The September 11, 2001, attacks saw numerous acts of bravery and courage from Americans from many walks of life — be they ordinary citizens, emergency services personnel or members of the military.
Of special note was the sacrifice this National Guard fighter pilot and her comrades were willing to make when their fighters were sent up without any armament to protect the nation’s capital soon after word of the attacks spread.
Among the many fighter pilots sent to the skies in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York was Heather “Lucky” Penney, a fighter pilot with the District of Columbia Air National Guard. At the time a 1st lieutenant with the 121st Fighter Squadron, Lucky was the only female in her fighter training class, and the only female pilot serving with the squadron.
When air traffic controllers in Cleveland, Ohio, saw a potential hijacking aboard a United Airlines flight, Penney and her flight lead, Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville, were called into action.
Launching from Andrews AFB near Washington, D.C., at 10:42 local time, the pair saw smoke billowing out from Arlington, Virginia, the site of the Pentagon. A second pair of fighters piloted by Brandon Rasmussen and Daniel Caine – also of the DCANG – were sent up as well.
The Secret Service and defense sector controllers responsible for watching over the airspace surrounding the capital requested an aerial presence to ward away or destroy any other hijacked airliners, lest they attack juicier targets like the White House or the Capitol, or hit crowded civilian areas.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon – the fighters these four pilots flew – is very capable in the air-to-air arena. However, in the rush to get airborne, none of the four DCANG F-16s were armed with missiles or live rounds for their cannons – not that any were immediately available.
Sasseville and Penney briefly discussed a plan of action, noting that their lack of armament would make downing a larger airliner considerably more difficult. The two agreed that the only option would be using their aircraft as rams, where Sasseville would hit the cockpit and Penney the tail.
Though, hypothetically, the two pilots could have aimed their fighters for the engines of the aircraft and ejected quickly after, they knew that the only way they could be sure of bringing down their quarry was if they stayed with their F-16s all the way through.
This would have to be a suicide mission – there was no other alternative.
Word came in over their radios that an aircraft was heading at a low altitude over the Potomac River, possibly towards the White House. This ultimately proved to be a false alarm, though military and Secret Service operations officers initially concluded that the inbound aircraft was United 93, a Boeing 757 similar to the American Airlines jet which had slammed into the Pentagon earlier in the day.
United 93 never showed up in Washington. After recovering at Andrews AFB, the four DCANG pilots would learn that United 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania. Penney, Sasseville, Rasmussen and Caine would soon refuel and have their aircraft armed with weaponry before returning to the skies for their second sortie on Sept. 11.
This time, Penney and Sasseville were directed to fly as escorts for Air Force One, carrying President George W. Bush from Offutt AFB to Andrews AFB. The duo were almost engaged in combat yet again when a Learjet approached Air Force One at high speed, though the event was short-lived with the private aircraft diverted, having been on its way to finding a suitable airport to land.
Both Penney and Sasseville went on, post-9/11, to fly combat missions overseas in support of the Global War On Terror. Penney has since left the DC ANG and works with Lockheed Martin in a senior position, while Sasseville remains active in the Guard, now as a major general.