First read this and then there is also an 1 hr interview here with
LT Heather Penny on c-span...if you have the time some evening it is a
First time I've heard of this mission. Here is a very sobering thought,
from a pilot to pilots. By Steve Hendrix.
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.
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. 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."