Pilot tasked with finding Flight 93 before it made its way to DC

WASHINGTON (WTAJ) — Shortly before Flight 93 crashed, two Air Force fighter pilots scrambled to stop it and protect the nation’s capital. Willing to sacrifice her own life to save countless others, Heather “Lucky” Penney was one of the pilots tasked with taking down the hijacked airliner on Sept. 11.

“I am just your average ordinary American. I’m a Mom. I was a military service member. I’m a member of my community,” Penny said. “I’m just an American.”

When Lucky started her day on that crisp and cool Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she could never have imagined that she would be asked to take down a passenger plane and, in the process, likely end her own life.

“That Tuesday morning was an absolutely ordinary morning, just like every other day,” Penney said. “I mean I got up I put on my Flight suit I ate my cheerios and I drove into work.”

Penney was one of two F-16 fighter pilots with the Air Force that scrambled to find and take down Flight 93 before it hit its likely destination, the U.S. Capitol in Washington. They were in a meeting when they heard of the second tower being hit.

“Immediately, we just all got up from our meeting and went into our squadron bar where our television was and that’s where we saw the same images that everyone else saw that morning,” Penney said. “That’s when we realized our nation was under attack.”

“We knew immediately that we needed to get airborne to protect and defend our nation’s capital we are a fighter unit based out of Andrews Air Force Base where Air Force one flies out of and we are here in the District of Columbia. So we’ve got Congress we’ve got the White House we know that we need to protect not just our civilians our citizens but our nation’s leadership.” Penney said.

The two towers in New York City and the Pentagon had already been hit by the time Flight 93 was already in the air. And through radar, the Air Force identified United 93 to likely be hijacked. “Anyone who saw those images knew what needed to be done anyone who had been in my position would’ve been willing to do the exact same thing and would not have thought twice,” Penney said.

Flight 93 took off from Newark International en route to San Francisco. At 9:28 a.m. it’s likely the hijackers took control and turned the plane near Cleveland, heading in a flight pattern to D.C. Penney and Marc Sasseville (Sas), her flight commander, suited up.

“We were sent on a suicide mission,” Penney said. In 2001, there were few F-16s that sat fully armed with missiles. Penney’s jet was unarmed. Once they found Flight 93, Sas would ram the front of the plane and Penney would take out the tail.

“Because aerodynamically, without the tail, airplanes cannot stay airborne,” Penney said. “They actually tip over and dive straight into the ground.”

After scouring the air above Pennsylvania, the two fighter pilots were unsuccessful. They heard about its crash near Shanksville hours later.

“I was looking out visually to see if I could pick up a low flying airliner using my radar, scrolling down low seeing if I could find a radar contact down low,” Penney said. “But Sas and I never found anything. We were too late. The passengers had already taken down Flight 93.”

Penney doesn’t consider herself a hero. She says she was just a normal person on a far from normal day. “I simply observed what was going on passengers on Flight 93 changed the course of history because if they had not chosen to fight back chosen to crash that airliner they would have made it to DC,” Penney said.

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