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F-16 pilot was ready to down her father’s plane

Oh, and one other thing about that F-16 pilot we wrote about in this space last week . That commercial airliner she was supposed to bring down on Sept. 11, 2001? It turns out her father could well have been one of the pilots.

When we chronicled the little-told Sept. 11 history of Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the first fighter pilots in the air over Washington that morning, we knew that she and Col. Marc Sasseville had been ordered airborne out of fear that a hijacked plane was heading to the capital. We knew that in the scramble, they had to launch without live ammunition or missiles. We knew they were prepared to ram that 757, at the likely cost of their own lives as well as those of everyone on board.

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The Washington Post's Anqoinette Crosby talks with reporter Steve Hendrix about one of the first fighter pilots to scramble after the attacks of Sept. 11. With no ordinance on board her jet, she was faced with the possibility of ramming her plane into one of the hijacked passenger jets.

The Washington Post's Anqoinette Crosby talks with reporter Steve Hendrix about one of the first fighter pilots to scramble after the attacks of Sept. 11. With no ordinance on board her jet, she was faced with the possibility of ramming her plane into one of the hijacked passenger jets.

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What we didn’t know until Penney’s mother e-mailed us, with a request to mail a copy of the story to her in Colorado, was this additional Penney-family fact about that day: “We were thankful that Heather was able to put her emotions aside and not even consider that her father might have been flying on United 93,” Stephanie Penney said as an aside in her e-mail.

How’s that?

“Yes, John [Penney] was a captain for United Airlines at that time,” she elaborated later by phone. “He flew 757s and had been flying trips into and out of the East Coast the month before. Heather would not have known for sure that her dad wasn’t the captain on United 93.”

No, Heather Penney hadn’t mentioned that the extraordinary “kamikaze mission” she was ready to execute that day might well have been directed at a plane that carried the man who had once tucked her in, driven her to school and taught her to love fast airplanes.

“This sounds cold-hearted; I mean that was my daddy,” Penney said from Reno, where she and her father are flying for separate teams in the annual Reno Air Races. “But, frankly, there was no way for me to know, and it would not have changed what I needed to do at all.”

Of course, none of this was clear at the time. In the rush of events, then-Lt. Penney had not been able to contact her parents. She didn’t know whether her father was flying. She didn’t know the identity of the hijacked plane air traffic controllers thought was heading for Washington (and which had probably crashed in Pennsylvania even before she was in the air).

But when it was all sorted out, the cosmic near-miss aspect of those extraordinary possibilities was greeted with a business-as-usual shrug in the Penney household.

“We talked about the possibility that I could have been on the plane,” Col. John Penney said. “She knew I was flying that kind of rotation. But we never fell down and emotionally broke apart or anything like that. She’s a fighter pilot; I’m a fighter pilot.”

Penney, retired from both the military and the airlines, spoke from Reno, too. He’s a veteran racer, flying this week a highly modified Grumman Bearcat; his daughter is racing a Czech L-29 Delfin, a jet she takes around the pylons at 500 miles an hour, some 50 feet off the ground.

Stephanie Penney, wife and mother of these extreme aviators, said they did take comfort 10 years ago that at least one of the potential horrors of Sept. 11 didn’t happen.

“I did say to Heather, ‘We’re really glad that wasn’t your dad and that you didn’t have to think about that,’ ” she said. “She just said, ‘Mom, I couldn’t think about it. I had a job to do.’ That’s what we’re most proud of Heather for, that she was doing her job.”

It’s not that the day isn’t remembered around the Penney holiday table for its shattering pathos. Several friends from Evergreen, Colo., lost family members in the World Trade Center. Stephanie Penney recalled the call that morning from Heather’s twin sister, Jill, who was working in Asia at the time and desperate to reach her pilot sibling.

“I cannot even describe the sound of her voice; she needed to reach her sister right now,” Penney recalled. “But I couldn’t help her; Heather was in the air.”

And then there was the horror that did come true. Although John Penney wasn’t flying United 93 that day, one of his best work buddies was. Jason Dahl, the captain of that flight, was Penney’s cubicle mate back at United’s pilot training center. He and his wife had dined with the Dahls. They bragged about their kids to each other.

On Sept. 11, Penney’s daughter would have taken out Dahl’s plane if the passengers of Flight 93 hadn’t beaten her to it.

“Had we heard that Heather and Sasseville been successful, it would have been utterly devastating for my wife and I,” John Penney said. “With Jason on the plane, it would have been an additional level of grief. But there were thousands of families that learned about the loss of their loved ones that day. Everybody had a job to do.”

 
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