Everyone has a 9/11 story, and each is important in its own way, but the story of Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the first generation of U.S. female combat pilots, comes with a special kind of bravery and doing what you need to do in the face of unprecedented tragedy and danger. Penney, a rookie at the time and one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning — a woman who “wanted to be a fighter pilot like [her] dad” — had been ordered to bring down United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth plane to be hijacked that day, to prevent it from reaching Washington.
Penney gave no interviews about her experience on 9/11, until this year. The Washington Post has her story.
There was no time to arm a plane, so she had no ammunition or missiles, and wouldn’t be shooting down the plane at all but instead,
“We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
“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.
Things, for the record, have now changed, with armed fighter planes ready at all times in case of necessity. But at the time, things were different.
Her commander, Col. Marc Sasseville, said he was hoping at the time that he might be able to eject in the instant before impact — “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping” — while Penney was concerned that if she bailed she’d miss the target, and genuinely believed that this would be her last mission.
In the end, we all know what happened — United 93 went down in Pennsylvania after the people aboard fought back against their hijackers. For the rest of the day, Penney and Sasseville cleared airspace and escorted the president on Air Force One back into Washington.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”
Now, she has two daughters, and, per the Post, “she still loves to fly.”
In another story of heroism in the face of unanticipated danger, Jalopnik tells of Ben Sliney, the chief of FAA air-traffic-control operations in Hernon, Virginia, who ordered more than 4,000 planes grounded on September 11 and redirected those in the sky — all on his first day on the job.
Go to Runnin’ Scared for all our latest news coverage.