9/11 fighter pilot: Don’t let terrorists instill fear

RENO — Fighter pilot Heather “Lucky” Penney says she wasn’t afraid when she was sent to ram a hijacked commercial airliner en route to Washington, D.C., shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

She says she also didn’t feel much emotion the same day when she helped defend the airspace over the nation’s capital and escort Air Force One, with then-President George W. Bush aboard, to Andrews Air Force Base.

A decade later, Penney hopes media attention on the attacks won’t make Americans fearful of the future. She doesn’t think all that much about 9/11 herself, she said.

“I’m not willing to let my life be hijacked, and I don’t think we should let our nation be hijacked,” she said. “We’re a great and resilient country, and there’s no reason to react with fear or let that take us off our game plan.”

Penney, 37, of Annapolis, Md., was among a first generation of women to take advantage when the military opened up combat flight training to them. A single mother, she quit as a fighter pilot in 2009 to devote more time to her two young daughters after serving two tours in Iraq.

She now works for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, flies a C-38 as a traditional Air Guard member, is pursuing a second master’s degree and is preparing to race a jet in next week’s National Championship Air Races in Reno.

On Sept. 11 , Penney sprang into action at Andrews, where she was a lieutenant with the Air National Guard’s 121st fighter squadron.

She said her first mission that day was to prevent a fourth hijacked plane from crashing into a target in Washington. She didn’t know it at the time, but the airliner — United Airlines Flight 93 — had already crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

“I was prepared to die for my country,” she said. “It’s something everyone else would have done if they were in my shoes. I didn’t have time to feel fear. We had a mission, and there was a sense of urgency.”

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