Sixteen years ago on a sunny September day, civil aviation as we knew it changed, forever. So too did the lives of all Americans, as the horrifying spectacle of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon made it obvious the world would never be the same.
Late in the morning Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base 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. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it. She would have to do so in an unarmed fighter jet because equipping the plane with missiles would require too much time. Her plane would be the weapon; it was essentially a suicide mission.
Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, faster than they could arm war planes, 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 her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
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”.
Penney, whose nickname is coincidentally Lucky, was a 26-year-old rookie pilot at the Andrews Air Force Base at the time. Not only had she just completed air combat training, but she was also part of the first group of female combat pilots our country has ever had. Penney never completed the job, though, because Flight 93 crashed as brave passengers wrestled control from the hijackers while it flew over Pennsylvania.
Video of Penney below:
Penney has since retired from the Air Force; she is a mother and works as the director of Lockheed Martin’s air superiority systems program. Her list of accomplishments exceeds one instance of heroism: she served two tours in Iraq and remains a National Guard reserve pilot. Even if Penney doesn’t perceive herself as a hero, her readiness to sacrifice her life for our country certainly deserves praise.