The untold story of the woman asked to fly a suicide mission in an F-16 with her commanding officer in order to take down United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 has finally come to light.
As Col. George Degnon, vice commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, recalled, in 2001 there were no planes standing by ready to defend Washington, D.C. He said, “There was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that. 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.”
One of those people was Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the first female combat pilots. Because it would take at least an hour to arm the plane, it became clear that the only way to take down flight 93 was a kamikaze action. Penney was told by Col. Marc Sasseville, her commanding officer, “Lucky, you’re coming with me. I’m going to go for the cockpit.”
Penney simply responded, “I’ll take the tail.” They ignored pre-flight checks and took off.
Penney, who now works at Lockheed Martin helping supervise the F-35 program, remembers thinking, “We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft. I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot. … We had to protect the airspace any way we could”.
Sasseville, who currently works 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.”
Sasseville envisioned hitting the F-16 into flight 93 with enough time to eject, although it required split-second perfection. He said, “I was hoping to do both at the same time. It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”
Penney added, “If you eject and your jet soars through without impact,” but said she had no plans to eject.
Ultimately, flight 93 was brought down by its heroic passengers in Pennsylvania.
Penney asserted, “The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history.”
When she was queried as to how she had the guts to consider a suicide mission, Penney answered bluntly:
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.
The quintessential American.
Video of Penney below: