On this, the eve of remembering 9/11, I thought it appropriate to have a special guest today, Major Heather Penny. I read about this amazing woman last Sunday in Parade Magazine. In 2001 she was an F-16 pilot with the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
A fact not widely publicized that September day 13 years ago, is that she, along with others in her squad, took to the air, prepared to take down the United Flight 93 if so ordered.
The Secret Service had contacted the air base with orders for the Guard to get airborne, suspecting that there was a fourth plane somewhere headed to Washington. United Flight 93 had gone off radar and it was believed to be in the control of terrorists. While most of the squad were guarding the immediate area around the White House, Penny and her commander were on another mission. Find the United plane and bring it down.As Penny relates in the interview in Parade, “Because we’d just returned from a training mission in Nevada, there weren’t any missiles or bombs or high-explosive bullets on the airplanes, and it was going to be a while before the weapons people could get the missiles built up.”
|This is a fully armed F-16|
That meant there would only be one way to take the plane down. Penny’s commander, Col. Marc “Sass” Sasseville told her, “I’ll take the cockpit.” What he was saying was that he would ram the airliner.
“I knew I would take the tail,” Penny says. “If you take the tail off an airplane it cannot fly.”
They were unable to locate the United airplane and later learned about the passengers taking control and crashing the plane. Penny considers those passengers as some of the heroes of that day, not her. “They averted further tragedy, confusion, and chaos and thwarted those who would do our nation harm.”
The drama of that part of the day played out like the best of suspense fiction, but it wasn’t fiction. What a tremendous amount of courage it took to force the terrorists to crash the plane in a rural area in Pennsylvania. Countless lives were saved by that act of bravery on the part of the 40 passengers and crew of Flight 93, and they were true heroes.
About her own act of bravery, Penny says that there was nothing special or unique about what she did, and was willing to do. “If I hadn’t been there, another airman would have been, and just as honorably done their duty.”
That may be true, but the point is, it wasn’t another airman who joined the commander and took to the sky that day with the intent of crashing into a rogue plane. It was Heather Penny, and I salute her as a special strong woman of courage. Raise a glass with me.