The would-be kamikaze of 9/11

The passengers on Flight 93 rose up against the hijackers, who crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field rather than the White House or whatever their target was.  We now know that if that hadn’t happened, the military was prepared to take down the airliner, passengers at all.  But it was even worse than that.  Incredibly, the available jet fighters were not armed.  Two pilots scrambled to take down the airliner in a kamikaze attack.  One of the suicide pilots was a woman.  She told her story, after a decade of silence, to the WashingtonPost:

Late in the morning of the Tuesday that changed everything, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base and ready to fly. She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93. The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything at all to throw at a hostile aircraft.

Except her own plane. So that was the plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

For years, Penney, one of the first generation of female combat pilots in the country, gave no interviews about her experiences on Sept. 11 (which included, eventually, escorting Air Force One back into Washington’s suddenly highly restricted airspace).

But 10 years later, she is reflecting on one of the lesser-told tales of that endlessly examined morning: how the first counterpunch the U.S. military prepared to throw at the attackers was effectively a suicide mission. . . .

On that Tuesday, they had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada. They were sitting around a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. When it happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cesna. When it happened again, they knew it was war.

But the surprise was complete. In the monumental confusion of those first hours, it was impossible to get clear orders. Nothing was ready. The jets were still equipped with dummy bullets from the training mission.

As remarkable as it seems now, there were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington. Before that morning, all eyes were looking outward, still scanning the old Cold War threat paths for planes and missiles coming over the polar ice cap.“There was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that,” says Col. George Degnon, vice commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews. “It was a little bit of a helpless feeling, but we did everything humanly possible to get the aircraft armed and in the air. It was amazing to see people react.”

Things are different today, ­Degnon says. At least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, their pilots never more than yards from the cockpit.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane could be on the way, maybe more. The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked Col. Marc Sasseville.

They were gearing up in the pre-flight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating.

“I’ll take the tail.”

It was a plan. And a pact.

Penney had never scrambled a jet before. Normally the pre-flight is a half-hour or so of methodical checks. She automatically started going down the list.

“Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted.

She climbed in, rushed to power up the engines, screamed for her ground crew to pull the chocks. The crew chief still had his headphones plugged into the fuselage as she nudged the throttle forward. He ran along pulling safety pins from the jet as it moved forward.

She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer — “God, don’t let me [expletive] up” — and followed Sasse­ville into the sky.

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon. Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?

“I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he says. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out.

“If you eject and your jet soars through without impact . . .” she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

But she didn’t have to die. She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of kids and salesmen and girlfriends. They did that themselves.

It would be hours before Penney and Sasseville learned that United 93 had already gone down in Pennsylvania, an insurrection by hostages willing to do just what the two Guard pilots had been willing to do: Anything. And everything.

via F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11 – The Washington Post.

This is disturbing in SO many ways! Like what?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.newreformationpress.com Patrick Kyle

    I am glad to know that we have brave people like that defending us.

  • http://www.newreformationpress.com Patrick Kyle

    I am glad to know that we have brave people like that defending us.

  • Joe

    I am not disturbed by this. It is wonderful to know that their are men and women who love their neighbors so much that they would accept this vocation.

  • Joe

    I am not disturbed by this. It is wonderful to know that their are men and women who love their neighbors so much that they would accept this vocation.

  • Tom Hering

    As admirable as these two pilots are for their willingness to carry out their vocation – right to the bitter end – let’s remember that the people who actually gave their lives in defense of their country that day were civilians. The passengers of Flight 93. What amazes me is that my fellow citizens can rise to such an occasion – that the heart of a hero beats (clearly must beat) in so many of my neighbors.

    http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/flight_93/a/passengers.htm

  • Tom Hering

    As admirable as these two pilots are for their willingness to carry out their vocation – right to the bitter end – let’s remember that the people who actually gave their lives in defense of their country that day were civilians. The passengers of Flight 93. What amazes me is that my fellow citizens can rise to such an occasion – that the heart of a hero beats (clearly must beat) in so many of my neighbors.

    http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/flight_93/a/passengers.htm

  • Susan

    Disturbing only in that something like that would need to be considered at all.

    Thank you, Lord, for those men and women who are willing to give the last full measure in defense of our nation.

