One of the first two U.S. combat pilots in the air on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 took off from Andrews Air Force Base in an F-16 with a mission to bring down United Flight 93 — and without any missiles or ammunition.
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney said describing her orders to The Washington Post. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
The fourth recently identified hijacked plane appeared to be on a heading for Washington, and there was no time to arm the base’s fighter aircraft before Penney and her commanding officer took off to intercept the rogue Boeing 757 passenger plane.
“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” Penney said.
Penney, the first female F-16 pilot of the D.C. Air National Guard’s 121st Fighter Squadron, had just completed two weeks of combat training on that historic Tuesday, and the base’s fighters were still equipped with dummy ammunition. According to the report, there were no armed aircraft ready for immediate scramble over post-Cold War Washington in the fall of 2001.
The third plane had just struck the Pentagon and the base was at least an hour away from arming combat-ready aircraft, with the fourth already thought to have been identified.
“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Col. Marc Sasseville told Penney as they donned their flight suits.
“I’ll take the tail,” Penney replied.
After skipping their pre-flight checks and starting down the runway with flight crews pulling out safety pins alongside, the jets took off over the smoking ruin of the Pentagon’s west side. Both pilots hoped to eject before the moment of impact, all the while doubting such a tactic would work. Even worse, Penney said, was the fear that bailing out too early would mean missing her target.
Hours later the two pilots would learn that the passengers of United 93 had already done what the pilots themselves were prepared to do. The pair flew sorties all day, and later, escorted Air Force One back to Washington.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney said. “I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off.”
Penney went on to fly two tours in Iraq and is now a director of the F-35 program at Lockheed Martin, who serves part-time as a National Guard pilot.
Today there are always two fully armed fighter jets stationed at Andrews, with two pilots never more than yards from their aircraft.