An article came across my attention describing the events on September 11th 2001 for Heather Penney, an F-16 pilot who had just finished training. She tells the story that she and her instructor went into the sky planning to take out a plane by crashing their F-16 into it, as the training planes were only fitted with dummy weapons.

The full story (from a 2011 Washington Post article) is here: F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11

I am questioning several aspects of the story, such as the instructor targeting the cockpit instead of the tail (which to me, with my admitedly limited knowledge of planes, would seem like a better target):

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

And skipping pre-flight checks:

Penney had never scrambled a jet before. Normally the pre-flight is a half-hour or so of methodical checks. She automatically started going down the list.

“Lucky, what are you doing? Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted.

Also it baffles me that there would be training planes, but no armed aircraft anywhere in the region:

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

Is there any more evidence that this event actually took place? Would the instructor not be reprimanded for this absurd plan (it seems absurd that breaking all the rules would be fine - heroes or not)? Also, without taking away from my respect for her personal heroism, was it a kamikaze mission considering the ejection seat? What about the chance of them actually having to go through with it - wouldn't there be a more capable US airforce unit that would've shown up before she got anywhere close?

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    "wouldn't there be a more capable US air force unit that would've showed up before she got anywhere close?" Based on how it turned out, obviously, there was not.
    – Jonathon
    Sep 12, 2014 at 1:18
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    This really doesn't pass the basic sniff test, and there is no mention of it in the Vanity Fair "9/11 Live: The NORAD Tapes" article. Plus, my understanding is that when jets are (were?) scrambled they really weren't planning on shooting anyone down, but escorting them a designated runway or just keeping an eye on them.
    – rjzii
    Sep 12, 2014 at 1:22
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    @JonathonWisnoski According to multiple sources, there were already jets from Langley (not DCANG) patrolling over DC before Penney ever took off. Those would be considered "more capable" than an aircraft equipped with no missiles and non-explosive ammunition to me.
    – Is Begot
    Sep 12, 2014 at 14:28
  • @Geobits But based on how it turned out, they were not capable of handling the situation. Perhaps, before or during everything would of make it look like these jets should of been capable, but as it turns out in hindsight, we can say with 100% certainty that they were not. So it seems reasonable to assume that someone more familiar with the situation than the public might of guessed this.
    – Jonathon
    Sep 12, 2014 at 14:37
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    @JonathonWisnoski Ah. I'm using "capable" as the more militarily-oriented "has more combat capabilities available to them". A fully armed aircraft is without question more capable in that sense.
    – Is Begot
    Sep 12, 2014 at 14:40

3 Answers 3


It was hasty, and based on mistaken intelligence, but it was coordinated:

  • They knew about the WTC and the Pentagon
  • They (some of the command and control people) mistakenly thought that another airliner was incoming down the Potomac
  • They launched fighters on what I'd call a "ready or not, here I come" basis, to intercept

http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=heather_penney_garcia says,

Jets Don't Launch until 10:42 and After - The exact times when the four pilots are authorized to get airborne and receive their mission instructions are unclear. But Sasseville and Penney Garcia will take off from Andrews at 10:42 a.m., with their planes armed only with guns, and no missiles (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001). Rasmussen and Caine take off at 11:11 a.m., by which time their jets have been armed with missiles (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [FILSON, 2003, PP. 82-84; 9/11 COMMISSION, 2004]

It cites Air War Over America: Sept. 11 Alters Face of Air Defense Mission which I suppose is credible and/or official: it's published by "Tyndall Air Force Base Public Affairs Office".

The above says "armed only with guns", but later it says,

The two pilots run out to their jets and climb into the cockpits. But their F-16s are armed only with “hot” guns and 511 rounds of non-explosive training practice (TP) ammunition. According to Sasseville: “They had two airplanes ready to go, and were putting missiles on numbers three and four. Maintenance wanted us to take the ones with missiles, but we didn’t have time to wait on those.”

There is a long history of ramming planes (and because even I had prior knowledge of that tradition, it wouldn't surprise me if fighter pilots are well aware of it too).

Some indirect evidence (from the same historycommons.org source) is:

  • The WTC and Pentagon attacks had already happened

    The pilots are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville, Lieutenant Heather Penney Garcia, Captain Brandon Rasmussen, and Major Daniel Caine. Pilot Waiting 'for Somebody to Task Me with Something' - Rasmussen will later recall that, although he and his colleagues at the unit had been aware of the attacks in New York, it is only after the Pentagon is hit (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001) that “we knew that we were going to be sticking around home and being quite busy.”

  • The wing commander had briefed other pilots to use missiles (but, the missiles weren't ready/loaded)

    Rasmussen says that, after Sasseville and Caine receive authorization from their wing commander to get airborne and to use missiles, ...

  • The brigadier general gave permission to these two pilots to make their own decision of whether to bring down the plane.

    According to author Leslie Filson, before Sasseville and Penney Garcia head to their jets, Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard, gives them instructions, regarding their mission. As Wherley will later recall, “My translation of the rules [of engagement] to [Sasseville] was, ‘You have weapons free flight-lead control.’” “Weapons free” means the decision whether to shoot at a hostile aircraft rests with the lead pilot. Wherley says, “Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?” and both pilots respond, “Yes.” Wherley then tells them to be careful. “It was important for them to understand that this was weapons free,” he will recall. However, Sasseville will tell the 9/11 Commission that he does not remember receiving the rules of engagement he is supposed to follow until later on, after he has taken off.

