RENO — Heather “Lucky” Penney would take any chance she got while growing up to head up to the Stead airfield, where her father — a Vietnam veteran — worked at one point as the chief test pilot.
“I just loved airplanes, so I’d follow anywhere my dad would let me,” said the Sparks, Nevada, native.
Years later, Penney, as an Air Force pilot, was asked on Sept. 11, 2001, to depart for a mission she was unlikely to return from. Her mission: Take down one of four planes hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, United Airlines Flight 93, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported . She never got the chance, however, because the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field before she and a colleague flying in another jet got to it.
After that September day, Penney became a nighttime SCUD Hunter, searching for missiles in the western deserts of Iraq as part of an effort to support Special Operations Forces. She served two tours in Iraq and now is the senior resident fellow at Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The few women Penney came to know during her military service reached out to each other, supported each other and believed in each other. That’s one of the reasons why Penney is returning to Nevada where she will be the featured speaker at the annual Nevada Women’s Fund 2018 Woman of Achievement Luncheon on May 24.
“The Nevada Women’s Fund provides women support,” she said. “I could not have been successful as I was without the support of other women.”
She still recalls that September day vividly.
Her plane had no weapons on board. No guns. No missiles. It was just her and the plane.
She was one of only two combat pilots that would be sent on a “kamikaze” mission, where she would have to ram, if not crash, her plane into the airliner.
Al-Qaeda terrorists had hijacked four passenger airlines, flying two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City and one of them into the Pentagon. The fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, was headed toward Washington, D.C.
Col. Marc Sasseville and Penney, in a separate fighter crafts, went skyward. Their plan was for Sasseville to fly his plane into the cockpit of Flight 93. Penney was supposed fly into the tail.
Flight 93 passengers are believed to have overtaken the four hijackers and crashed the plane in Pennsylvania. All 44 people on board were killed.
“Sass’ and I were a mission failure,” she said. “We didn’t get to 93 in time, the passengers were the ones who knew what needed to be done, and they did it.”
Penney earned her pilot’s license in 1993. While working toward a master of arts degree at Purdue University, she considered being a teacher, but her plans changed when she learned that Congress has just opened combat aviation to women. She helped form the first collegiate team to race in the Air Race Classic — an annual transcontinental air race for female pilots.
She then joined the Air National Guard.
“Any fighter pilot has to go through a period of earning their respect,” she said. “Every fighter pilot has to prove themselves, but it was frankly a challenge, because I was their only female, and their first.”