As the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Lieutenant Heather “Lucky” Penney remembers what was asked of her, and the decision she faced.
To take down Flight 93 — the fourth and final hijacked airborne craft that day — it was possible she would have to ram it.
Lt. Penney was a rookie Air National Guard combat pilot, and she was in a position where she may have had to give her life and take down a civilian airliner to save others on the ground.
Lt. Penney’s F-16 was the second to take off in pursuit of Flight 93 from Andrews Air Force base. Having just returned from training in Nevada, her fighter plane was outfitted mostly with dummy munitions. It had 511 rounds of non-explosive training ammo, but that only provided roughly a 5-sec. burst of the 20-mm gun.
In the end, the heroism of the passengers aboard Flight 93 kept Lt. Penney from having to shoot or ram the jetliner. But she clearly recalls her decision. She was going to do whatever it took to make sure the fourth hijacked plane didn’t become a guided missile with the potential to kill hundreds more innocent people. To this day, it is believed the terrorists aboard Flight 93 were targeting the White House.
Penney told New York Magazine about her ordeal:
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft, I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
She remembers that day with the grace and humility exemplified by our brave men and women in uniform: “I was just an accidental witness to history,” she says.
Even a decade later, she rarely speaks of her experience. When Lt. Penney does, she insists the first-responders are the true heroes from that fateful day.
At this time of reflection on the loss and sacrifice of 9/11, we also honor the bravery of those in uniform who gave their lives to protect others, and those who continue to safeguard our lives and liberty.
Watch this video of Lt. Penney’s story, courtesy of the Washington Post: