ARLINGTON, Va. — Early Tuesday afternoon, the skies outside Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney’s office window were clear blue, much like the brilliant blue morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
That was the day Penney, then a rookie Air Force fighter pilot, was called upon to serve her country in perhaps the greatest way possible. She was asked to bring down a hijacked jetliner before it could slam into a building and kill thousands. With no missiles aboard her F-16 and no time to load, she would have to ram it, on what was essentially a suicide mission.
“Well, this is it,” she thought. She had sworn an oath that there were things more important in this world than herself. She resolved that if this was why she had been put on Earth, she would complete the task as best she could.
Penney didn’t have to give her life that day. Before she could, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers attempted to take control from the terrorists.
Now Penney has another purpose: Telling people that everyone has the capacity for courage, sacrifice, and service, and exercising it on a daily basis — using that “courage muscle,” as she calls it — will make them ready when it counts most.
Later this month, Penney will bring that message to graduating students at Widener University. It will be her first time as a commencement speaker.
“It’s really about the courage we all have inside and we all have to give,” said Penney, 43, a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a think tank in Virginia. “We all have a greater purpose than our own personal interests. and when we seek that purpose, we can serve our community and our family and our nation in so many ways.”
She is among a rich cast of dozens of commencement speakers dispatched to address area graduates from now until the middle of June. Thomas Jefferson University tapped a prince. Rowan University offered an Eagles running back, and Lincoln University had U.S. Rep. Alma S. Adams of North Carolina.. A Nobel Prize winner will address Ursinus College graduates, and a number of politicians, actresses, and a filmmaker will appear at other schools. Anita Hill, the woman who accused U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment long before #MeToo, will appear at Rutgers-Camden Law School’s commencement.
Penney was picked as Widener’s speaker after a recommendation from a student there who was inspired by her story, one she kept to herself for a decade but has been sharing publicly in recent years. Widener has roots in the armed forces: Until 1972, the school in Chester was known as Pennsylvania Military College.
The board of trustees selected her to speak at the May 19 ceremony.
“She really is a great American hero,” said retired Army Gen. John Tilelli Jr., chairman of Widener’s board of trustees and an alumnus of the military college.
Born on an Air Force base in Arizona, Penney grew up around the military. Her father, retired Lt. Col. John Penney, flew jets, too. From age 4, she told her mother she wanted to be a fighter pilot, along with a ballerina, a butterfly and a volcanologist — “I loved volcanoes.” She fell in love, too, with jets and the camaraderie of the Air Force community. When her twin sister was helping her mother with the dishes at night, she would sneak into the back room and listen to her father and his squadron mates share flying stories after dinner.
It wasn’t until she got to Purdue University as an undergraduate in 1992 that she discovered women weren’t allowed to be fighter pilots.
“I didn’t understand, if I was willing and able, why I was not allowed to also serve my nation,” said Penney, who earned her bachelor’s in English and her master’s in American studies. “The jet doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman.”
While she was still in college, Congress opened up combat aviation to women. In graduate school, she applied and got in. She was the only woman in her class, and although the men treated her well, it was still a boy’s club, she said, and that was hard.
“Today, I think it’s still challenging for women to be a total minority in a man’s world,” she said.
Only a little more than 2 percent of fighter pilots and weapons system officers are women, she said. In 2005, women started the Chick Fighter Pilot Association, a place to discuss balancing career and children and supporting each other.
Her squadron gave her the name “Lucky” when she first arrived, as in “lucky Penney.” She loved flying jets, riding at 500 knots, 30,000 feet up, totally focused on the task.
“It’s exhilarating,” she said. “I feel like I have an expanded awareness.”
She was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2006, and then took a job at Lockheed Martin, the global security and aerospace company. She became a traditional reservist, which allowed Penney, then a divorced single mother, more time to raise her daughters, now 12 and 14. (She has since remarried.)
Penney still flies for enjoyment and has her own vintage planes, a Cessna 170 A and a Stearman PT13. Her office at the think tank is filled with pieces of aviation history, an engine fan blade from a Vulcan — a British nuclear bomber — instruments from her planes, her first set of wings (from her father), and a model Boeing 314, known as a China Clipper, a gift from her husband. At Mitchell, where she started about a month ago, she researches and writes on air power and Air Force issues.
In her speech to more than 800 Widener graduates, Penney plans to recount her experience and the lessons she learned.
“You never know when you’re going to be called upon to give your most, give your best,” she said she will tell them. “You always need to be ready to answer the call when it comes.”
She has told the story many times: She was a lieutenant on 9/11, the first female fighter pilot that the 121st Fighter Squadron had. She was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland with the District of Columbia National Guard. That morning, she was in a planning meeting when a knock came at the door with word that a plane had just struck the World Trade Center.
Penney and her colleagues thought: On such a beautiful day, how could that be an accident? Minutes later
they learned about the second plane and understood it was no mistake. A third plane hit the Pentagon. Then word came others could be on their way to Washington. They received the order to get in the air.
“Lucky, you’re with me,” Col. Marc Sasseville, her commanding officer, told her.
Their planes weren’t armed; the two pilots knew they’d have to smash into the airliner with their jets. Penney had no plans to eject, for fear she would miss the target.
“I’ll take the cockpit,” Sasseville told her. She’d aim for the tail, it was understood.
“We never found anything,” she said. “We were not heroes that day. The passengers on Flight 93 were the true heroes.”
That moment didn’t change her immediately, she said. She didn’t talk about it publicly for 10 years, not until Sasseville asked her to participate in a program on 9/11.
“You have to understand, in my view, we were a mission failure,” she said, “because we didn’t get there in time. The passengers on Flight 93 should never have had to make the decisions that they made.”
But then she reflected more deeply after telling her story in 2011. The Flight 93 passengers illustrated great courage and sacrifice, the very principles she now tells her audiences everyone has the capacity for — including the Widener undergraduates who will hear her message.
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