Two decades have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, and more people are still discovering the acts of bravery concealed within the chaos of that day.
In a recent interview, Heather Penney, an alumna of Purdue University, told the university that she planned to crash her F-16 fighter jet into the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to prevent further devastation.
Her story came to the public in 2011 during a 10th-anniversary event commemorating the attacks. Penney, who graduated from Purdue in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in English and in 1997 with a master’s in American studies, stood ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. Alongside her flight lead, Marc Sasseville, they took off from Andrews Air Force Base without arming their F-16s.
Their mission was clear — if they located the hijacked Flight 93, they would crash their fighter jets into the rogue plane, preventing it from reaching its suspected target, either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
“When Sass and I took off, we believed that if we were successful, this was a one-way mission, that this was a suicide mission,” Penny said in a release.
However, they never found the airliner in time due to delays. Despite that, the actions of the passengers and crew on Flight 93 averted another national catastrophe. In hindsight, Penney considers their mission a failure, primarily due to organizational shortcomings that delayed its response.
Penney added that her path to becoming a fighter pilot differed from the traditional route. Initially, she enrolled at Purdue with plans to study aeronautical engineering and join Air Force ROTC, but she changed her major to English after realizing her true passion didn’t align with engineering. Despite the shift, she stayed connected to aviation, earning a pilot’s license and participating in the Air Race Classic. Only after learning that rules barring women from flying combat aircraft had been lifted did Penney pursue her dream of becoming a fighter pilot. Joining the Air National Guard, she trained to fly the F-16, becoming one of the first American women to do so.
Her journey into combat aviation was challenging. She faced skepticism and self-doubt but persevered to become an expert fighter pilot, earning the nickname “Lucky” from her colleagues. On the morning of 9/11, Penney took off on a mission that would change her life. However, delays in authorization prevented her and Sasseville from reaching Flight 93 in time to carry out their heroic plan.
Nonetheless, she remains committed to sharing this story and her experiences, emphasizing the heroism of everyday Americans who rose to the occasion on Sept. 11, 2001. She’s now encouraged others to work together for the common good and honor the legacy of those there that day.
This story is available and featured on Purdue’s Podcast Ep. 77: Fighter Pilot Heather Penney Reflects on Purdue Journey and 9/11 Mission.