroism in the face of unanticipated danger, Jalopnik tells of Ben Sliney, the chief of FAA air-traffic-control operations in Hernon, Virginia, who ordered more than 4,000 planes grounded on September 11 and redirected those in the sky — all on his first day on the job.


F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11

WASHINGTON — Late in the morning of the Tuesday that changed everything, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base and ready to fly. She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93. The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything at all to throw at a hostile aircraft.

Except her own plane. So that was the plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

For years, Penney, one of the first generation of female combat pilots in the country, gave no interviews about her experiences on Sept. 11 (which included, eventually, escorting Air Force One back into Washington’s suddenly highly restricted airspace).

But 10 years later, she is reflecting on one of the lesser-told tales of that endlessly examined morning: how the first counterpunch the U.S. military prepared to throw at the attackers was effectively a suicide mission.

“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.

Penney, now a major but still a petite blonde with a Colgate grin, is no longer a combat flier. She flew two tours in Iraq and she serves as a part-time National Guard pilot, mostly hauling VIPs around in a military Gulfstream. She takes the stick of her own vintage 1941 Taylorcraft tail-dragger whenever she can.

But none of her thousands of hours in the air quite compare with the urgent rush of launching on what was supposed to be a one-way flight to a midair collision.

She was a rookie in the autumn of 2001, the first female F-16 pilot they’d ever had at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. She had grown up smelling jet fuel. Her father flew jets in Vietnam and still races them. Penney got her pilot’s licence when she was a literature major at Purdue. She planned to be a teacher. But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened up combat aviation to women.

“I signed up immediately,” Penney says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”

On that Tuesday, they had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada. They were sitting around a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. When it happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cessna. When it happened again, they knew it was war.

But the surprise was complete. In the monumental confusion of those first hours, it was impossible to get clear orders. Nothing was ready. The jets were still equipped with dummy bullets from the training mission.

As remarkable as it seems now, there were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington. Before that morning, all eyes were looking outward, still scanning the old Cold War threat paths for planes and missiles coming over the polar ice cap.

“There was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that,” says Col. George Degnon, vice commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews. “It was a little bit of a helpless feeling, but we did everything humanly possible to get the aircraft armed and in the air. It was amazing to see people react.”

Things are different today, ­Degnon says. At least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, their pilots never more than yards from the cockpit.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane could be on the way, maybe more. The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked Col. Marc Sasseville.

They were gearing up in the pre-flight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating.

Penney had never scrambled a jet before. Normally the pre-flight is a half-hour or so of methodical checks. She automatically started going down the list.

“Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted.

She climbed in, rushed to power up the engines, screamed for her ground crew to pull the chocks. The crew chief still had his headphones plugged into the fuselage as she nudged the throttle forward. He ran along pulling safety pins from the jet as it moved forward.

She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer — “God, don’t let me [expletive] up” — and followed Sasse­ville into the sky.

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon. Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?

“I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he says. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out.

“If you eject and your jet soars through without impact . . . ” she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

But she didn’t have to die. She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of kids and salesmen and girlfriends. They did that themselves.

It would be hours before Penney and Sasseville learned that United 93 had already gone down in Pennsylvania, an insurrection by hostages willing to do just what the two Guard pilots had been willing to do: Anything. And everything.

“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”

She and Sasseville flew the rest of the day, clearing the airspace, escorting the president, looking down onto a city that would soon be sending them to war.

Later, as the Penney family checked in on each other from around the country, they marveled at the other fateful twist on the extraordinary events: the possibility that Penney’s own father could well have been in the cockpit of her airliner target.

John Penney was a captain at United Airlines at the time. He had been flying East Coasts routes all the previous month. The daughter had no way of knowing whether the father was airborne or not.

“We talked about the possibility that I could have been on the plane,” Col. John Penney said. “She knew I was flying that kind of rotation. But we never fell down and emotionally broke apart or anything like that. She’s a fighter pilot I’m a fighter pilot.”

Penney is a single mom of two girls now. She still loves to fly. And she still thinks often of that extraordinary ride down the runway a decade ago.

“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she says. “If we did it right, this would be it.”


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6 Comments

If this is really true, I’m troubled by the thought that it was considered acceptable to kill a plane load of passengers to save other people whose lives and souls are equally important even though they may have more important titles and positions in this country.

@BMG, interesting point. However, if this plane wouldn’t have been stopped and had reached its target … the people inside the plane would have died as well. The planes crashing into WTC not only killed people in the towers but also in the planes.
Nevertheless, the decision to bring down a commercial airliner full of innocent people … is one that should not be made too easily.

