WASHINGTON — Two fighter pilots willing to sacrifice their own lives to save countless others scrambled to stop Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, before hijackers could crash it into the U.S. Capitol.
Heather Penney was one of the two Air Force fighter pilots who were tasked with taking down the airliner, an act that would save untold lives but result in their own deaths, as well as those of the 40 passengers aboard.
“I am just your average ordinary American, I’m a mom, I was a military service member, I’m a member of my community … I’m just, I’m just an American,” Penney said.
At least that’s how Heather “Lucky” Penney sees herself. When Lucky, a nickname Penney goes by, started her day on that crisp and cool Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, she could never have imagined that she would be asked to willingly take down a passenger plane, and, in the process, possibly take her own life.
“That Tuesday morning was an absolutely ordinary morning, just like every other day,” Penney said. “I mean I got up I put on my flight suit, I ate my cheerios and I drove into work.”
Penney was one of two F-16 fighter pilots with the Air Force who scrambled to find and take down Flight 93 before it hit its likely destination, the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.
They were in a meeting when they heard of the second tower being hit.
“So immediately we just all got up from our meeting and went into our squadron bar where our television was and that’s where we saw the same images that everyone else saw that morning,” Penney said. “That’s when we realized our nation was under attack.”
“We knew immediately that we needed to get airborne to protect and defend our nation’s capital we are a fighter unit based out of Andrews Air Force Base where Air Force one flies out of and we are here in the District of Columbia. So we’ve got Congress we’ve got the White House we know that we need to protect not just our civilians our citizens but our nation’s leadership.” Penney said.
Both towers in New York City and the Pentagon had already been hit by the time Flight 93 was in the air. Using radar, the Air Force determined that United 93 had likely been hijacked.
“Anyone who saw those images knew what needed to be done; anyone who had been in my position would’ve been willing to do the exact same thing and would not have thought twice,” Penney said.
Flight 93 took off from Newark International en route to San Francisco. At 9:28 a.m. it’s likely the hijackers took control and turned the plane near Cleveland, heading in a flight pattern to DC.
Penney and Marc Sasseville, her flight commander who she knows as Sas, suited up upon his command.
“We were sent on a suicide mission,” Penney said.
In 2001 there were few F-16’s that sat fully armed with missiles. So Penney’s jet was completely unarmed. Once they found Flight 93, Sasseville would ram the front of the plane and Penney would take out the tail.
“Because aerodynamically without the tail airplanes cannot stay airborne, they actually tip over and dive straight into the ground,” Penney said.
They scoured the air above Pennsylvania, but the two fighter pilots given an unthinkable mission ultimately didn’t have to take down the commercial flight. The passengers onboard the jetliner traveling from New Jersey to California fought back against the hijackers, who then crashed it into a rural field.
Penney and Sasseville heard about its crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania hours later.
“I was looking out visually to see if I could pick up a low flying airliner using my radar, scrolling down low seeing if I could find a radar contact down low but Sas and I never found anything. We were too late, the passengers had already taken down Flight 93,” Penney said.
In the end, this American hero by all definitions Heather “Lucky” Penney actually doesn’t consider herself a hero. She said she was just a normal person on a far from normal day.
“I simply observed what was going on, passengers on Flight 93 changed the course of history because if they had not chosen to fight back chosen to crash that airliner [the terrorists] would have made it to D.C.,” Penney said.
The heroic actions of the crew and passengers aboard Flight 93 have become central to the history of 9/11 and have been retold in books, a movie and TV shows in the years since. In 2018, a 93-foot memorial was created at the site of the crash with wind chimes for every passenger who died in that spot.