    Can any better illustration of Christ’s own sacrifice be seen than in this?

  • Susan

    Disturbing only in that something like that would need to be considered at all.

    Thank you, Lord, for those men and women who are willing to give the last full measure in defense of our nation.

    Can any better illustration of Christ’s own sacrifice be seen than in this?

  • michael henry

    So an unarmed fighter jet with a pilot didn’t have to do what was planned, and the pilot didn’t have to make the decision (which she didn’t , since the passengers took care of the situation) to be a “kamikaze”, is now a hero? Please.

    I applaud and respect every man and woman who serves in any branch of the military, as do we all. But I don’t see any particular heroism in going to do what one didn’t end up having to do.

  • michael henry

    So an unarmed fighter jet with a pilot didn’t have to do what was planned, and the pilot didn’t have to make the decision (which she didn’t , since the passengers took care of the situation) to be a “kamikaze”, is now a hero? Please.

    I applaud and respect every man and woman who serves in any branch of the military, as do we all. But I don’t see any particular heroism in going to do what one didn’t end up having to do.

  • Carl Vehse

    @5: “I don’t see any particular heroism in going to do what one didn’t end up having to do.”

    Especially when “what one didn’t end up having to do” was actually done by the real heroes, as Heather Penney noted, “The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves.”

    It’s surprising that the Washington Compost writer, Steve Hendrix, even bothered to include Penney’s comment, since he managed to disgrace himself by describing the heroes’ actions as “an insurrection by hostages.”

  • Carl Vehse

    @5: “I don’t see any particular heroism in going to do what one didn’t end up having to do.”

    Especially when “what one didn’t end up having to do” was actually done by the real heroes, as Heather Penney noted, “The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves.”

    It’s surprising that the Washington Compost writer, Steve Hendrix, even bothered to include Penney’s comment, since he managed to disgrace himself by describing the heroes’ actions as “an insurrection by hostages.”

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, I have no clue what you’re angling for, Dr. Veith.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, I have no clue what you’re angling for, Dr. Veith.

  • DonS

    The only thing that bothers me about this story is that these pilots had to consider a suicide mission to save the Capitol.

    The heroism of that morning, demonstrated especially by these pilots, the passengers of Flight 93, and the first responders in the WTC Towers 1 and 2, who all knew they were acting at great peril to their own lives, to save others, is inspirational.

  • DonS

    The only thing that bothers me about this story is that these pilots had to consider a suicide mission to save the Capitol.

    The heroism of that morning, demonstrated especially by these pilots, the passengers of Flight 93, and the first responders in the WTC Towers 1 and 2, who all knew they were acting at great peril to their own lives, to save others, is inspirational.

  • Joe

    People – no one is suggesting that what these two pilots were prepared to do somehow detracts from what the passengers actually did. If you read it that way, stop check yourself and try again.

  • Joe

    People – no one is suggesting that what these two pilots were prepared to do somehow detracts from what the passengers actually did. If you read it that way, stop check yourself and try again.

  • Tom Hering

    Joe @ 9, I’m not suggesting that the pilots’ story detracts from what the crew and passengers of Flight 93 did. What I’m suggesting is there’s no comparison, as one story tells us about the intention of two people, and the other story tells us about the actual sacrifice made by forty people. I don’t want to see the definition of “hero” broadened to the point where it becomes meaningless. The pilots’ story is the story of almost heroes.

  • Tom Hering

    Joe @ 9, I’m not suggesting that the pilots’ story detracts from what the crew and passengers of Flight 93 did. What I’m suggesting is there’s no comparison, as one story tells us about the intention of two people, and the other story tells us about the actual sacrifice made by forty people. I don’t want to see the definition of “hero” broadened to the point where it becomes meaningless. The pilots’ story is the story of almost heroes.

  • Katie

    I am with tODD here. I am curious to hear your angle, Dr Veith.

  • Katie

    I am with tODD here. I am curious to hear your angle, Dr Veith.

