Sunday, September 11, 2011

F-16 Pilot Tells of the Suicide Mission that Wasn't

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A lesser known story of yet another hero of 9/11.

Late in the morning of the Tuesday that changed everything, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base and ready to fly. She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93. The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything at all to throw at a hostile aircraft.

Except her own plane. So that was the plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

A young pilot, with essentially her whole life ahead of her, gets an order that, if carried out, will almost certainly cost her her life. One that even if she survived, she'd have to live with the knowledge that she hastened the end, of a plane load of civilians, taking their lives in order to protect the lives of others and defend the United States of America. And she answered the call.

“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.

Penney, now a major but still a petite blonde with a Colgate grin, is no longer a combat flier. She flew two tours in Iraq and she serves as a part-time National Guard pilot, mostly hauling VIPs around in a military Gulfstream. She takes the stick of her own vintage 1941 Taylorcraft tail-dragger whenever she can.

"Lucky" Penny was lucky indeed! A distinguished flying career for the last ten years. One that would have been cut short, save for the heroism of a group of passengers on Flight 93...

But she didn’t have to die. She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of kids and salesmen and girlfriends. They did that themselves.

It is an honor to salute the brave men and women of our armed forces. Major Penney had "the Right Stuff". And America is better off for having her serve.

Major Penney, we humbly salute you and thank you for your service.

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Cross posted at LCR, Lady Cincinnatus , Say Anything

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