Fighter pilot recalls mission to stop 9/11 plane
RENO, Nev. – Fighter pilot Heather "Lucky" Penney didn't have time to be scared. There was a hijacked commercial airliner headed to Washington, D.C., and she was ordered to stop it.
"I was prepared to die for my country," she said. "It's something everyone else would have done if they were in my shoes. I didn't have time to feel fear. We had a mission, and there was a sense of urgency."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Penney and her commanding officer were ordered to stop United Airlines Flight 93 from hitting a target in the nation's capital. But they didn't have any missiles or even ammunition. So Col. Marc Sasseville decided they would use their own planes to bring it down.
He planned to strike the plane's cockpit. She opted to go for its tail, Penney said.
She didn't know it at the time, but the plane had already crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Her mission soon changed to helping defend Washington's airspace and escorting Air Force One, with then-President George W. Bush aboard, to Andrews Air Force Base.
"It was an important mission to bring the president home, but after the beginning of the day, it was rather anticlimactic," she said.
Penney, then a lieutenant with the Air National Guard's 121st fighter squadron, was the only female fighter pilot to be assigned to protecting that airspace.
"It was so surreal because the air space was so quiet," she recalled. "I really didn't have much emotion or time to reflect that day because I was focused on getting the job done."
Penney, 37, of Annapolis, Md., was among a first generation of women to take advantage when the military opened up combat flight training to them. A single mother, she quit as a fighter pilot in 2009 to devote more time to her two young daughters after serving two tours in Iraq.
She doesn't dwell on that day in September 2001, she said.
"I'm not willing to let my life be hijacked, and I don't think we should let our nation be hijacked," she told The Associated Press. "We're a great and resilient country, and there's no reason to react with fear or let that take us off our game plan."
She now works for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, flying a C-38 as a traditional Air Guard member, pursuing a second master's degree and preparing to race a jet in next week's National Championship Air Races in Reno.
Her father, John Penney, is a four-time champion in the event's Unlimited Class and a former military pilot. As a rookie last year, she finished second in her jet class.
"I'm proud to be part of the lineage of women in the jet community," said Penney, who lived in the Reno area when her father worked for William Lear's jet-making company in the 1980s. "But ultimately the jet doesn't care if you are a man or a woman, it only cares that you are a good pilot."
When she thinks about her role on Sept. 11 and how it will be remembered, she said she hoped media attention on the attacks won't make Americans fearful of the future.
"We saw so much of the best of ourselves come out that day, with strangers helping strangers and many courageous acts," she said. "We remembered something more important than ourselves, and that was the community to which we belonged."