EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (WCCO) — The brilliantly restored Stearman Navy trainer is a far cry from the F-16 fighter jets that Major Heather Penney once flew.
As part of fundraising events at Wings of the North Air Museum at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Penney was getting checked out in the aircraft to give charity flights.
After climbing out of the cockpit, Penney smiled and explained, “What’s so special about this Stearman is that President George H.W. Bush flew this Stearman when he was a pilot training for World War II, in this very aircraft.”
The Stearman was used for pilot training at the Naval Air Station in the Twin Cities and is now in the care of the Wings museum.
But it’s what Penney did while serving under another President Bush that tells the specifics of a story few of us knew.
“I was just coming to work, just as every other American,” she said.
That day was September 11, 2001, Penney recalls it was a gorgeous Tuesday morning. She was a D.C. National Guard pilot reporting to duty at Andrews Air Force base.
As New York’s Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was ablaze, there was simply no time to arm the Guard’s two F-16 aircraft with missiles.
“The decision was easy; anyone who saw that footage that morning would have made the same decision that I did.”
Penney and her other pilot, Marc Sasseville, would instead ram the cockpit and tail of United 93. It was the fourth commercial jetliner hijacked by terrorists and was only 20 minutes away from its intended target in Washington, D.C.
“Because we had no weapons, no missiles, we were essentially going to be Kamikaze pilots,” she said.
It’s a part of aviation history that fits with the mission at Wings of the North Air Museum. Penney will share that and other inspiring stories as she speaks at the Wing’s fundraiser Friday night.
“Those of us who have flown fighter aircraft when we hear that story, we scratch our heads and wonder how I would have done that?” Wings director Bob Jasperson said.
On Saturday afternoon, Penney hopes to inspire another generation of pilots when she presents at the “Girls Fly Boldly” rally at Wings.
“If you look at the numbers, women today represent less than six-percent of all rated pilots in the United States,” Penney said.
It’s something she intends to change, this aviator revered not only for her 9/11 heroism, but equally for helping inspire more females to fly.
For more information about events at Wings of the North Air Museum, click here.