@BMG I’m not sure it is about considering things acceptable. We were in an emergency situation where risks and benefits had to be weighed – like D-Day. The leadership as well as the soldiers knew that it would take deaths to preserve ultimate life and preservation of democracy. The plane over PA was headed to DC. The goal was to destroy this country. These navigators were patriots. They were trying to defend this country at its core. I honor them. I can’t think anyone took the decision lightly.

America’s Armed Services = Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Thankfully 93 never reached DC and these pilots didn’t have to carry out a horrible option.

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The incredible story of the F-16 pilot who was ready to give her life on September 11

Originally published Sept. 8, 2011.

W ASHINGTON — Late in the morning of the Tuesday that changed everything, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base and ready to fly. She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93. The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything at all to throw at a hostile aircraft.

Except her own plane. So that was the plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

For years, Penney, one of the first generation of female combat pilots in the country, gave no interviews about her experiences on Sept. 11 (which included, eventually, escorting Air Force One back into Washington’s suddenly highly restricted airspace).

But 10 years later, she is reflecting on one of the lesser-told tales of that endlessly examined morning: how the first counterpunch the U.S. military prepared to throw at the attackers was effectively a suicide mission.

“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.

Penney, now a major but still a petite blonde with a Colgate grin, is no longer a combat flier. She flew two tours in Iraq and she serves as a part-time National Guard pilot, mostly hauling VIPs around in a military Gulfstream. She takes the stick of her own vintage 1941 Taylorcraft tail-dragger whenever she can.

But none of her thousands of hours in the air quite compare with the urgent rush of launching on what was supposed to be a one-way flight to a midair collision.

S he was a rookie in the autumn of 2001, the first female F-16 pilot they’d ever had at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. She had grown up smelling jet fuel. Her father flew jets in Vietnam and still races them. Penney got her pilot’s licence when she was a literature major at Purdue. She planned to be a teacher. But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened up combat aviation to women.

“I signed up immediately,” Penney says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”

On that Tuesday, they had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada. They were sitting around a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. When it happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cessna. When it happened again, they knew it was war.

But the surprise was complete. In the monumental confusion of those first hours, it was impossible to get clear orders. Nothing was ready. The jets were still equipped with dummy bullets from the training mission.

As remarkable as it seems now, there were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington. Before that morning, all eyes were looking outward, still scanning the old Cold War threat paths for planes and missiles coming over the polar ice cap.

“There was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that,” says Col. George Degnon, vice commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews. “It was a little bit of a helpless feeling, but we did everything humanly possible to get the aircraft armed and in the air. It was amazing to see people react.”

Things are different today, ­Degnon says. At least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, their pilots never more than yards from the cockpit.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane could be on the way, maybe more. The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked Col. Marc Sasseville.

They were gearing up in the pre-flight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating.

Penney had never scrambled a jet before. Normally the pre-flight is a half-hour or so of methodical checks. She automatically started going down the list.

“Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted.

She climbed in, rushed to power up the engines, screamed for her ground crew to pull the chocks. The crew chief still had his headphones plugged into the fuselage as she nudged the throttle forward. He ran along pulling safety pins from the jet as it moved forward.

She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer — “God, don’t let me [expletive] up” — and followed Sasse­ville into the sky.

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon. Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?

“I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he says. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out.

“If you eject and your jet soars through without impact . . .” she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

But she didn’t have to die. She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of kids and salesmen and girlfriends. They did that themselves.

It would be hours before Penney and Sasseville learned that United 93 had already gone down in Pennsylvania, an insurrection by hostages willing to do just what the two Guard pilots had been willing to do: Anything. And everything.

“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”

She and Sasseville flew the rest of the day, clearing the airspace, escorting the president, looking down onto a city that would soon be sending them to war.

Later, as the Penney family checked in on each other from around the country, they marveled at the other fateful twist on the extraordinary events: the possibility that Penney’s own father could well have been in the cockpit of her airliner target.

John Penney was a captain at United Airlines at the time. He had been flying East Coasts routes all the previous month. The daughter had no way of knowing whether the father was airborne or not.

“We talked about the possibility that I could have been on the plane,” Col. John Penney said. “She knew I was flying that kind of rotation. But we never fell down and emotionally broke apart or anything like that. She’s a fighter pilot I’m a fighter pilot.”

Penney is a single mom of two girls now. She still loves to fly. And she still thinks often of that extraordinary ride down the runway a decade ago.

“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she says. “If we did it right, this would be it.”

For full coverage of the 15th Anniversary of Sept. 11, visit www.washingtonpost.com

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team. Follow @SBHendrix


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