‘There’s Something Deeper That Connects Us All As Americans’: F-16 Pilot Was Prepared for ‘One-Way Mission’ on 9/11

Masooma Haq
By Masooma Haq
September 11, 2022USshare

Former U.S. Lieutenant Heather “Lucky” Penney was a rookie F-16 fighter pilot and a member of the Washington D.C. National Guard when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Sure in her resolve, to protect and defend, Penney understood at that time that she and her commander would not return from their mission to ram their jets into the fourth plane—Flight 93—that had been highjacked by terrorists.

Although, the two pilots were ready to die that day, what lives with Penney is not her unit’s willingness to sacrifice for their country but the courage and patriotism of the passengers and crew onboard Flight 93. Those everyday heroes proved that there is something deeper that connects us all as Americans, said Penney.

“That love of nation, that love of country, that love of our fellow citizens, it shouldn’t be bound up in all of the vitriolic anger discourse that we have today,” Penney said during a recent interview with NTD The Nation Speaks program.

“There’s something deeper that connects all of us. And that is what animated them that day … they knew that their nation needed them.”

That morning at about 10 a.m. a group of Americans on Flight 93, in an effort to stop the terrorists, struggled with three highjackers who crashed the flight into a Pennsylvania field killing everyone on board but saving many other potential victims.

Instead of being focused on the pain and trauma from that day, Penney chooses to stay focused on the American spirit of courage and selflessness that the passengers and crew of Flight 93 showed.

“How can I make my world a better place? How can I take that spirit of service, of courage into my community, to make our nation a better place, and I think that’s the real legacy of 9/11,” said Penney.

“I hope that we always remember the courage, the service, the community, the compassion, that truly underlies what it means to be American.”

Family History

For Penney that sense of service was ingrained in her because she comes from a line of fighter pilots—her father flew in the Vietnam War, and her grandfather was a flying instructor during World War II.

Just prior to 9/11 Penney became a lieutenant, completed pilot training, and earned her “wings.” In March 2001 she qualified to fly the F-16, with all its weapons systems.

Because her squadron had just finished “heavy” training in Nevada, many in her unit went back home, leaving only a skeleton crew of fighter pilots in the D.C. National Guard, on the morning of 9/11, Penney said.

That morning, during a meeting, an enlisted crew member interrupted their unit and told them about the first tower being hit by a passenger plane, she said.

“And we just made the assumption that it was a light general aviation aircraft flying down the Hudson, maybe wasn’t paying attention and bounced off a building,” Penney said.

It wasn’t until we got up and turned on the news that they saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers, “and it was clear that our nation was under attack.”

9/11 attack
Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Not Fast Enough

At that time, there was no alert system or armed fighter jets in place to defend the capital because the United States had been focused on the Russian threat but when the Cold War with the Soviet Union ended there were no “fighters armed with real weapons, real missiles, ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Penney.

At the time the United States had only a small number of fighter jet units protecting the borders.

“And they were all looking out they weren’t looking in, and we were not a part of that,” said Penney. The group Penney was with was trained but had no weapons on their aircraft or a “chain of command” for that type of emergency scenario.

“Getting the authorization to launch and then getting the weapons onboard the aircraft were our two biggest problems,” she said.

The leadership there that morning, including Wing Commander General David Worley, (now operations officer), Major Marc Sasseville (now a general), and Weapons Officer Major Dan Kane (now a general), said Penney.

Initially, the three decided to try to get weapons, which would have to be gotten from Andrews Air Force Base. However, even after being armed, the team would still need authorization to use their weapons, which would have to come from the White House, Penney said.

NTD Photo
Heather Penney was an F-16 fighter pilot with the Washington D.C. National Guard. (Courtesy of Heather Penney)

Left With No Other Choice

“We knew what the target was—innocent Americans in airliners, with terrorists. And that was something that we could not take down of our own accord without the explicit authorization and intent from our national leadership. So, we simply had to wait,” said Penney.

After terrorists struck the Pentagon with a third high-jacked plane, Vice President Dick Cheney gave the command to their unit to go after the last plane, Flight 93, determined to be on a similar suicide mission.

“SAS looks at me and says, ‘Lucky you’re with me.’ And he looks at Dan Kane and says ‘Raisin, you and Igor, Brandon [and] Rasmussen, you guys wait until you get missiles. Alright, Lucky, let’s go’,” recounted Penney of the order that Major Sasseville gave the morning of 9/11.

As they rushed to gear up for the mission, she thought ‘don’t screw this up’—“because if there was anything I had done in my life that mattered, that was it,” said Penney.

“We knew that if we took off and we were mission successful, that we would be ramming our jets into the airliner that we would not be coming home, that’s if we were successful—it was a one-way mission,” said Penney.

“Given the stakes, and we had seen the aircraft on the television flying into the World Trade Center, we knew what had to be done. There was no question in my mind.”

NTD Photo
Before the Flight 93 National Memorial was built, busloads of people stopped at this fence near the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania to grieve. (Chuck Wagner/”Reflections from the Memorial”)

Ordinary Heroes

But Penney’s and Sasseville’s heroism and sense of duty were matched by the passengers on Flight 93 who would go on to sacrifice their lives to save countless others by forcing the terrorists to bring down the flight before they could succeed in reaching Washington D.C.

Penney hopes that the younger generation can understand the sacrifice the Americans on Flight 93 made and realize: “that there is nothing truly safe in this world, [that] nothing truly great ever happens in total safety. And so that they [young people] can make choices every day, to be ordinary heroes, to live up to their greatness and to contribute to who we are as a nation.”

From The Epoch Times

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