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.
The article focuses on Penney, "one of the first generation of female combat pilots in the country," for perhaps obvious reasons. But her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville, was flying his own F-16, also prepared to give his own life (and would likely have done so first, if it had been necessary).
Still, it's an inspiring story.
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.
I must say that I feel like we've let down those heroes of Flight 93. Instead of just going after the criminals responsible for this attack, we used it as an excuse to wage war - two wars, one against a nation that had absolutely no connection to 9/11 whatsoever.
Instead of defending American values, we tortured prisoners of war and forced through the "Patriot Act" to restrict our own rights. We let a tiny fraction of our young men and women fight and die for us, while we refused even to pay the taxes to support them. (We've even been too cheap to pay the health costs of the 9/11 responders!)
And while Americans of all races, religions, and backgrounds died on that day - and have fought for us since - all too many of our leaders used America's fear to increase hate and bigotry in this country. (And the rest of us let them do it.)
September 11, 2001 was a day of tragedy. But in some ways, what we've done since has been the greater tragedy.