Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney received what seemed to be a mission impossible order on September 11, 2001. She was flying her F-16 when she got the call to take down United Airlines flight 93. This hijacked commercial airliner was headed to Washington D.C., three others had already hit the World Trade Centers in NY and the Pentagon in D.C.
‘Penney was the second combat pilot in the air that morning. The idea of shooting down a civilian aircraft, even a hijacked one, was troublesome enough–but Penney had no missiles or live ammunition. All she had were her orders and her plane. She was going to take the plane down the hard way,’ reports the Tribunist.
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney said of the surreal moment. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
After ten years had passed, Penney decided to openly talk about what happened that day.
Penney was one of the first female combat pilots. She now works for at Lockheed Martin, where she helps direct the F-35 program.
“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said.
On that Tuesday in 2001, there were no planes standing by ready to defend the skies over Washington. Not a single plane equipped for a dogfight.
“There was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that,” said 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.”
The process to begin arming the plans had started, however it would take an hour to do so and they needed pilots in the air ‘right now’.
“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” said Penney’s commanding officer Col. Marc Sasseville.
“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.
“I’ll take the tail,”
“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville. “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.”
Sasseville’s plan was to maneuver the faster, more agile F-16 into the commercial airliner with enough time to eject. That timing, though, would require split-second perfection.
“I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he said. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”
“If you eject and your jet soars through without impact,” Penney said, thinking back. She wasn’t going to try to eject.
In the end, they didn’t have to make the sacrifice. United 93 went down in Pennsylvania. Passengers aboard the plane fought back against the hijackers, and crashed in an isolated field.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney said. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”
Penney was asked why she was willing to carry out a kamikaze mission and her reply will leave you speechless: “Why? Because there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves. Freedom. The Constitution of the United States. Our way of life. Mom, baseball, apple pie; these things and so many more that make us uniquely American. We belong to something greater than ourselves. As complex and diverse and discordant as it is, this thing, this idea called America, binds us together in citizenship and community and brotherhood.”