F-16 pilot Heather Penney was ordered to fly a suicide mission on Sept. 11, 2001, to bring down United Flight 93. "I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot," she recalls 10 years later.

Share story

On the Tuesday that changed everything, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and ready to fly. She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93.

The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington, D.C. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything to throw at a hostile aircraft.

Except her own plane. So that was the plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than their warplanes could be armed, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

For years, Penney, one of the first generation of U.S. female combat pilots, gave no interviews about her experiences on Sept. 11, which included, eventually, escorting Air Force One back into Washington’s suddenly highly restricted airspace.

But 10 years later, she is reflecting on one of the lesser-told tales of that endlessly examined morning: how the first counterpunch the U.S. military prepared to throw at the attackers was effectively a suicide mission.

“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.

Penney, now a major, is no longer a combat flier. She flew two tours in Iraq and serves as a part-time National Guard pilot, mostly hauling VIPs around in a military Gulfstream.

She takes the stick of her own vintage 1941 Taylorcraft tail-dragger whenever she can.

In father’s footsteps

She was a rookie in 2001, the first female F-16 pilot at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. She had grown up smelling jet fuel. Her father flew jets in Vietnam and still races them. She earned 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 combat aviation to women, and Penney was nearly first in line.

“I signed up immediately. I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad,” she said.

On that Tuesday, she and her colleagues had just finished two weeks of air-combat training in Nevada. They were sitting around a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. When it happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cessna. When it happened again, they knew it was war.

In the monumental confusion of those first hours, it was impossible to get clear orders. Nothing was ready. The jets were still equipped with dummy bullets from the training mission.

There were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington.

“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.

Things are different today, Degnon said. At least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, their pilots never more than yards from the jet.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane, maybe more, could be on the way. The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” Col. Marc Sasseville barked.

They were gearing up in the preflight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating.

“I’ll take the tail.”

It was a plan. And a pact.

“Let’s go!”

She climbed in, rushed to power up the engines, screamed for her ground crew to pull the chocks. She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer — “God, don’t let me (expletive) up” — and followed Sasseville into the sky.

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon. Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.

Grim calculations

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and (the pilot) could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?

“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.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out. “If you eject and your jet soars through without impact … ,” she trailed off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

Unexpected outcome

But she didn’t have to die. She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of children and salespeople and loved ones.

The passengers did that themselves.

It was hours before Penney and Sasseville learned that United 93 had gone down in Pennsylvania, an insurrection by hostages willing to do what the two Guard pilots had been willing to do: Anything — and everything.

“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.”

She and Sasseville flew the rest of the day, clearing the airspace, escorting the president, looking down onto a city that would soon be sending them to war.

She’s a single mom of two girls now and still loves to fly. And she thinks often of that extraordinary ride down the runway.

“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she said. “If we did it right, this would be it.”