Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, EAA 1266991, known for her involvement in attempting to stop Flight 93 on 9/11, will be speaking about her experiences on Sunday, September 11, at 7 p.m. as part of the EAA Aviation Museum Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
For Heather, going into the U.S. Air Force was never a question – it was in her blood. Her father, Col. John Penney, served in the Air Force when Heather was young.
“I idolized my dad and loved the community of fighter pilots that I was surrounded by growing up,” Heather said. “They were closely knit. It was just something that I wanted to be a part of, something I wanted to be.”
Heather realized this dream, and was commissioned into the Air National Guard in May 1997. She first attended pilot training in late 1998, officially coming back to her unit in January of 2001 and earning her combat mission qualifications a few months later.
Heather was only fresh out of training when the base where she was stationed, Andrews Air Force Base, found out about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It wasn’t long before they heard of two more hijacked airplanes, one still in flight, and Heather and Col. Marc Sasseville jumped into action. With no time to fit their F-16s with weapons, they took to the sky, prepared to stop any hijacked airplanes by any means necessary, including ramming the airliner with their own aircraft. Chasing after Flight 93 on a suicide mission, Heather and Marc were willing to do whatever they needed to do. Though they didn’t know at the time, Flight 93 had crashed half an hour before they left the base, the hijackers being overtaken by the passengers.
After the events of 9/11, Heather was busy flying for the Air National Guard in Washington, D.C.
“Immediately after 9/11 … we did 24/7 combat operations, combat air patrols over Washington, D.C.,” Heather said. “I personally flew the midnight to 4 a.m. shift until the following May when we began to set up to go off to Iraq.”
Heather went on to serve two tours during the war in Iraq. Retiring from the Air Force in 2016, Heather currently works at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as a senior resident fellow.
“I do research and policy recommendations on everything from advanced technology like quantum technology to issues of core structure,” Heather said. “I kind of run the gamut of cross-air power issues that are important to our nation and our national security.”
Outside of work, Heather is still deeply involved in aviation.
“I’ve got three little airplanes,” Heather said. “I’ve got a Stearman, a Bücker Jungmann, and a Cessna 170. I still continue to fly. It’s been a passion that I’ve always had and continue to have. I enjoy the challenges and the different kinds of flying that aviation can offer. Every single element of aviation has unique pieces to it and challenges us to constantly grow, to constantly better ourselves. I love it!”
Heather wants more people to experience the joy of flying, especially women.
“You have to take a look at what the real number of female pilots are, and we’re still six percent,” Heather said. “We need more girls. It is such a wonderful and joyful community. The minute you meet another female pilot, there’s a bond, there’s a kinship, an instant friendship, because you share the passion. It is such an empowering journey to earn your private pilot certificate, to earn the privilege to fly, because you have to confront your inner fears, your inner demons, and it truly transforms us.”
Heather is also enthusiastic to be talking at the September Speaker Series.
“What EAA does by bringing these stories to the public, to the community,” Heather explained, “it really helps people … to learn more about who we are and where we’ve been, and learn about who we can become.”
Sunday’s event is free for EAA members and youths 5 and under, and just $5 for nonmembers.