U.S. Fighter Pilots Emotionally Open Up on Mission to Stop Flight 93 on 9/11

by Matthew Memrick

Two U.S. fighter pilots recently shared their emotions after racing to stop Flight 93 nearly 20 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001.

With two planes hitting the World Trade Center, Lieutenant General Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney hurried to get their F-16s into action. 

Both pilots were from the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. The two told the TODAY Show they realized that day could have been their last mission as they flew.

The two raced toward one commercial plane, United Flight 93, as it flew low in the sky.

“We knew immediately, as soon as we saw the images, that we needed to protect and defend,” Penney said.

Penney said the two pilots knew the threat and knew the rogue airliner was not communicating with air traffic control. They determined that it had been hijacked.

Pilots Rushed To Flight 93

Sasseville said the two abandoned their usual pre-flight check process, hopped in the cockpit, and rushed to Flight 93’s airspace.

Without missiles, however, the F-16s would have to use guns to handle the airplane threat. 

“We don’t train to ‘take down’ airliners. We never have,” Sasseville told The TODAY Show.

Without missiles and few bullets, Sasseville said the two decided that they would have to ram the airplane and disable it.

Penney said both pilots did not have second thoughts about flying their F-16s into the plane. She said the suicide missions are not an option, but deactivating the threat was the only option. The pilots decided by any means necessary the plane would not make it to a city.

Sasseville said the pilots had no choice.

“And we weren’t going to be caught on the ground watching America get hit again,” Sasseville said.

Flight 93 Heroes Fought Back

Later, Americans learned that the plane’s passengers and crew fought back. They learned of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks during the flight and knew they had to fight back.

Americans also learned of Todd Beamer’s “Let’s Roll” mantra in one of the plane’s last acts of bravery. The slogan has been kept alive over the years.

They put up such a fight that the hijackers crashed the plane in a rural Pennsylvania field. Forty-four people, including the hijackers, died on that day.

The pilots sympathized with their struggle and reflected on their heroism often. Sasseville said he thinks about that day often and the real heroes on that flight that “paid the ultimate price.”

Penney agreed. According to NBC, she was among the first generation of American female fighter pilots. 

Penney went further to say the F-16 pilots owe their lives to those heroes. She said thoughts of hope overcome those dark moments from that day.

She likes to think about the best of “who we are” that was “demonstrated on that day.”

Ultimately, Penney said that those heroic efforts enabled us to live our lives and show “that the terrorists did not win.”