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An F-16 pilot who scrambled on 9/11 to prevent another attack on the US capital says she was prepared to ram her plane into a hijacked aircraft — as there was no time to arm her plane with missiles.
Amid fears another hijacked airliner was barreling towards Washington, Heather Penney, then a lieutenant in the Washington DC National Guard, was one of two pilots ordered to take off without delay, she said in a recent interview.
The threat of an attack on US soil was seen as such a remote possibility at the time that the 121st fighter squadron at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington had no fully-armed fighter jets on standby.
With only 105 lead-nosed bullets on board, Penney and Colonel Marc Sasseville took to the skies, while two other F-16s waited to be armed with heat-seeking AIM-9 missiles, Penney told C-SPAN television this week.
The pilots had orders from the White House to take out any plane that refused to heed warnings and land, so the two pilots agreed on their plan.
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We would be ramming the aircraft because we didn’t have weapons on board to be able to shoot the airplane down,” Penney said.
As they were putting on their flight gear, “Sass looked at me and said, ‘I’ll ram the cockpit.’
“And I had made the decision that I would take the tail off the aircraft,” she said.
Penney said she “knew if I took off the tail of the aircraft, that it would essentially go straight down and so the pattern of debris would be minimized.”
She said she thought about possibly ejecting just before impact.
“I would essentially be a kamikaze and ram my aircraft into the tail of the aircraft. I gave some thought to, you know, would I have time to eject?”
But the young pilot was concerned about failing to hit the target.
“I mean you only got one chance, you don’t want to eject and have missed, right? ”
When she took the plane down the runway, she said she believed it be the last take-off of her life.
In the end, Flight 93 never reached Washington, as passengers assaulted the hijackers in the cockpit and the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
But the F-16 pilots did not learn of the aircraft’s fate until later that day, said Penney, now a major.
“The people on Flight 93 were heroes, but they were going to die no matter what,” she said. “My concern was how do I minimize collateral damage on the ground.”
Later that afternoon, Penney helped escort Air Force One, with former president George W. Bush on board, back to Andrews Air Force base.
A few years later, she flew missions in the Iraq war, hunting for SCUD missiles and backing up special operations forces.
Penney was among the first wave of female fighter pilots and she has since stopped flying full-time. The mother of two girls, she now works as a corporate executive, according to the Washington Post.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Penney said she was absorbed with the urgent job at hand and had no time for emotions.
“It wasn’t so much that I kept my emotions in check. It was that they didn’t even exist,” she said.
“There was significant adrelaine. It was really just, dear God please don’t let me screw up.”