  • Dust

    a few possibilities: that any of us could be passengers on some given jet plane some day, and unbeknownst to us, the nations security apparatus has determined the plane has been hijacked and will be used to inflict grave damage on some given location. in response, the security team has decided to shoot down the plane. so with all of us on board, sipping our rum and coke, and the kids watching a favorite movie and mom catching up on her reading, a powerful missile is heading our way, and in a matter of moments will disturb the peacefulness of our family time and seriously upset our vacation plans. better hope the intelligence concerning the bad guys on board was correct, and they got the right plane. guess that’s the price of security, but it seems somewhat disturbing to me?

    another one: that up until the events of 9-11 most of the planes designed to provide security and protect against hostilities, did not carry live ammo?

    well, am probably SO far off :(

  • Dust

    a few possibilities: that any of us could be passengers on some given jet plane some day, and unbeknownst to us, the nations security apparatus has determined the plane has been hijacked and will be used to inflict grave damage on some given location. in response, the security team has decided to shoot down the plane. so with all of us on board, sipping our rum and coke, and the kids watching a favorite movie and mom catching up on her reading, a powerful missile is heading our way, and in a matter of moments will disturb the peacefulness of our family time and seriously upset our vacation plans. better hope the intelligence concerning the bad guys on board was correct, and they got the right plane. guess that’s the price of security, but it seems somewhat disturbing to me?

    another one: that up until the events of 9-11 most of the planes designed to provide security and protect against hostilities, did not carry live ammo?

    well, am probably SO far off :(

  • Cincinnatus

    Eh, we would have been better off if the airliner had hit its target, presumably the Capitol, hopefully with Congress in session.

    /too soon?

  • Cincinnatus

    Eh, we would have been better off if the airliner had hit its target, presumably the Capitol, hopefully with Congress in session.

    /too soon?

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    I thought it interesting (and surprising) that there were no “hot-cocked” planes prior to 9/11. I, for one am glad that there are some standing at the ready now.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    I thought it interesting (and surprising) that there were no “hot-cocked” planes prior to 9/11. I, for one am glad that there are some standing at the ready now.

  • Woman of the House

    I’m guessing that one of the things Dr. Veith is disturbed about is that women are combat pilots at all and that a woman would be in this position. My second guess is the unreadiness of the military in not having armed planes ready to go at all times. My third guess is that the lives of civilians would be treated so cheaply. As it turned out, they all died anyway (heroically, I might add), but in the chaos of that morning, no one could have known that beforehand. These are what I am guessing Dr. Veith finds disturbing.

  • Woman of the House

    I’m guessing that one of the things Dr. Veith is disturbed about is that women are combat pilots at all and that a woman would be in this position. My second guess is the unreadiness of the military in not having armed planes ready to go at all times. My third guess is that the lives of civilians would be treated so cheaply. As it turned out, they all died anyway (heroically, I might add), but in the chaos of that morning, no one could have known that beforehand. These are what I am guessing Dr. Veith finds disturbing.

  • Dust

    2 other disturbing thoughts…….1) that military personnel who’s mission could be loosely described as “to serve and protect” were forced to consider the unthinkable…to purposely take the lives of many civilians, the opposite of the spirit of their training and mission.

    the other is on a much more cynical level….can’t help thinking their is something disturbing in some way (simple chauvinism perhaps) in this exchange:

    “I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

    She replied without hesitating.

    “I’ll take the tail.”

    What would be interesting to know is nowadays, with computers able to control the flight of sophisticated jets, why don’t they just lock out the controls of any plane hijacked and have the computer guide them either to a safe landing or out to sea for a water landing with minimal damage to civilians and property? Kind of should make hijackers think twice about the value of their act, if they know they can’t control the plane…what’s the point of taking over the controls, the computer has them and is not giving them back!

  • Dust

    2 other disturbing thoughts…….1) that military personnel who’s mission could be loosely described as “to serve and protect” were forced to consider the unthinkable…to purposely take the lives of many civilians, the opposite of the spirit of their training and mission.

    the other is on a much more cynical level….can’t help thinking their is something disturbing in some way (simple chauvinism perhaps) in this exchange:

    “I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

    She replied without hesitating.

    “I’ll take the tail.”

    What would be interesting to know is nowadays, with computers able to control the flight of sophisticated jets, why don’t they just lock out the controls of any plane hijacked and have the computer guide them either to a safe landing or out to sea for a water landing with minimal damage to civilians and property? Kind of should make hijackers think twice about the value of their act, if they know they can’t control the plane…what’s the point of taking over the controls, the computer has them and is not giving them back!

