When U.S. President Barack Obama went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a highly publicized but very private meeting with the commando team that killed Osama bin Laden, only one of the 81 members of the super-secret SEAL DevGru unit was identified by name: Cairo, the war dog.
Cairo, like most canine members of the elite U.S. Navy SEALS, is a Belgian Malinois. The Malinois breed is similar to German Sheperds but smaller and more compact, with an adult male weighing in the 30-kilo range.
Pilots often claim that the two worst things that can happen to a pilot are:
(1) Walking out to the aircraft knowing this will be your last flight or
(2) Walking out to the aircraft NOT knowing this will be your last flight.
This pilot’s story adds another possibility….
The events of September 11, 2001, put two F-16 pilots into the sky with orders to bring down United Flight 93.
Late on that Tuesday morning of September 11th, 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.
“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” says Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, remembering the September 11 attacks and the initial U.S. reaction.
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 planned 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 September 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. “We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.
Penney, now a major but still a petite blonde with a Colgate grin, is no longer a combat flier. She flew two tours in Iraq and she serves as a part-time National Guard pilot, mostly hauling VIPs around in a military Gulfstream. She takes the stick of her own vintage 1941 Taylor craft tail-dragger whenever she can.
But none of her thousands of hours in the air quite compare with the urgent rush of launching on what was supposed to be a one-way flight to a midair collision. First of her kind!
She was a rookie in the autumn of 2001, the first female F-16 pilot they’d ever had at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. She had grown up smelling jet fuel. Her father flew jets in Vietnam and still races them. Penney got her pilot’s license when she was a literature major at Purdue. She planned to be a teacher. But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened up combat aviation to women and Penney was nearly first in line. “I signed up immediately,” she says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”
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 Cessna. 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. ‘Let’s go!’
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 engine, 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.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”
She and Sasseville flew the rest of the day, clearing the airspace, escorting the president, looking down onto a city that would soon be sending them to war.
She’s a single mom of two girls now. She still loves to fly. And she still thinks often of that extraordinary ride down the runway a decade ago.
“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she says.
Remembering the Pacific is a video podcast series that presents the personal stories behind World War II’s Pacific Theater. Hear American and Japanese servicemen tell their war stories from December 7, 1941 through the war to the ongoing reconciliation between the two countries. Witness the effects on the home front as American and Japanese civilians recount the emotions of the war years and come to terms with loved ones lost, sacrifices made and recognition of civil rights. Hear about the personal importance of the memorials and the lasting impacts of the Pacific War.
America‘s Secret Atomic City:
The city of Oak Ridge located in eastern Tennessee was established in 1942 as the production site for the Manhattan Project, the American, British and Canadian operation to develop the atomic bomb. At its height, over 75,000 people lived there, but most of them had no idea that they were producing uranium until the bombs dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. In a fascinating look into this ‘secret’ town, learn about the residents’ daily life and the sacrifices they made of the atomic bomb.
If World War One was a bar Fight
• Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint.
• Austria demands Serbia buy it a complete new suit because there are splashes on its trouser leg.
• Germany expresses its support for Austria’s point of view.
• Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.
• Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers.
• Russia and Serbia look at Austria.
• Austria asks Serbia who it’s looking at.
• Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone.
• Austria inquires as to whose army will assist Russia in compelling it to do so.
• Germany appeals to Britain that France has been looking at it, and that this is sufficiently out of order that Britain should not intervene. Britain replies that France can look at who it wants to, that Britain is looking at Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it?
• Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action.
• Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium.
• Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone.
• Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium.
• France and Britain punch Germany.
• Austria punches Russia.
• Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other.
• Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over.
• Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there.
• Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria.
• Australia punches Turkey, and gets punched back.
• There are no hard feelings because Britain made Australia do it.
• France gets thrown through a plate glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change.
• Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway.
• Italy raises both fists in the air and runs round the room chanting.
• America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool, then pretends it won the fight all by itself.
• By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault . While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.
If World War Two was a bar fight
• After the last bar fight, America decides that he needs to be the bartender and the bouncer and moves behind the bar.
• Germany comes to and sees everyone drinking with his money and sees Austria sitting in the corner by himself.
• Germany, angry that Britain, France, and America took his wallet grabs Austria and makes him stand next to him.
• Germany then does the same to Czechoslovakia.
• On the other side of the room, Japan punches China. After a while, America tells them to knock it off.
• Germany signs a bar napkin telling Britain that he is done moving people over to his side of the room.
• Germany sucker punches Poland, claiming that Poland started it.
• Russia says he will help and ends up punching Poland from the other side.
• France and Britain begin swinging at Germany. Germany pushes Britain through the door and knocks him into the pool. France is also shoved through the door, but comes back in wearing a new beret and decides to hang out with Germany.
• For no apparent reason, Russia slaps Finland.
• Italy gets into a fight over the toys in the sandbox out back, gets a bloody nose and cries to Germany for help.
• Germany and Britain get into a tug of war over Italy’s sandbox.
• Britain and Germany begin throwing rocks at each others’ houses.
• Because Russia helped him with beating up Poland, Germany sucker punches Russia.
• While everybody is looking at Germany and Britain, Japan puts China into a headlock and begins punching his head.
• America tells Japan to knock it off and tells him he’s had too much to drink and he’s cut off.
• Japan jumps over the bar and punches America. And Britain. And France. And the Netherlands.
• Germany shakes his fist at America and makes a rude noise.
• America jumps into Germany’s sandbox and falls flat on his ass. Italy laughs at him.
• Because America is mad at Germany, America punches Italy.
• America, Canada, and Britain rip off France’s new beret and punch Germany.
• America, Britain and Australia gang up and start shoving Japan back into a corner on the other side of the room.
• Germany taps America on the shoulder and says, “What’s that over there in the snow?” Then he kicks America in the behind when he’s not looking.
• Everyone piles on Germany until he passes out.
• America hits Japan in the face with a baseball bat like Capone did in “The Untouchables”. Twice.
• As Japan is on his way to the floor, Russia shakes his fist at Japan, pretending that he’s joined the fight and hoping that he’ll be able to go through Japan’s wallet after the fight’s over.
• After Japan and Germany wake up, America, France, Britain, and Russia move into Germany’s House. America moves into Japan’s house, too.
• America buys drinks for Germany and Japan until everyone is happy again.