As first responders were desperately trying to recover survivors from the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, Lieutenant Heather “Lucky” Penney was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for her country by flying her unarmed F-16 into United Flight 93 before it destroyed Washington D.C. But she never got the chance.
“I feel like I was accidentally involved in history,” said Penney. “I didn’t change history. I didn’t prevent disaster, or anything like that.”
She brought the room to tears as she told her story of heroism on 9/11 at a recent Women in Aviation International Conference in Dallas. Now no longer flying fighter jets, she’s an executive at Lockheed Martin, working on U.S. Air Force air superiority systems.
In 2001, she was a relatively new pilot with the DC Air National Guard, stationed at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington. The morning started like any other Tuesday, until a knock came to the door. “[One] of our enlisted troops, [interrupted] us and [said], ‘a plane just flew into the World Trade Center,’” she recalled.
Thinking that a private pilot had flown into the World Trade Center while scud running, or flying low to avoid clouds or congested airspaces, the Guard pilots dismissed it and continued on with their morning meeting, until they were interrupted again. “It wasn’t until [he] came back and said, ‘another plane flew into the other trade center. It was on purpose,’” Penney said. “We got up from our meeting and walked to…where everyone else was gathered. And from the doorway I saw what everyone else saw that morning. We were stunned.”
Orders had come from Vice President Dick Cheney for her squadron to get airborne and stop Flight 93 from reaching Washington D.C. Penney and her squadron leader, Mark (“Sass”) Sasseville, were to launch first. With no live missiles on board, they had nothing but their aircraft to use as a weapon. It would take upwards of an hour to assemble and load the missiles on to a jet. Another pair of F-16s would stay until missiles could be loaded, but Penney and Sasseville were to take off immediately.
“I’m zipping up my G-suit when Sass looks at me and says, ‘I’ll take the cockpit.’ [Meaning that he would ram into Flight 93’s front end.] I would take the tail,” she said. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Who told you would have to ram the airplane? Who ordered you?’ But no one did. What was said was all that was said.”
Penney and Sass readied for their mission and hurried to the flight line. “Sass [ran] to the first jet on the line,” she said. “I [took] the one right next to him.”
Penney began going through her usual checklist, as she had never had to scramble a jet before. “Sass [was] in his cockpit, and he [looked] at me and [said], ‘Lucky! What the hell are you doing?! Get in the jet!’” she recalled.
“Seconds later we’re taking off,” she said. They headed northeast looking for Flight 93, but “We never found anything.” The passengers of Flight 93 took matters into their own hands, and the airliner crashed in Pennsylvania before the National Guard pilots ever encountered them.
“For the decade following 9/11 I didn’t talk about my experience,” said Penney. “I really didn’t feel like I had a story to tell. After all, I was just the wingman…I went home that night and continued on doing the same things that the rest of my squadron was doing. I was going through the same emotions that the rest of the nation was going through.”
“Like Pearl Harbor, we all have memories of 9/11,” she said. “And from my perspective, there really wasn’t anything special about my experience. Especially after all the 24/7 news coverage that followed, it just seemed to me to talk about my experience would be self-serving.”
Sasseville came to Penney during the 10-year commemoration in 2011 and asked her to participate in a National Geographic special. She did, reluctantly, but when she saw how moved the show’s producer was, she decided to share her story with others.
“I’ve been asked what it felt like, running to the jet knowing that if my mission was successful that I would not return,” she said at the Dallas conference. “And honestly, I did not feel any fear. [You] don’t have any time to think about it… If anything in my life mattered, it was that moment. I had to do it right.”
“I didn’t become a fighter pilot to prove anything,” she emphasized. “It was a passion that I ate, slept and breathed. When people ask me what it’s like to be a female fighter pilot, my typical response is that the jet doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman.”
Along with sharing her experience on 9/11, Penney offered advice for the women in the room. “Whatever you do with your lives, find something that you love, something that burns into you, something that’s greater than you,” she said. “Find something that becomes your own way of service. And lose yourself in that thing and become fearless and courageous.”
As for her own brush with fame, “I was, and remain, genuinely surprised, that people have expressed amazement that I was willing to give my life without a second thought,” she said. “What we did that day was not special. We were no heroes. The passengers on Flight 93 were the heroes.”