The Tribunist has the heart wrenching story of Heather Penney, the woman who had been tasked to “take down” United Airlines Flight 93 16 years ago today.
On September 11, 2001, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney in an F-16 at Andrews Air Force Base. She had her orders. She was to take down down United Airlines Flight 93. The hijacked plane was headed toward Washington DC. Three other planes had hit targets in New York and Washington, and Flight 93 was destined to become the fourth.
Penney was the second combat pilot in the air that morning. The idea of shooting down a civilian aircraft, even a hijacked one, was troublesome enough–but Penney had no missiles or live ammunition. All she had were her orders and her plane. She was going to take the plane down the hard way.
She and her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville, had been given the unenviable job of making sure the airliner came down before hitting its target.
“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville. “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.” Sasseville had been hoping to try to ram the plane and eject simeltaneously, “I was hoping to do both at the same time. It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”
Penney, on the other hand, had no illusions about the task she was taking on. She had no plans of ejecting, because she couldn’t be sure that the job was complete unless she stayed with her plane. “If you eject and your jet soars through without impact,” Penney said. Ejection was not going to be an option for her.
But Penney and Sasseville weren’t forced to give the ultimate sacrifice, because the brave passengers of Flight 93 were willing to do so on their own. Those heroic men and women decided that they would not allow themselves to be used as a weapon against other innocents, and they attacked their captors and brought the plane down themselves in an empty Pennsylvania field. “The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney remembers. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”
Why would Penney agree to fly a mission that would likely be a one-way trip?
“Why? Because there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves. Freedom. The Constitution of the United States. Our way of life. Mom, baseball, apple pie; these things and so many more that make us uniquely American. We belong to something greater than ourselves. As complex and diverse and discordant as it is, this thing, this idea called America, binds us together in citizenship and community and brotherhood.”
Never Forget the brave men and women of flight 93: