Two US Air National Guard fighter pilots set out on a suicide mission when they scrambled without ammunition to stop a hijacked flight headed for the nation’s capital after witnessing terrorists slam airplanes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the pair recalled ahead of the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks.
Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney ‘knew immediately, as soon as we saw the images, that we needed to protect and defend,’ Penney told CBS.
In no time the pilots took it upon themselves to take off in their F-16s at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and set out on a kamikaze mission to take down United Flight 93 – the rogue plane they knew was flying low and not communicating with air traffic control.
Flight 93 departed from Newark, New Jersey, around 9.30am and was scheduled to land in San Francisco. Forty-six minutes into the flight hijackers took control of the Boeing 757 and turned the plane around to head toward Washington.
The pilots planned on flying their F-16 into Flight 93. ‘Our only choice was going to be to ram the airliner,’ Penney told CBS, adding that Sasseville took the cockpit ‘to aim at the terrorists’ and she ‘would take the tail’.
‘Sass and I fully expected to intercept Flight 93 and take it down,’ Penney said. ‘I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off. If we did it right, this would be it.’
Air National Guard pilots Lieutenant General Marc Sasseville (left) and Heather Penney (right) set out on a suicide mission, to use themselves as kamikazes, and stop a hijacked plane rerouted to Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001
After watching the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center the pilots planned on flying their unarmed F-16 into Flight 93 despite knowing it was suicide mission
At the time Penney was a young blonde in her 20s. She was one of the first rookie female fighter pilots who signed up as soon as she heard the news that combat aviation was being opened to women.
Penney said neither of them had second thoughts about flying their jet into the hijacked plane despite knowing they wouldn’t survive.
‘As the military, we don’t send our service members on suicide missions. But it was clear what needed to be done that morning,’ she said.
The order did not come through the chain of command, they did not complete the usual 20-minute pre-flight check nor did they arm their jet with missiles.
Sasseville, then a colonel, recalled of that moment: ‘We didn’t have any other choice. And we weren’t going to be caught on the ground watching America get hit again.’
‘We don’t train to “take down” airliners. We never have,’ he added. ‘We didn’t have any missiles and we didn’t have combat loads of bullets. We were going to have to hit the airplane and disable it somehow.’
Unbeknownst to Penney and Sasseville when they took off, the passengers of Flight 93 had already fought back and drove the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania
All 44 passengers on board Flight 93 were killed in the crash-landing. It was about 20 minutes flying time from Washington, DC, and was the only hijacked plane on 9/11 not to hit its intended target
‘Sass and I owe our lives to them,’ Penney said. Sasseville added: ‘Those on Flight 93 that paid the ultimate price, those are the real heroes’
However, unbeknownst to the pilots, the passengers of Flight 93 had already fought back and crashed the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
‘Sass and I owe our lives to them,’ Penney said. Sasseville added that he thinks about 9/11 every day. ‘Those on Flight 93 that paid the ultimate price, those are the real heroes,’ he added.
All 44 passengers on board Flight 93 were killed in the crash. It was about 20 minutes flying time from Washington, DC, and was the only hijacked plane on 9/11 not to hit its intended target.
Penney told CBS that when she thinks of 9/11, ‘instead of being overcome by trauma and the horror and the tragedy, I’m actually overcome by hope’.
‘That the best of who we are was demonstrated on that day,’ she added. ‘So, in some ways, living my life as normally as possible is the biggest way that we can say the terrorists did not win.’
After the mission, Penney went on to become a major and completed two tours in Iraq. She is now a mother-of-two.
Sasseville has earned promotions from colonel to lieutenant and is now the National Guard’s No 2 officer.
Vice President Dick Cheney (right) speaks to President George W Bush over the phone on September 11, 2001 inside The Operations Center at The White House after the attacks. With Cheney are staff members Presidential Counselor Karen Hughes (left) and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (center)
After the mission Penney went on to become a Major and completed two tours in Iraq. She is now a mother-of-two. Sasseville graduated from Colonel to Lieutenant and is now the National Guard’s No 2 officer