Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, Air Force Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney received a shocking order as she got ready to fly an F-16 that had no ammunition and no missiles.
The rookie Air Force pilot was told to fly her plane from Andrews Air Force Base and into United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 plane that had been hijacked by terrorists and was hurtling towards Washington, D.C.
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down,” she told The Washington Post back in 2015. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
When she said kamikaze, she meant suicide, meaning that her superiors had ordered her to complete what would have been a suicide mission.
“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she added.
That morning, her crew had just finished several weeks of air combat training. As a result, the planes at Andrews Air Force Base were still equipped with dummy pullets. Furthermore, back then, there was no active system in place for spontaneous armed scrambles.
So without a moment to lose, Penney scrambled her unarmed jet and followed her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville into the sky.
What neither she nor Sasseville knew at that point in time was that Flight 93 had already gone down, thanks to the heroic actions of its passengers, who essentially sacrificed their lives to keep the plane from reaching the terrorists’ intended target.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney said regarding the passengers who also inadvertently saved her own life. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”
She and her commanding officer wound up spending the remainder of their day clearing the airspace and escorting former President George W. Bush.
Fourteen years later, Penney still serves in the Air Force, but as a major. She is also the single mother of two girls.
She thinks often of what happened fourteen years ago.
“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she said. “If we did it right, this would be it.”
We are very glad that Penney lived to tell her tale, and we will never forget the sacrifice she was willing to make on behalf of her country.
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