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Profiles In Badassery: Heather Penney

I am a child of the Top Gun era. The legendary film, released on May 16, 1986, came out when I was six years old and was an 80's classic. Naturally, as a 6-year-old boy with a love of Transformers and such, I was fascinated by the jets. It was the middle of the Cold War and I lived less than 20 miles from an active Air Force base with one of the Presidential backup planes there. My dad didn't sugarcoat that Grissom AFB was a primary target if it all went downhill, so it was nice to know that Maverick and F-14 Tomcats were protecting us even though Grissom was the home of a refueling wing and A-10's.

Still, Top gun was a film that made fighter pilots out to be the true badasses. Nobody was as cool as a fighter pilot. When the infamous video game was released on the NES platform I had to have it. I was even skilled enough to be one of the four known people to successfully land on the aircraft carrier at the end of a mission.

Even though I never joined the military, there is still a certain aura about fighter pilots that stands out to this day. A close friend of mine from high school is currently in test pilot's school and he said of his first ride in a fighter jet that it was terrifying, but he would totally do it again. Fighter pilots take a rare mix of talent, reflexes and sheer balls that I admit I lack. That's why when I was forwarded this story in the Washington Post about a fighter pilot from readers Kristin Miller and Pete Jacobson I had little doubt that it was about a Boilermaker.

Heather Penney and September 11th

This story especially encourages me because I am a fellow Liberal Arts grad with Heather Penney. The school of Liberal Arts is pretty much an afterthought to Purdue's wonderful technology, engineering, and pharmacy programs. Sure, there are a lot of students in it, but After battling the job market for 10 years I know my liberal arts degree does little for me in the long run.

Penney may have seen this early on, as she decided to join the DC National Guard after graduating with a degree in American Studies in 1997. Upon joining the guard she parlayed her love of flying into training as a fighter pilot. She was part of the first generation of female fighter pilots in this country, and these women are among America's finest. She became an F-16C+ pilot in the 121st Fighter Squadron on Andrews AFB, MD, and served for over ten years:

She was a rookie in the autumn of 2001, the first female F-16 pilot they'd ever had at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard. She had grown up smelling jet fuel. Her father flew jets in Vietnam and still races them. Penney got her pilot's license when she was a literature major at Purdue. She planned to be a teacher. But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened up combat aviation to women and Penney was nearly first in line.

That in and of itself is enough to be worthy of a Profile in Badassery, but on September 11, 2001 as I was sleeping in and enjoying the benefit of not having a Tuesday class until 12:30 (ah, senior year) Heather was preparing to give her life for her country. You see, Heather was one of the first pilots scrambled out of Andrews AFB in Maryland once we discovered the entire world was going to hell around us. Her and her commanding officer took to the skies in their F-16's and were given the task of protecting the airspace around Washington, DC by any means possible.

What they were not given, however, was any live ammunition.

In a testament to just how unprepared we were that morning and how crazy things got, Penney was forced to take off with only her own plane to defend the country:

"We wouldn't be shooting it down. We'd be ramming the aircraft," Penney recalls of her charge that day. "I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot." - Heather Penney

First of all, I can't imagine dealing with the moral implications of having to take down a civilian aircraft even if I had weapons at my disposal. Yes, there were four terrorists on board, but there were also innocent civilians that were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Second, decisions had to be made in matters of seconds. You had to find the plane, make sure it was the right one, and take it down. If you found another airliner, an even larger disaster could happen. Conflicting reports made her task incredibly difficult, but her mission was clear:

"We had to protect the airspace any way we could." - Heather Penney

It sounds so simple, but in reality she knew that she would have to give her life if Flight 93 became a threat to Washington. It certainly was a threat too. It is estimated that the plane was less than 20 minutes from its target when it crashed near Shanksville, PA.

Heather knew that she needed to get in the air and, as the article states, there was no time to take the hour needed to arm her plane. She leapt without looking and got into the air, heading for Flight 93 and ready to die:

She muttered a fighter pilot's prayer - "God, don't let me [expletive] up" - and followed Sasse­ville into the sky.

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon. Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.

"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."

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?

"I was hoping to do both at the same time," he says. "It probably wasn't going to work, but that's what I was hoping."

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out.

"If you eject and your jet soars through without impact . . ." she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

As we know, her sacrifice was not needed. The brave heroes who stormed the cockpit in order to fight back brought the plane down before it could get to Washington. Penney would later serve as an escort to Air Force One that day as President Bush returned to Washington. She has since talked little about her duties that day, but that is what heroes do. They simply react leave things at that.

It is with great honor that Purdue is associated with wonderful heroes like Heather Penney. Like I said above, I was sleeping while she was preparing to die for her country if needed, all without thinking. She is a true testament to what it means to be a Boilermaker badass, and as we reach the 10th anniversary of September 11th we both morn those lost and celebrate heroes like Penney that showed why this country is so awesome.