Written by Phil Cerroni
‘We woke up on 9/12 and we were still Americans’
By Elaine Paniszczyn
During National Aviation Week, Heather ‘Lucky’ Penney spoke to members of the North Texas Commission about her experiences as one of the first combat pilots in the air on 9/11 at the group’s annual luncheon at Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas Sep. 20.
“Airplanes have a soul…and their story is our story,” Penney said. “We are all the legacy of someone who went before us, and more importantly each of us will leave a legacy for those who come after us. For the decade after 9/11, I did not talk about my experience. I really didn’t feel like I had a story to tell. I was just the wingman.
“Like Pearl Harbor, we all have stories of 9/11 … another day that will live in infamy,” Penney said. “From my perspective, there really wasn’t anything special about my experience, especially after all the 24/7 news coverage that followed. So, I remained silent. For all of those who lost their lives, gave their lives, and lost loved ones, I am compelled today to still hold that experience sacred.”
Penney said on the 10 year commemoration of 9/11 she was asked by her flight commander to participate with him in a National Geographic special. She agreed to do it for him. However, she said in the process of telling the story, others were so moved, that she began to realize that her story of 9/11 really is not her story; it is everybody else’s.
“It belongs to all of us,” Penney said.
Her squadron had just gotten back from Red Flag that previous Saturday where they had been deployed for two weeks at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. They just had a skeleton crew and only had three aircraft to put up the morning of 9/11.
“We were cleaning off the jets, and we were going to make them slick, and we were going to go out and do some dogfighting,” Penney said. “It was going to take maintenance crews a while to get that done, so we sent our boys, Lou Shooter Campbell, Eric Haagenson and Billy Hutcheson down to North Carolina.”
Later, she was sitting in a scheduling meeting when somebody knocked on the door and told them an airplane had just flown into the World Trade Center.
“We looked at each other, and we looked outside,” Penney said. “It was a brilliant, crystal-blue morning, and we quizzically gazed across at each other, ‘How could that happen?’ We thought it was a Cessna. Those things bounce off buildings. So we went back to what we were talking about.”
It was not long until another knock at their door revealed another plane had flown into the other building at the World Trade Center.
“We saw what everyone else on that infamous day saw,” Penney said. “And our hearts stopped. What seemed like hours was really only seconds, because at that point in time, we knew what we had to do. The problem was: We couldn’t, because we had no authorization to get airborne.”
Her commanders started making phone calls “trying to push upwards rather than being pulled.”
Penney said the National Guard has two different chains of command. One is the federal chain of command. The other is the civilian chain of command for the D.C. National Guard, which goes up through the Secretary of the Army, to the Vice President, and to the President of the United States.
“Who, as you can imagine, at that time was kind of busy,” Penney said. “So we had no way to be able to get airborne.”
While the three jets in North Carolina were on their way home, the Pentagon was hit, and the FAA began to ground airplanes.
“One of the pilots called in and said that Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center had called asking if he had any missiles or bombs on board. He wanted to know what was going on. He added that the control center did not want to let him in the air space. He was told to not worry about that. ‘Just keep on coming home.’ The others were told to come in as fast as they could without using the afterburner.
“After the Pentagon got hit, that was when we finally had authorization to launch.”
‘Lucky, you’re with me,’ commanded Col. Marc Sasseville. He told the others to wait until they got missiles on board.
“I don’t know why he picked me,” Penney said. “I don’t know if it was because I was a good pilot or a bad one and therefore expendable.”
But the message was clear: The two pilots were not planning to come back – ever.
“Sasseville looked at me and said, ‘I’ll take the cockpit.’ I knew I was going to take the tail. We had seen what had happened, and it was important to minimize the collateral damage on the ground. By ramming the nose and tail of a hijacked plane, I knew the plane would go straight into the ground as opposed to fanning out and be spread.
“People have asked: ‘Who told you that you needed to ram the airplane?’ The fact is, no one did. We just knew what had to be done. We still didn’t have missiles on board. We’re in a training configuration.”
They each had 105 lead-nosed training bullets on board.
Master battery on…throttle up…Sasseville was already taxiing ahead of her as she yelled to her ground crew to pull the chocks.
“I had never been trained for this. As I moved forward, they are still pulling pins out of my gear. As I’m taxiing, I can hear Billy is getting ready to take off,” she said.
And the other planes returning from North Carolina were coming in. When they tried to get weather stats and other information they needed for landing, this is what they heard:
“This is Andrews Air Force Base, Information Bravo. Andrews Air Force Base is closed. Washington class Bravo airspace is closed. Any aircraft attempting to enter Washington class Bravo airspace will be shot down.”
One lands, and the other two were right behind him. They know there is another hijacked plane, but they do not know where it is. One pilot had enough gas remaining to make one pass up and down the Potomac River.
