F-16 pilot scrambled on 9/11 was prepared to down own father’s plane

Maj. Heather &quotLucky" Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air on 9/11.
Tech Sgt. Johnathon Orrell/National Guard Bureau Public Affairs
Maj. Heather "Lucky" Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air on 9/11.
Posted Sept. 15, 2011, at 10:44 a.m.

An Air National Guard F-16 pilot who was prepared to carry out a kamikaze mission against a commercial airliner on Sept. 11, 2001, revealed this week that her father could well have been one of the airliner’s hijacked pilots.

Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the first fighter pilots in the air over Washington that morning, had been ordered airborne out of fear that a hijacked plane was heading to the capital. In the scramble, she and Col. Marc Sasseville had to launch without live ammunition or missiles and were prepared to ram the Boeing 757, at the likely cost of their own lives as well as those of everyone on board.

The potential coincidence was revealed by Penney’s mother, Stephanie Penney, in an email to The Washington Post. “We were thankful that Heather was able to put her emotions aside and not even consider that her father might have been flying on United 93,” wrote Stephanie Penney, who lives in Colorado.

“Yes, John (Penney) was a captain for United Airlines at that time,” she elaborated later by phone. “He flew 757s and had been flying trips into and out of the East Coast the month before. Heather would not have known for sure that her dad wasn’t the captain on United 93.”

Interviewed for a Post story prepared in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Heather Penney hadn’t mentioned that the extraordinary “kamikaze mission” she was ready to execute that day might well have been directed at a plane that carried the man who had once tucked her in, driven her to school and taught her to love fast airplanes.

“This sounds cold-hearted, I mean that was my daddy,” Penney said from Reno, Nev., where she and her father are flying for separate teams in the annual Reno Air Races. “But, frankly, there was no way for me to know, and it would not have changed what I needed to do at all.”

None of this was clear at the time. In the rush of events, then-Lt. Penney had not been able to contact her parents. She didn’t know whether her father was flying. She didn’t know the identity of the hijacked plane air traffic controllers thought was heading for Washington (and which had probably crashed in Pennsylvania even before she was in the air).

But when it was all sorted out, the cosmic near-miss aspect of those extraordinary possibilities was greeted with a business-as-usual shrug in the Penney household.

“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 apart or anything like that. She’s a fighter pilot; I’m a fighter pilot.”

Penney, retired from both the military and the airlines, also spoke from Reno. He is a veteran racer, flying this week a highly modified Grumman Bearcat; his daughter is racing a Czech L-29 Delfin, a jet she takes around the pylons at 500 miles an hour, some 50 feet off the ground.

Stephanie Penney, wife and mother of these extreme aviators, said they did take comfort 10 years ago that at least one of the potential horrors of Sept. 11 didn’t happen.

“I did say to Heather, ‘We’re really glad that wasn’t your dad and that you didn’t have to think about that,’ ” she said. “She just said, ‘Mom, I couldn’t think about it. I had a job to do.’ That’s what we’re most proud of Heather for, that she was doing her job.”

Although John Penney wasn’t flying United 93 that day, one of his best work buddies was. Jason Dahl, the captain of that flight, was Penney’s cubicle mate back at United’s pilot training center. He and his wife had dined with the Dahls. They bragged about their kids to each other.

On Sept. 11, Penney’s daughter would have taken out Dahl’s plane if the passengers of Flight 93 hadn’t beaten her to it.

“Had we heard that Heather and Sasseville been successful, it would have been utterly devastating for my wife and I,” John Penney said. “With Jason on the plane, it would have been an additional level of grief. But there were thousands of families that learned about the loss of their loved ones that day. Everybody had a job to do.”

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