Lieutenant Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney, one of the unsung heroes of 9/11, says she was ready to give her life on that fateful day acting like a kamikaze pilot. The then 25-year-old who today serves as the director of United States Air Force Air Superiority at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company was one of the two pilots ordered to ram and down the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 before it reached Washington, DC on the 11th of September 2001.
She, however, says “the real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history.”
On that sunny Tuesday, Penney was a new first lieutenant serving as a training officer with the 121st Fighter Squadron of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, based at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. The first woman to serve in her unit, she flew F-16C planes on training missions in preparation for combat.
After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the squadron received news that a fourth airliner is possibly headed toward Washington. Penney and her wingman, Colonel Marc “Sass” Sasseville, scramble-started their F-16s and took off to intercept it; the order was simple, yet chilling: find the airliner and take it down by any means necessary. There had been no time to arm their F-16 planes which meant the two pilots would be flying a kamikaze mission, ramming their jets into the airliner. “I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sass told her. “I’ll take the tail,” Lucky replied.
For years, Penney who was the only woman in her fighter pilot training class and the only woman in her fighter squadron, gave no interviews about 9/11, until she opened up about her experience on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said.
In the fall of 2001, Lucky was a rookie – the first female F-16 pilot they’d ever had at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. Her father, retired Air Force Colonel John Penney, flew jets in Vietnam before becoming a commercial pilot with United Airlines. Penney got her pilot’s license when she was a literature major at Purdue University in Indiana. Although she planned to be a teacher, Congress opened up combat aviation to women while she was doing a graduate program in American studies and Penney did not hesitate.
“I signed up immediately,” she says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”
On the Tuesday of September 11th, she had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada. Her squadron was sitting around a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. Initially, they thought it must have been a recreational plane, but when it happened again, they knew it was war.
Remarkable from today’s perspective, but at that time there were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington – in those days the aviation’s eyes were still peeled at old Cold War threat paths for planes and missiles coming over the polar ice cap. 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 was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that,” says Colonel George Degnon, vice commander of the 113th Wing at the Andrews base. “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.”
Today, at least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, with their pilots at stand-by yards from the cockpit.
When a third plane hit the Pentagon, and word came out that at least one more plane could be on the way, the command was that someone had to fly immediately, although the jets would only be armed within an hour.
“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked Colonel Marc Sasseville.
They were gearing up in the pre-flight 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.”
Penney had never scrambled a jet before. Normally the pre-flight is a half-hour or so of methodical checks. She automatically started going down the list, but there was no time for that.
“Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted.
Muttering a fighter pilot’s prayer – “God, don’t let me f**k up” – she followed Sasseville into the sky.
It would be hours before Penney and Sasseville would find out that United 93 had already gone down in Pennsylvania, after an insurrection by the hostages – the real heroes of the day according to Lucky.
She and Sasseville flew the rest of the day, clearing the airspace, escorting the president, looking down onto the capital. Today, after serving two tours of duty in Iraq, Penney is a single mother of two girls. She still loves flying and still often thinks of that extraordinary ride more than a decade ago that was supposed to end with a kamikaze strike.
“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she says. “If we did it right, this would be it.”