One of the most sobering stories to come out of 9/11 is that of an American F-16 pilot who was ordered to embark on a Kamikaze mission to stop a hijacked plane from reaching its objective. The instruction to shoot down any civilian plane that entered Washington, D.C. space was given by Vice President Dick Cheney, something he later labeled “necessary.”
As the commemorations of the 13th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks come to a close, the tale of American fighter jets sent to intercept commercial airlines is one that shocked many at the time. One of these F-16 took off from Andrews Air Force Base, charged with stopping American Airlines flight 93 from reaching its intended target, the U.S. Capitol building.
The problem was that the F-16 was literally on a kamikaze mission, as it had no live ammunition on board and the objective was to stop the airliner from reaching the nation’s capital.
“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Lieutenant Heather “Lucky” Penney The Washington Post. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
During World War II, Kamikaze pilots were feared for their suicide attacks against enemy fleets, in which they simply crashed their planes on their targets, Allied naval ships. The term is generally used for any suicide mission, such as the one Lieutenant Penney was ordered to carry out on 9/11.
When the instructions to intercept flight 93, which was on its way to Washington came, Penney and her commanding officer took off in unarmed F-16s.
“We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” Penney explained.
Penney is the first female F-16 pilot from the D.C. Air National Guard’s 121st Fighter Squadron and had just finished her training on the morning of 9/11. According to the Post, there was no armed aircraft ready to scramble on that Tuesday morning, 13 years ago.
After the third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, and with the fourth plane being identified as moving towards Washington, the base was at least an hour away from arming one of their F-16s to send them to intercept the commercial airliner.
As they got ready to take off, Colonel Marc Sasseville told Penney, “I’m going to go for the cockpit,” to which Penney responded, “I’ll take the tail.”
The F-16 pilots were in such a rush to take off on their 9/11 Kamikaze mission that they skipped their pre-flight check and headed over the capital’s skies in the shadow of the burning Pentagon. The plan was to eject before hitting the target, but the risk was missing it altogether.
Thanks to the brave passengers on board flight 93, Penney didn’t need to complete her Kamikaze mission on 9/11. It was later determined, through the cockpit voice recorders and phone calls from the doomed flight, that passengers rushed the cockpit and took over the plane before it crashed on a field in Shanksville, Penslyvannia.
“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney said. “I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off.”
After 9/11 the rules changed, and now there are always two fully armed fighter jets on standby at Andrews Air Force Base, and two pilots yards away, ready to scramble.