It was several years ago when, by pure chance, Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney entered into my personal Hall of Fame. And tomorrow – the day she became one of America’s greatest heroines - will mark the 20th anniversary of the darkest day in my lifetime as an American. We’ll pause to remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 on American soil, the 3,000 who were killed and the 25,000 who were injured when highjacked jetliners were purposely crashed into Washington’s Pentagon and New York’s Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Since then, the mastermind of the brazen project, Osama bin Laden, has been hunted down and killed (May 2, 2011, in Pakistan), we’ve gone into war in Afghanistan with shallow results. And, as of late, the Taliban and the terrorist faction known as al-Qaeda, founded by bin Laden in 1988, have succeeded in forcibly flushing the United States out of Afghanistan in a world-wide embarrassment.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Heather Penney, a First Lieutenant in the Air Force, made her way to Andrews Air Base with no idea what the day would bring. “Lucky,” a fighter jet pilot, just happened to be standing in the Ops Center that morning when Vice President Dick Cheney, through the Secret Service, ordered “get somebody airborne.” Of course, she was as shocked as any of us – more so because every member of our military all over the world was already pulling the straps tight – but back then there were only seven fighter pilots on duty at Andrews that particular Tuesday.
Within minutes it was learned a fourth hijacked airliner was possibly en route to New York City, this after the Pentagon was hit, and Col. Marc “Sass” Sasseville, ordered three of those pilots to get in the air as soon as the planes could be armed. He then shouted, “Lucky, you are coming with me.”
What you need to know is that up until 9/11 America’s fighter planes were unarmed on the ground. Since the attack there have been at least two ‘hot-cocked’ fighter planes at every air base in America with pilots on hand, but in 2001, when ‘Sass’ and ‘Lucky’ scrambled, ‘Sass’ was pulling on his flight suit when his eyes caught Lucky’s. “I’ll take the cockpit,” he told her, and she calmly replied, “I’ll take the tail.”
With no time to arm their F-16 Vipers, the two pilots were going hunting without any bullets. They were going to bring down that Boeing 757 the only way they could, by ramming it in a kamikaze way that would vaporize their lives.
“Because we had no weapons, no missiles, we were essentially going to be Kamikaze pilots,” Penney explained, adding their mission was a race against the clock. There was simply no time to spare. “The decision was easy. Anyone who saw that footage that morning would have made the same decision that I did," Penney said.
“When we got to our planes, I immediately started going down my pre-flight checklist and Sass yelled, ‘What in the hell are you doing! Get in that plane and get your butt going. We are going now!” she would later say, “and when I throttled up at take-off, I didn’t think I would be back.”
A single mother, mind you, with two infant girls was in search for United Flight 93, and she never once wavered. Penney’s dad, a pilot running East Coast routes for United, could have easily been the pilot on that 757 they were hunting, and as the flight path took the pair of screaming Vipers at over 400 miles an hour past the burning Pentagon, Lucky would recall she was too busy flying the plane to dwell on emotion. “There was no way not to notice the smoke that was billowing out of the building. It was beyond description. I didn’t dwell on it because there was too much to do.
“We got over into Pennsylvania without seeing anything … after sanitizing the air space and then headed back to D.C. to make sure we weren’t being flanked.” That’s when she found out other American heroes had given their lives as Flight 93 crashed killing all aboard. She and Sass flew all day, that afternoon escorting President Bush’s Air Force One back to Andrews airbase.
Penney wouldn’t allow interviews for several years but, later, one of the first questions she was asked was if she was prepared to die when Sass told her, “Lucky, you are coming with me.” Her answer: “As a young fighter pilot I was gung-ho, very eager, hair on fire, all thrust and no vector, but the events of that day really brought to bear how solemn a responsibility and what a privilege it is to serve my nation. Was I prepared to die? Yes, and that’s because I believe that there are more important things in this world than me.”
Again: “I believe that there are more important things in this world than me.”
Now a retired Major from the Air Force with two combat tours in Iraq, she adores spreading a message of what she has learned. “It’s really about the courage we all have inside, and we all have to give,” said Penney, 47, at last glance a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a think tank in Virginia. “We all have a greater purpose than our own personal interests, and when we seek that purpose, we can serve our community and our family and our nation in so many ways.”
“What you do becomes who you are. It’s that old saying: ‘Your actions become your habits, your habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny.’”
I will never think of 9/11 without accepting the lesson I have learned from a heroine: “I believe that there are more important things in this world than me.”