In September 2001, Heather “Lucky” Penney was a young, inexperienced F-16 pilot with the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. As the first female pilot in her squadron, it was a dream come true; her father had served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, so when Congress opened up combat aviation to women, she was the first in line:
I signed up immediately. I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.
But on that fateful Tuesday morning thirteen years ago, 26-year-old Lt. Penney was called upon to make the greatest sacrifice of her life…bring down United Airlines flight 93, no matter what. Even knowing that the pilot for one of the planes could be her own father, Penney was prepared to take them down —
We had to protect the airspace any way we could.
As the fourth hijacked plane tore toward Washington, Penney and her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville, prepared themselves to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 57. They had no missiles and no live ammunition…nothing to stop the stolen plane but her own plane.
We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft…. I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.
September 11th changed the United States military as we know it; but on that Tuesday morning, it was wholly unprepared for a large-scale threat. There were no armed aircrafts standing by, and the jets in the 121st Fighter Squadron were still equipped with dummy bullets from an earlier training session. Nothing was ready, but that didn’t matter — the jets wouldn’t be armed for another hour, and something had to be done immediately, with or without ammunition.
Penney recalled the pact she made with her commanding officer as they careened over the Pentagon at more than 400 mph:
Sass said, “I’ll take the cockpit”—meaning he would ram the airliner. I knew I’d take the tail. If you take the tail off an airplane, it can’t fly.
But “Lucky” Penney was destined to live up to her nickname that day. She and Sasseville flew for another four hours before learning that United 93 had already gone down, taken over by the hostages who were just as willing as she had been to give their lives.
Though she surely gave a sigh of relief, it wasn’t without profound sadness. We can all agree with her when she says…
The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves.