Today marks the 17th anniversary of the 2001 September 11th attacks. While there are countless stories of heroism and sacrifice from that day and the following days, there are so many more lesser-known and unknown stories of heroism. This year, we highlight one of those stories-
Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the first female fighter pilots in USAF history, had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada in the days preceding September 11, 2001. That morning, she and other pilots were sitting in a briefing room at Andrews Air Force Base when they received word that a plane, and later a second, had hit the World Trade Center towers in New York, followed by a crash at the Pentagon. After the initial confusion that followed, she and her commanding officer Col. Marc Sasseville received orders to protect the air space around Washington DC, as reports had come in of another rogue plane- United Airlines Flight 93, which was believed to be set on a collision course with the White House. Today, post-9/11, there are always two fully equipped fighter jets at the ready, with pilots never more than a few yards away.
However, when Penney and Sasseville jumped into their F-16s, the planes were still equipped with dummy rounds from their training mission; there was no live ammunition loaded. So, not only were the pair charged with bringing down a commercial airliner, they would have to do so with only the force of their own planes. The pair planned to ram the airliner, hopefully pushing it off course and eventually to the ground. Sasseville said in a later interview “We don’t train to bring down airliners. If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.” While they both thought of the possibility of ejecting immediately before impact, they worried their jets might stray from course the impact be ineffective. As they flew through the airspace around Washington, it would be several hours before they found out that Flight 93 was not still headed for Washington; instead it had crashed in a field outside of Pittsburg after the passengers aboard overpowered their hijackers. “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.”
Written by: Alexis Vitiello
Edited by: Olivia Kauffman