NEW YORK - Late in the morning of the Tuesday that changed everything, Septmeber 11, 2001, 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, the Washington Post reported.
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The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything at all 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 they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757, Penney told the Washington Post.
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her orders that day in an interview to the Washinton Post. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
Penney got her pilot’s licence when she was a literature major at Purdue. She planned to be a teacher. But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened up combat aviation to women and Penney was nearly first in line.
“I signed up immediately,” she says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”
In a column she wrote for the Washinton Post Friday, Penney recalled her mission.
A third plane had hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane could be on the way, maybe more. The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.
Penney and Col. Marc Sasseville were the first pilots up.
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, Penney told the paper.
But she didn’t have to die. She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of kids and salesmen and girlfriends. They did that themselves.
It would be hours before Penney and Sasseville learned that United 93 had already gone down in Pennsylvania, an insurrection by hostages willing to do just what the two US Guard pilots had been willing to do: Anything. And everything.
“We weren’t the heroes that day. The passengers on Flight 93 were the heroes.
"I’ve been called a hero for what I was willing to do. But I’m not special. I just happened to be standing at the Ops Counter when we finally got the call. The truth is, any one of us would have made the same decision, would have been willing to do exactly what I was prepared to do – and what the passengers on Flight 93 did do," Penney wrote in the Washington Post.
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