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    What’s appalling to me; a woman fighter pilot, losing her family (she’s a single mom) in her rise up the ranks, and an Air Force that apparently doesn’t give Lieutenant Fife a bullet until it’s too late. Really, do civilized nations allow their women to do the dying for the men? Since when?

    (it’s worth noting that a great contributor to the tragedies we’ll commemorate December 7 were also enabled by an Air Force that for whatever reason did not have very many armed aircraft available, not flying patrols despite the fact that we were deliberately provoking the Japanese at the time)

    I also have to wonder if bringing down an airplane without ammunition could be as simple as turning on the afterburners while buzzing the victim plane and shattering the cockpit windows, or even simply by directing the air flow at the plane’s wings. It’s not for no reason, after all, that airliners are required to keep distances while flying measured in miles.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    What’s appalling to me; a woman fighter pilot, losing her family (she’s a single mom) in her rise up the ranks, and an Air Force that apparently doesn’t give Lieutenant Fife a bullet until it’s too late. Really, do civilized nations allow their women to do the dying for the men? Since when?

    (it’s worth noting that a great contributor to the tragedies we’ll commemorate December 7 were also enabled by an Air Force that for whatever reason did not have very many armed aircraft available, not flying patrols despite the fact that we were deliberately provoking the Japanese at the time)

    I also have to wonder if bringing down an airplane without ammunition could be as simple as turning on the afterburners while buzzing the victim plane and shattering the cockpit windows, or even simply by directing the air flow at the plane’s wings. It’s not for no reason, after all, that airliners are required to keep distances while flying measured in miles.

  • Cincinnatus

    Also, it was fairly well-known (I think?) that either the White House or the Capitol were the intended targets. The President was not at home, and, if Congress was even in session, there was time to evacuate the building. In short, I’m rather shocked that the desire to preserve an architectural monument justified the potential killing of ~100 innocent civilians, not to mention the fighter pilots and hijackers.

    But, as I said earlier, only half in jest, all the better had Congress been in session.

  • Cincinnatus

    Also, it was fairly well-known (I think?) that either the White House or the Capitol were the intended targets. The President was not at home, and, if Congress was even in session, there was time to evacuate the building. In short, I’m rather shocked that the desire to preserve an architectural monument justified the potential killing of ~100 innocent civilians, not to mention the fighter pilots and hijackers.

    But, as I said earlier, only half in jest, all the better had Congress been in session.

  • Dust

    Dr. Veith…where are you? Inquiring minds want to know….

  • Dust

    Dr. Veith…where are you? Inquiring minds want to know….

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bubba (@17) asked:

    I also have to wonder if bringing down an airplane without ammunition could be as simple as turning on the afterburners while buzzing the victim plane and shattering the cockpit windows, or even…

    Along those lines, I have to wonder if people who actually fly fighter jets for a living might know more about this topic than random blog commenters. That’s mere conjecture, of course…

    And Cincinnatus (@18),

    Also, it was fairly well-known (I think?) that…

    Ha. I believe your parenthetical remark pretty much undermines your claim there. From what I’ve read, it’s not “well-known” now what the targets were — no one really knows. Am I to believe that, on the day of the actual event, when there was vast amounts of confusion, that it was a sure thing that Flight 93 was only going to strike an “architectural monument” devoid of any people?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bubba (@17) asked:

    I also have to wonder if bringing down an airplane without ammunition could be as simple as turning on the afterburners while buzzing the victim plane and shattering the cockpit windows, or even…

    Along those lines, I have to wonder if people who actually fly fighter jets for a living might know more about this topic than random blog commenters. That’s mere conjecture, of course…

    And Cincinnatus (@18),

    Also, it was fairly well-known (I think?) that…

    Ha. I believe your parenthetical remark pretty much undermines your claim there. From what I’ve read, it’s not “well-known” now what the targets were — no one really knows. Am I to believe that, on the day of the actual event, when there was vast amounts of confusion, that it was a sure thing that Flight 93 was only going to strike an “architectural monument” devoid of any people?

