It took a decade for Lt. Penney to speak about what she went through that morning. When she decided to speak to the Washington Post, she served as the director of the F-35 program. She has described that mission as a suicide mission, saying “We had to protect the airspace in any way we could.”
Now a major, Penney was a rookie that September morning. Her father served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and she signed up to follow him. In the briefing room, she heard that it would take an hour for a live plane to be in the air, but someone needed to stop the plane heading to Washington immediately. She and her commanding officer knew what had to be done: if their only weapon was their planes, then they would ram Flight 93. She would take the tail while her CO headed for the cockpit. As she heading into the air, she muttered what she called a pilot’s prayer – God, don’t let me [expletive] up – and flew.
Asked about potentially ejecting just before hitting the target, Penney trailed off; what if she ejected, and the plane missed its target? Clearly, failing her mission troubled her more than the thought of dying.
Of course, Flight 93 was brought down by passengers, and Penney and her CO did not need to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. They spent the rest of the day in the air, clearing the airspace, and eventually escorting Air Force One back to the White House.Legacy of the F-16
Both the F-22 and the F-35 have been scheduled to replace the F-16, but both planes have struggled with mechanical problems that keep them from being cost effective replacements. At the same time, the stealth and maneuverability upgrades that were anticipated at the beginning of the F-22 cycle have not surfaced in other countries. We may end up seeing F-16s in the air for many more years. If you want to see what an F-16 can do under the control of an experienced pilot, check out one of the many Air Force Thunderbirds shows around the country each year.
As for the situation which sent Lt. Penney into the air with nothing but her plane itself to protect her country, two jets are now kept “hot-cocked” at all times, with pilots located right near them, ready to go.
F-16 FIGHTING FALCON – The Icon