On Sept. 11, 2001, American officials were scrambling to figure out how many planes had been hijacked and what their targets were. That Tuesday morning, flights were grounded across the country. And the skies grew eerily calm as they emptied of planes, except those flown by fighter pilots.
In the moments after the attacks, the F-16s of the D.C. Air National Guard took to the sky. By the time they did, two airplanes had already crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center and one had dived into the Pentagon.
Their orders: to guard against Flight 93, the last confirmed terrorist-helmed plane in the sky.
U.S. Fighter Pilots Recall 9/11 Mission
Two of the fighter pilots who were prepared to lay down their lives to stop the plane from hitting its target are now sharing reminiscences about their experiences that day. Flight 93 was believed to be headed for the White House, the U.S. Capitol, Camp David, or a nuclear facility along the Eastern seaboard.
“Our initial thinking was basically if there are more headed our way, we need to stop them — and we might be the only ones who can do that,” Marc Sasseville, 57, a United States Air Force Lieutenant General and Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau, told People this week.
As it turned out, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 had already mobilized to fight back against the terrorists. They would ultimately force the hijackers to bring the plane down in an empty field after they staged a counterattack that morning.
But before that happened? The fighter pilots appeared to be the only ones standing between the terrorists and their potential targets.
“Had we found Flight 93 or any other threat, we would have had to… It was essentially a suicide mission,” Heather “Lucky” Penney told People. “We would have had to Kamikaze those aircraft to protect the Capitol.”
Sasseville was the flight lead. Penney was his wingman. They recalled how they had jumped into their jets so hastily that morning that they didn’t have time to arm themselves with missiles or combat bullets.
On 9/11, Fear and Uncertainty
During 9/11, the fighter pilots said, they didn’t know if there were more hijacked planes targeting Washington, D.C. So they checked their radar. And they looked around outside “to see if there’s anybody else flying towards D.C. with an intent to land into something,” Sasseville said.
“We didn’t really know where the next threat would come from, so I took one side of the Capitol region, Lucky took the other side,” he told People.
Sasseville distinctly remembers flying over the smoldering Pentagon: “Looking down, seeing the chaos, smelling the smoke coming out and feeling nauseous,” he recalled.
Eventually, Sasseville and Penney landed at Andrews Air Force Base to refuel. This time, they took off with weapons. They later wound up escorting Air Force One back to Washington, D.C.
But the entire day was one big blur of adrenaline. They battled multiple unknowns and sought to protect the nation’s capital at all costs.
“We just cannot get caught by surprise again, whether it’s from the air or any other domain,” Sasseville said.