  • DonS

    I think it was suspicion, not actual knowledge, based on the plane’s flight path, that a target in D.C. was intended, and the most logical ones were the Capitol and the White House. By then it was also known that the airline passengers were almost certainly doomed in any event, because officials knew from onboard phone calls that the pilots were incapacitated, so there was really no one on board to pilot the plane to a safe landing. So, we’re really talking about the sacrifice of the lives of the two combat pilots, in exchange for the risk of a crash into a highly populated city at some high value target. It’s hard to imagine that such a crash would not have resulted in multiple on-the-ground deaths, in addition to the deaths of all onboard, regardless of evacuation procedures in effect. The government had no choice but to plan to bring down the plane before it had an opportunity to reach D. C.

    Women combat pilots bother me a great deal. We should not be putting our women in that kind of harm’s way, in my opinion. But, unfortunately, that battle was fought long ago, and women in combat is part of the deal now. Fortunately, I do not believe “Lucky” Penney was a mom at that time, and there is no denying her bravery in accepting her orders to do what it takes to bring the plane down.

    I’m glad they didn’t have to do it, and I very much honor the sheer bravery of the passengers of Flight 93, who were no doubt in terror at their certain knowledge of impending horrific death, and yet did what they knew they had to do.

  • DonS

    I think it was suspicion, not actual knowledge, based on the plane’s flight path, that a target in D.C. was intended, and the most logical ones were the Capitol and the White House. By then it was also known that the airline passengers were almost certainly doomed in any event, because officials knew from onboard phone calls that the pilots were incapacitated, so there was really no one on board to pilot the plane to a safe landing. So, we’re really talking about the sacrifice of the lives of the two combat pilots, in exchange for the risk of a crash into a highly populated city at some high value target. It’s hard to imagine that such a crash would not have resulted in multiple on-the-ground deaths, in addition to the deaths of all onboard, regardless of evacuation procedures in effect. The government had no choice but to plan to bring down the plane before it had an opportunity to reach D. C.

    Women combat pilots bother me a great deal. We should not be putting our women in that kind of harm’s way, in my opinion. But, unfortunately, that battle was fought long ago, and women in combat is part of the deal now. Fortunately, I do not believe “Lucky” Penney was a mom at that time, and there is no denying her bravery in accepting her orders to do what it takes to bring the plane down.

    I’m glad they didn’t have to do it, and I very much honor the sheer bravery of the passengers of Flight 93, who were no doubt in terror at their certain knowledge of impending horrific death, and yet did what they knew they had to do.

  • Joe

    Tom – did someone call these fighter pilots heros? I don’t see the word in the article, in the post or in the comments – that is until your comment.

  • Joe

    Tom – did someone call these fighter pilots heros? I don’t see the word in the article, in the post or in the comments – that is until your comment.

  • Tom Hering

    Joe, it’s implied. :-D

  • Tom Hering

    Joe, it’s implied. :-D

  • WebMonk

    Does anyone remember watching the television, on 9/11, and seeing that heartwrenching video footage of the second plane making it’s inexorable turn into the second tower, vanishing for just a moment behind the building before the cloud of material and smoke billowed out?

    At that moment, everyone knew they weren’t going for merely architectural monuments, tODD.
    ;-)

  • WebMonk

    Does anyone remember watching the television, on 9/11, and seeing that heartwrenching video footage of the second plane making it’s inexorable turn into the second tower, vanishing for just a moment behind the building before the cloud of material and smoke billowed out?

    At that moment, everyone knew they weren’t going for merely architectural monuments, tODD.
    ;-)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    WebMonk (@24), I believe your emoticons should be directed at Cincinnatus (@18), not me (@20).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    WebMonk (@24), I believe your emoticons should be directed at Cincinnatus (@18), not me (@20).

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  • Grace

    I’m very disappointed that anyone is called to committ suicide just as the Japanese did, when they pulled their kamikaze attacks on our military ships, etc, WW2.

    Ramming a plane into another, kowingly killing those on board, thus your own death as well, is murdering others, and suicide for yourself - did Jesus preach that Gospel?

  • Grace

    I’m very disappointed that anyone is called to committ suicide just as the Japanese did, when they pulled their kamikaze attacks on our military ships, etc, WW2.

    Ramming a plane into another, kowingly killing those on board, thus your own death as well, is murdering others, and suicide for yourself - did Jesus preach that Gospel?