On Sep. 11, 2001 then-US Air Force (USAF) Lt. Heather Penney, a rookie F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot with the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, went on alert along with the whole US when aircraft hit the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington.
“[I remember] how crystal blue the skies were that day,” Penney told ABC in 2021. “There are so many moments that I remember with such clarity that I can touch, taste, feel hear, smell every detail from that day. But what strikes me the most, because of how omnipresent it was throughout the entire day was the deep, clear blue skies.”
She recalls that “we knew that our nation was under attack” when the second place hit the World Trade Center.
By the time Penney and Lt. Gen. Marc H. Sasseville (now the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, then a lieutenant colonel) got into the cockpits of their F-16 aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base (AFB), they already knew that hijacked aircraft had hit the Pentagon and the towers in New York. Their mission was to prevent further damage — in particular from that posed by United Airlines Flight 93.
Penney went to arm her F-16, but there wasn’t enough time. She and Sasseville had to get in the air.
“If we took off on this mission — Sasseville and I, he was the flight lead — and we were successful, we would not come home,” Penney said.
When Penney and Sasseville left Andrews, their aircraft launched without any missiles on board. They had embarked on what amounted to a suicide mission. Without missiles, the two pilots were prepared to ram their own aircraft into Flight 93 in order to keep it from causing any damage to the nation’s capital.
“We did not have missiles. We were on a suicide mission. And in order to be able to take any airliner down, Sass would ram his aircraft into the cockpit where the terrorists were, to destroy the flight controls,” she explained. “I would take the tail by ramming my jet into the tail of the aircraft, I would aerodynamically unbalance the airplane and tip it over so it would crash straight into the ground by targeting both ends of the aircraft. It was our plan to prevent any additional casualties.”
Flight 93 was originally supposed to go from Newark International Airport in New Jersey to San Francisco International in California. Just 45 minutes into that domestic flight, hijackers took control of the plane and redirected it toward Washington. The goal of the hijackers still remains unknown, perhaps it was to crash the plane into either the US Capitol Building or the White House. Sasseville and Penney were supposed to prevent something like that from happening.
“We had gotten a call from the White House Joint Operations Center, and they could see the picture,” Sasseville said in the article Guard Pilot Who Flew Over D.C. Following 9/11 Likened Attacks to Modern-Day Pearl Harbor by C. Todd Lopez that appeared on Defense.gov website. “They knew that Flight 93 had turned back. And they had basically asked if we had any airplanes that could go up the river.”
It made perfect sense what they were being asked to do, Sasseville said. The hijackers might not be able to fly by instruments and get the aircraft where they wanted it. But if they looked at the ground — at the Potomac River — they could use that as a guide to get them where they wanted to be.
“We knew what needed to be done. And there were no tears. The prayers, to be honest,” Penney said, were “‘Dear God, don’t let me mess this up.’ Because of how important it was and the potential consequences if we were not successful.”
Resistance from passengers aboard Flight 93 eventually thwarted the hijackers’ plans; and ultimately, the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 130 miles northwest of Washington. All of that happened before Penney and Sasseville even got into the air — though they didn’t know it at the time.
“When you look back on the timeline, [the Flight 93 passengers] crashed their airliner nearly half an hour before we got airborne. I don’t consider myself lucky because what they did was something they never should have had to do. When they boarded Flight 93 that day, they were just simply going on a business trip or coming home from vacation… They hadn’t raised their right hand and sworn an oath to protect and defend like I had. I feel like we were a mission failure for so many reasons.”
While neither pilot saw Flight 93 on that mission, they did see the results of American Airlines Flight 77 — which had crashed into the Pentagon.
“The piece that I remember most was being at 6,000 feet, right there, smelling the fumes from the fire and looking down and seeing chaos, and just feeling sick to my stomach,” Sasseville said. “I wasn’t sick because of the fumes. I was sick because I knew that we had been attacked.”
Penney said she did not have the chance to reflect on what might have been. She “immediately moved to 24/7 combat air patrols,” flying from midnight to 4 a.m. for nearly a year, she said. Then, she went to train for combat operations in Iraq, where she served two tours.
After the terrorist attacks, Sasseville said, things changed dramatically at the unit.
The 113th Wing at Andrews was that it became part of Operation Noble Eagle, part of which is to protect the skies over the Nation’s Capital.
“We became part of the air defense structure,” he said. “And everything started to set into motion that kicked off almost 90 days of 24/7 airplanes continuously in the air defending the nation’s capital. So that was our reaction. We became part of Noble Eagle — we became part of the air defense structure overnight.”
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Dennis Young / U.S. Air Force, EJ Hersom, DOD
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