Heather Penney

You have heard many stories about 9/11, but here is the story of a brave blond girl that you may not have heard about.
Ron

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 1st Lt. Heather Penney arrived at work at Andrews Air Force Base.  She grabbed a seat around the briefing table. She was just returning from two weeks of air combat training in Nevada, but in a very real way, Penney was still a rookie without much experience in a supersonic fighter.  But she was the first woman ever confirmed for aerial combat in the US.  And she flew many missions in Iraq on two tours there.   

She was born on an Air Force base. Her father, Col. John Penney, was a pilot with multiple combat missions at the stick of America’s A-7 Corsair II under his belt in Vietnam. 

Along with the other folks there at Andrews, she had just seen the tv pictures of the Twin Towers.  Everyone was immediately aware of the World Trade Center crash, but like most Americans at the time, they assumed it was nothing more than a tragic accident. 

In fact many dismissed the story, assuming it had been a personal plane, like a small Cessna, that likely hit the building. But 17 minutes after the first aircraft hit the North Tower, another Boeing 767, this time United Airlines Flight 175, hit the South Tower. Most of the nation didn’t know it yet, but the pilots at Andrews Air Force Base did; America was at war. 

  At 9:37 a.m., a third hijacked aircraft, this time American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, just a 30-minute drive from the briefing room where Penney sat. 

 Almost simultaneously, another message came through the pipeline: there was another hijacked aircraft in the air and it was heading straight for Washington DC. 

Heather and her group were not in the regular Air Force.  They were in the Virginia Air National Guard.  But they knew that they were the closest ones that could guard the Capital area.  And they had taken an oath to guard the American people. 

They sprang into action, but despite their professionalism, confusion swelled within the ranks. No one had anticipated such an attack, and there were no standing procedures to follow. Penney knew the hijacked aircraft would have to be intercepted and shot down before it could reach a target like the Capitol building, but there were no armed F-16s standing by for the job. 

Every Fighting Falcon on the tarmac was equipped with dummy rounds and fake munitions meant to mimic real ordnance for training. It would take at least an hour to get the ammunition changed out and have missiles mounted on the aircraft’s hardpoints. 

“We know we have to get airborne. We know we have to protect. I was so eager, so impatient, and yet so frustrated and angry, because we couldn’t,” Penney said. 

“As I said, we’re with the DC Guard. We’re not part of our nation’s alert squadron.” 

But waiting an hour wasn’t an option. The United States was under attack and the men and women of Andrews Air Force Base may have been the only thing standing between the American Capitol and what was now a 250,000-pound missile full of innocent people heading straight for it. 

Penney was too junior in rank to do anything about it, but just then she saw Col. Marc “Sass” Sasseville scrambling to put on his flight suit, having just received the go-ahead from Vice President Dick Cheney to put fighters in the air and start searching for the hijacked airliner. 

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” the colonel shouted.  (That was what they called Penney) 

Jumping at the opportunity to get into the fight, Penney took off behind Sass, running to their respective F-16s. But the junior pilot had never had to scramble a fighter in combat conditions before. 

Like any pilot, she deferred to her training, hurriedly beginning the checklist required to safely start an F-16 and get it ready to fly. 

“Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted. So Penney jumped into the cockpit, fired up her engines, and screamed to her ground crew to yank out the wheel chocks keeping the aircraft from rolling. 

As she began to taxi down the runway, her crew chief still had his headphones plugged into the fuselage, allowing the two of them to communicate directly. He was still pulling safety pins out of the fighter as it rolled down the tarmac. 

By the time her crew chief unplugged, Sass was already in the air. Penney whispered to herself, “God, don’t let me [expletive] up” and followed right behind. They had made it into the sky, and only then did the gravity of the situation begin to set in. 

Other Air Defense fighters from the regular Air Force were already in action, but they were all way out over the Atlantic.  They had assumed from their training that any threat to the US would be coming from that direction.  That left “Lucky” and “Sass” as the only defenders of the DC area. 

 As they flew low over the smoldering Pentagon at over 400 mph, the senior pilot considered their options. He already knew that with no munitions on board, they were on a suicide mission. That wasn’t the part troubling him. It was the aerodynamic design of their target that gave him pause. 

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville later. 

“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.” 

As they headed out to find Flight 93 which was now only 200 miles from DC, Col. Sasseville told Penney that he was going for the cockpit of the airliner.  Penney decided in her mind that she would go for the tail.  “Sass” was planning to hit his ejection button upon impact and maybe survive.  However, “Lucky” was not planning on hitting her’s.  She was planning to die upon impact. 

As you know, Todd Beamer and his three new friends brought down Flight 93 themselves.  And you have heard many times about how brave they were and how brave those firemen were to climb up into those burning buildings.  But I am sending you this because you may not have heard about how brave this young blond girl was.  Those firemen knew they were heading into danger, but “Lucky” knew she was going to die for sure as she streaked ahead in her Fighting Falcon!!! 

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