“One pass; that’s it,” he was commanded. “We think another one’s coming down the river, and we think it’s alone.”
“I was hearing this as I was taxiing down the runway, yelling at my crew chief to pull my chocks,” Penney said. “Get the pins out! Strap. Harness. Seat.”
“Billy takes off, and as he does, he makes one pass over the river low, going on up to the northwest over the Potomac. Full AV. Hits Great Falls, turns back around, comes back down the Potomac where he turns left into the Chesapeake, and then he goes back and lands.”
Sasseville and Penney take off right after him.
“I don’t even have a platform,” Penney said. “This is before GPS, and my radar has not finished its blip. We are free and far, Baby, into that beautiful clear crystal-blue day, headed to the northwest. We flew for a while until we were sure we had sanitized the area and that nobody else was coming in.”
Sasseville told her it was time to go back to be sure they were not outflanked by somebody else who might be out there.
“We never found anyone, and of course we all know why. Sasse and I were not heroes that day. The passengers on Flight Number 3 were, as were all first responders, as were all Samaritans who helped each other in the Towers and in the Pentagon. We weren’t the heroes that day; they were.”
A week or two later, the Pentagon was still smoldering, when one of Penney’s squadron, ‘Tuna’, had to be at there. Somebody recognized his patches.
“Are you a D.C. Guard?” he asked, and this is what the man told him…
“When the Pentagon was hit, they obviously began evacuating. They evacuated to South Parking, out the Metro Entrance, and into North Parking, on the other side of a highway. So you have to go over a bridge, over a busy highway to get to North Parking. People were streaming out all of those entrances to get out of the building.
“There’s a Department of Defense Day Care, right at the base of that bridge. Women were wheeling the children and the infants in their six-kid buggies and three babies to a wheeled crib. But they couldn’t get those buggies and cribs up the stairs and over the bridge to get away from the burning building. The smoke from the fires was coming up from the west side of the building, over the day care, over the bridge and into North Parking … and the women are giving babies away, because they couldn’t carry them over the bridge.
“‘Can you take this child? I can’t get them up.’ Everyone knew there was another (hijacked plane) coming in, but they didn’t know more than that. Unlike in a normal crowd where there’s a low roar because everyone is talking, everyone is silent – with fear – with the unknown as the black cloud drifts over them.
“Then all of a sudden Billy goes roaring over them at 200 feet at Max AV, rattling their chests with the strength of that engine, and the crowd erupted in cheers, because they knew that American fighter jets were airborne. We were overhead. We weren’t going to let anyone hurt them. They were going to be okay.
“I was amazed and very humbled at the outpouring of response that followed the tenth commemoration – heartfelt gratitude for what I had been ready to do that day. I’m genuinely surprised by how many expressed amazement that I was willing to give my life without a second thought. I truly believe that what I did that day was not anything special. I believe that any one of us would have done the exact same thing.
“Why?” Penney asked. “Because there are some things in this world that are more important than my soft, pink body: freedom, the Constitution of the United States, our way of life, mom, apple pie, baseball, those things that make us uniquely American. We all want that thing that is greater than ourselves. That something greater is that ‘thing,’ this idea called America. It binds us together in citizenship, community and brotherhood.
“In the days that followed, yes there was grief, but there was also something far more precious. We came together as Americans. It didn’t matter what color you were, what gender, what sexual orientation, what economic bracket. None of that mattered. What mattered was that you were an American. That we are all Americans, and we share a bond of something far greater, far grander than the small differences that are screeched about on television shows. That thing: America and what it means to be American cannot be broken.
“Hitler couldn’t break it; the Soviet Union couldn’t break it; and Al-Qaida couldn’t break it. We woke up on 9/12 and we were still Americans.
Early lesson learned
“I’m drawn back to the story that Tuna told us about the Pentagon: that we were airborne, that they were safe, and they were going to be okay,” Penney said. “We were only the visible tip of that spear, having an accidental place in history from the graces of chance. I am but one of hundreds of thousands who have pledged to defend our country, our constitution, and our way of life. I am not the first, and I am not the last, but what we do is only possible because of you. We aren’t flying those jets; you are.
Behind the scenes
“It begins with industry – the commitment and innovation of companies like those that make up the North Texas Commission – people who understand that there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves,” Penney said. “We are all part of this greater whole – this wonderful thing called America. We’re living history today and shaping tomorrow. Whether you are the ones who are dedicating your lives to inventing game changing technologies, integrating software and sensors to give us that asymmetric advantage, or designing and engineering the airplanes that we strap on every day, or just making sure that pilots like me have the training and equipment we need to go out in ‘Bad Guy Land,’ accomplish our missions successfully and come back home safely. We are all in this together. We can’t do what we do without you.
“Thank you for your service.”