  • They didn't know there are other planes:

    Sasseville and Penney Garcia are airborne about six minutes after reaching their jets. They are unaware that fighters launched from Langley Air Force Base are also flying over Washington, at around 20,000 feet (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001)

  • They thought something was coming which was why they launched immediately, ready or not:

    Rookie Pilot 'Never Scrambled Before' - Penney Garcia, who is a rookie pilot, will later say: “I’d never scrambled before, I’d never done this. I was screaming to the maintainers to pull the chocks, and the guys were pulling the pins to arm the guns. We were going without INS [inertial navigation system].” Sasseville and Penney Garcia are airborne about six minutes after reaching their jets.

    Told to Look for Hijacked Plane - Over their radios, Sasseville and Penney Garcia receive instructions from their squadron to look for a hijacked aircraft approaching from the northwest and heading toward Georgetown (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). But, Sasseville will later recall, “We didn’t know what we were looking for—how high he was coming, or low, or where he was going.” He will say, “I don’t have the whole picture, but have word from Washington National Approach that something is coming.”

    Fighters Launched due to False Report - The first three DCANG fighters to take off in response to the attacks are ordered to go after this alleged inbound aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the chief of safety for the DC Air National Guard, will later recall: “We had something coming down the Potomac at low altitude. Brigadier General Wherley is standing here, and we’ve got the tower with the Secret Service agent, and they want us to launch anything we’ve got. And the general said, ‘Do it.’” DCANG pilot Billy Hutchison, who takes off at 10:38 a.m. (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001), will describe, “There was an aircraft coming down the Potomac that they needed me in the air for” that had to “be prevented from reaching the DC area.” He is told this aircraft is “coming from Pennsylvania.” And pilot Marc Sasseville, who, along with Heather Penney Garcia, takes off at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001), later says: “We all realized we were looking for an airliner—a big airplane. That was Flight 93; the track looked like it was headed toward DC at that time.”

  • I haven't found find specs for the "training" ammunition they carried. It seems safe to say that they were, at least, quite "inadequately" armed if not unarmed.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 12, 2014 at 16:06

The story seems to be inconsistent with the official account given by the 9/11 Commission Report.

According to the report, the only fighters scrambled during the attacks came from Otis Air Force Base (AFB) (see p.20) and Langley AFB (p.27).

Military controllers from the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) were notified about problems with United 93 at 10:08 AM (p.31) but they believed there was a bomb on board. They were not aware that the flight had been hijacked, nor that it was headed to Washington. At 10:15 they were notified that it had crashed.

Fighters from Andrews AFB (the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard) were scrambled at 10:38 (p.44). It seems unlikely that their orders would have been specifically to prevent United 93 from reaching Washington, given that controllers knew it had already crashed. Also, the report indicates that the Andrews fighters were flying "weapons free" - they had been given authorization to shoot down hostile planes. This would seem to imply that they actually had weapons with which to do so, though that is not clear.

  • According to the "Fighters Launched due to False Report" section of historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=heather_penney_garcia they launched on a false report (from the Secret Service associated with the White House) of a plane coming down the Potomac.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 12, 2014 at 14:44
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    There was a TON of confusion about which planes were where. Reports of the crashed planes still airborne, stories of hijacked planes that weren't, losing track of others. These fighter pilots didn't have to crash into anyone, because they didn't find anyone, other planes scrambled never encountered any of the hijacked planes, hijacked planes never met any kind of resistance. So the idea that they were scrambled not aligning with any of the actual jets doesn't make it inconsistent, IMO. Feb 28, 2017 at 15:18

(Really a comment but it won't fit)

There's an important aspect to this that the answers are missing: There is no all-knowing mind observing the whole battlefield.

They have two options: Launch (A) or don't launch (B).

Reality has three possibilities: An armed unit gets them (1), no armed unit is on the scene (2), they don't reach the target anyway (3).

Look at the decision matrix:

A1: You wasted some fuel. A2: Ram. The attack fails, a major target is saved. A3: You wasted some fuel. B1: You saved some fuel. B2: A major target is hit. B3: You saved some fuel.

In four of the six cases it comes down to fuel and airtime (estimates: $14k-$50k), chicken feed compared to what was going on. The important ones are A2 and B2. You're trading one or two jets and pilots for a major target on the ground that almost certainly contains a lot more than one person. (You also have the case where the pilot chickens out, this converts A2 to B2, you're basically no worse off than if they didn't scramble in the first place.)

Unless you're certain that it's case 1 you scramble everything you've got. You don't waste time trying to see if there are armed birds around and even if you know there are armed birds being launched there's always the chance a bird breaks.

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    The bigger question behind this is whether shooting down a plane with say 100+ passengers on board is morally viable at all. Be aware that you DO NOT KNOW how many other lives this will spare at the time you have to take the decision. With an equivalent case-by-case reasoning you can show that it is almost never a good idea to bring the plane down before you know what will happen. Of course it would have been a good idea to bring the WTC planes down, but that is with hindsight of the all-knowing mind. Not at the time the decision should have been made.
    – Scrontch
    Mar 1, 2017 at 9:00
  • @Scrontch At the time in question two planes had already kamikazed. The passengers on the other two were almost certainly going to die no matter what action the government took. The only question is who goes with them. Mar 1, 2017 at 18:11
  • Thing is, that's just not true: assuming that a third will do what the first and second did may seem like a reasonable guess, but you'd better be much more sure of that if you're about to kill hundreds of innocent people as a result. Jul 31, 2019 at 10:29
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit The number killed on the ground from the two planes was 10x the number on the planes. If the chance of them kamikazing is even 50% you're far better off engaging. Aug 1, 2019 at 0:04
  • @LorenPechtel If the chance is 50% and you know that it is then perhaps. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but when you are making the decision to take civilian lives you have to be sure of your information. Aug 1, 2019 at 10:07

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