Late in the morning of the Tuesday
that changed everything, 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 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
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.
“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.”
For years, Penney, one of the first
generation of female combat pilots in the country, gave no interviews
about her experiences on Sept. 11 (which included, eventually, escorting
Air Force One back into Washington’s suddenly highly restricted
But 10 years later, she is reflecting
on one of the lesser-told tales of that endlessly examined morning: how
the first counterpunch the U.S. military prepared to throw at the
attackers was effectively a suicide mission.
“We had to protect the airspace any
way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin,
where she is a director in the F-35 program.
But none of her thousands of hours in
the air quite compare with the urgent rush of launching on what was
supposed to be a one-way flight to a midair collision.
First of her kind
“I signed up immediately,” she says.
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.””
On that Tuesday, they had just finished two weeks of air combat training
in Nevada. They were sitting around a briefing table when someone looked
in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. When it
happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cesna. When it
happened again, they knew it was war.
But the surprise was complete. 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.
As remarkable as it seems now, there
were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble
them over Washington. Before that morning, all eyes were looking
outward, still scanning the old Cold War threat paths for planes and
missiles coming over the polar ice cap.
Things are different today, Degnon
says. At least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, their
pilots never more than yards from the cockpit.
A third plane 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.
“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked
Col. Marc Sasseville.
They were gearing up in the pre-flight
life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met
“I’m going to go for the cockpit,”
She replied without hesitating. “I’ll
take the tail.”
It was a plan. And a pact.
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.
She climbed in, rushed to power up the
engines, screamed for her ground crew to pull the chocks. The crew chief
still had his headphones plugged into the fuselage as she nudged the
throttle forward. He ran along pulling safety pins from the jet as it
She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer
— “God, don’t let me mess up” — and followed Sasseville into the sky.
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.
He also thought about his ejection
seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?
“I was hoping to do both at the same
time,” he says. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was
Penney worried about missing the
target if she tried to bail out.
“If you eject and your jet soars
through without impact . . .” she trails off, the thought of failing
more dreadful than the thought of dying.
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.
“The real heroes are the passengers on
Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was
just an accidental witness to history.”
She’s a single mom of two girls now.
She still loves to fly. And she still thinks often of that extraordinary
ride down the runway a decade ago.
“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.”
Copyright 2011 The Washington Post