Take United 93 Down!
U.S. Air Force Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was a rookie in the fall of 2001, the first female F-16 pilot ever at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the District of Columbia Air National Guard 113th Wing located at Joint Base Andrews, Camp Springs, Maryland. She had grown up smelling jet fuel, as her father, retired U.S. Air Force Col. John Penney, was a veteran air racer who flew jets in Vietnam and was a flight captain with United Airlines at the time. She got her pilot’s license when she was a literature major at Purdue. She planned to be a teacher. But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened air combat aviation to women and Penney was nearly first in line. “I signed up immediately,” Penney says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Penney and others from her squadron had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada. They were sitting at a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When it happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cesna. Word slowly filtered in that it was not a small private plane, but two commercial airplanes that had slammed into the Twin Towers in New York; then, that a third plane had flown into the Pentagon; and finally, that a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, was heading toward Washington, D.C. to possibly take out the Congress or the White House.
Penney and her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville, were ordered to stop United Airlines Flight 93 from reaching the nation’s capital and hitting its intended target. But there was no time to arm their F-16s, which had only dummy training ammo on board – no incendiary high-explosive bullets and no missiles. They were flying the only missiles they had.
She and Col. Marc Sasseville made a desperate pact – they would be kamikaze pilots, on a suicide mission, to stop Flight 93 from hitting Washington at any cost.
He planned to strike the plane’s cockpit. Without batting an eye, the petite, blonde, 25-year old Penney, one of the Air Force’s first female fighter pilots – and who had never “scrambled” a jet fighter before – replied, “I’ll take [down] the tail.”
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down – we would be ramming the aircraft, because we didn’t have weapons on board,” Penney said in an interview with the Washington Post. She added, “I gave some thought to whether I would have time to eject, but I had to be sure. You only get one chance. You don’t want to eject and then miss. You have to stick with it the whole way.”
What made her mission more terrifying was her knowledge that her father was a flight captain for United Airlines at the time, flying an East Coast rotation that could have included Flight 93. It turns out that her father had been piloting United 93 earlier in the day but had gotten off at Boston, something she had no way of knowing at the time.
On that cool, clear morning, Penney jammed the throttle of her unarmed F-16 fighter jet at Andrews Air Force Base into a roaring “scramble” takeoff, skipping the normal half-hour pre-flight, knowing that if her mission was successful, she would not be coming back.
But none of her thousands of hours in the air quite compared with the urgent rush of launching on what was meant to be a one-way flight to a midair collision.
“It was so surreal because the air space was so quiet,” she recalled. “I really didn’t have much emotion or time to reflect that day because I was focused on getting the job done, but there was significant adrenalin.” She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer – “God, don’t let me f**k up” – and followed her commander into the sky under full military take-off power, afterburners scorching their trail. Their flight path from Andrews took them over the Pentagon, still billowing smoke as service members and employees and rescue personnel desperately worked to contain the blaze and save lives.
What she and Sasseville didn’t know it at the time, Flight 93 had already crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. She didn’t have to take out an airliner full of innocent civilians, the hostages on board were willing to do just what the two Guard pilots had been willing to do: give their lives for their country.
Her mission soon changed to helping clear and establish a defensive cap over Washington’s airspace and escorting Air Force One, with then-President George W. Bush aboard, to Andrews Air Force Base.
Their lives were spared, but many were lost, including that of a family friend.
One of John Penney’s best work buddies and cubicle mate back at United’s pilot training center, Captain Jason Dahl, was the pilot of United 93 that fateful morning.
Had the passengers of that plane not overcome the terrorists and taken it down in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, “Lucky” would have died killing one of her father’s closest friends, among others.
“It would have been utterly devastating for my wife and me,” John Penney told the Post. “With Jason on the plane, it would have been an additional level of grief. But there were thousands of families that learned about the loss of their loved ones that day.”
When Lt. “Lucky” Penney thinks about her role on Sept. 11 and how it will be remembered, she said she hoped media attention on the attacks won’t make Americans fearful of the future.
“We saw so much of the best of ourselves come out that day, with strangers helping strangers and many courageous acts,” she said. “We remembered something more important than ourselves, and that was the community to which we belonged.”
In the time since that clear blue morning, Penney said, “I’ve come to realize that heroism isn’t something unique or possessed by only a chosen few. That courage is there inside of each and every one of us. In the normal, perfectly average people that helped each other in the moments before the towers fell. The first responders. Neighbors and strangers coming together and lifting each other up. Those who sacrificed to undertake the dangerous and difficult task of cleaning up and rebuilding. How, in defiance of those who would threaten our way of life, how we all got up that next morning and went on.”
Penney, a single mother of two girls, works at Lockheed Martin as a director in the F-35 program. She is now a major and 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 (C-38), pursuing a second master’s degree.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history.”
-Heather “Lucky” Penney