On 9/11/01, as chaos ensued, Lt. Heather "Lucky" Penney was sitting in her F-16 jet at Andrews Air Force Base with very specific orders.
Bring down United Airlines Flight 93 'by any means possible.'
She and Col. Marc Sasseville were scrambled quickly into flight and given those orders that day, even though they were in jets without any live ammunition. That meant, they both had to plan to ram the hijacked plane with their own jets.....a kamikaze mission.
For more than 10 years, Lt. Penney (now a Major), didn't talk about about her experience that day , but in 2011 she gave an interview to C-SPAN.
She talked about how Col. Sasseville was ready to ram the cockpit, and she would aim for the tail.
She told the Washington Post:
"We had to protect our airspace any way we could. I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off. The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves. I was just an accidental witness to history."
Ultimately, neither of them had to give their lives that day, once they heard that Flight 93 went down in Pennsylvania field. But the thing to remember is, they were ready to.
When asked why she was ready to fly a kamikaze mission, Penney says
Why? Because there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves. Freedom. The Constitution of the United States. Our way of life. Mom, baseball, apple pie; these things and so many more that make us uniquely American. We belong to something greater than ourselves. As complex and diverse and discordant as it is, this thing, this idea called America, binds us together in citizenship and community and brotherhood.
And there was one more twist to the story. From the Post:
"Later, as the Penney family checked in on each other from around the country, they marveled at the other fateful twist on the extraordinary events: the possibility that Penney's own father could well have been in cockpit of her airliner target.
John Penney was a captain at United Airlines at the time. He had been flying East Coast routes all the previous month. The daughter had no way of knowing whether the father was airborne or not.
"We talked about the possibility that I could have been on the plane," Col. John Penney said. "She knew I was flying that kind of rotation. But we never fell down and emotionally broke apaort or anytihing like that. She's a fighter pilot, I'm a fighter pilot."
Read more at the Washington Post about Major Heather "Lucky" Penny.