Tags: Heather Penney | 911 | Flight 93 | fighter pilot

Fighter Pilot Recalls Her 9/11 Mission to Take Down Flight 93

By    |   Thursday, 11 Sep 2014 03:47 PM

On the cool, clear morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Heather "Lucky" Penney jammed the throttle of her unarmed F-16 fighter jet at Andrews Air Force Base into a roaring "scramble" takeoff, knowing that if her mission was successful, she would not be coming back.

Already, two airplanes had slammed into the Twin Towers in New York and another into the Pentagon, and the 121st Fighter Squadron, D.C., Air National Guard, got word that another airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, was heading toward Washington, The Washington Post reports.

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.

"Lucky," Sasseville ordered the rookie fighter pilot, "you're coming with me. I'm going to go for the cockpit."

Without batting an eye, the petite, blonde 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."

She told CSPAN, "We wouldn't be shooting it down — we would be ramming the aircraft, because we didn't have weapons on board.

"I had made the decision that I would take the tail of the aircraft. It would go straight down, so the pattern of debris would be minimized. The people on Flight 93 were heroes, but they were going to die no matter what. My concern was, how do I minimize collateral damage on the ground.

"I would essentially be a kamikaze and ram my aircraft into the tail of the aircraft. 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," she told CSPAN.

"I genuinely believed it would be the last time I took off," she told the Post. "If we did it right, this would be it."

Penney said she felt no fear. In fact, felt no emotion at all.

"When the magnitude of the situation hit me, I really lost all emotion. I focused on what are the things that I need to do to enable us to protect our capital.

"It wasn't so much that I kept my emotions in check. It was as if they didn't even exist, but there was significant adrenalin. It was, 'Dear God, please don't let me screw up.'"

Both planes left Andrews, located just outside of Washington, D.C., and flew at 400 mph at 3,000 feet while searching for Flight 93. But then, passengers on the flight attacked their hijackers and the airplane crashed in western Pennsylvania.

Today, Maj. Penney, a single mother of two girls, works at Lockheed Martin as a director in the F-35 program.

Now at Andrews Air Force Base, Col. George Degnon told the Post, there are at least two "hot-cocked" — fully loaded — fighters on the ground, ready to go at all times, with their pilots nearby.

Today, Penney says, "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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On the cool, clear morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Heather "Lucky" Penney jammed the throttle of her unarmed F-16 fighter jet at Andrews Air Force Base into a roaring "scramble" takeoff, knowing that if her mission was successful, she would not be coming back.
Heather Penney, 911, Flight 93, fighter pilot
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2014-47-11
Thursday, 11 Sep 2014 03:47 PM
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