Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Role Model: Major Heather Penney

In the bright and sunny morning of September 11, 2001, Major Heather Penney was suddenly ordered to scramble her F-16 fighter jet. Her orders were to shoot down a hijacked Boeing 757 airliner heading for Washington D.C., if it refused orders to land. Her mission mate was Colonel Marc Sassesville.

Unfortunately, the F-16 fighters were not armed with missiles. In those innocent days before 9/11, the possibility of having to shoot down hostile aircraft was considered so remote that air force fighters on alert were not armed with missiles.

But that did not stop the F-16 pilots, who quickly came up with a plan.

They decided that Major Penney would ram the 757’s tail with her F-16. “I’ll ram the cockpit” said Colonel Sassville. And, that was that.

“Let’s go!” Col Sasville barked.

The two pilots chose thoughts that energized them as they scrambled their jets into the air, and did not let the fact that they had no missiles derail their mission. No ifs, no buts.

Major Penney did considered whether she should eject from her F-16 fighter just before impact but she quickly dismissed the idea. “I mean you only got one chance, you don't want to eject and have missed, right?” she reasoned.

Major Penney visualized the outcome she wanted. “My concern was how do I minimize collateral damage on the ground” she said with calm professional assuredness. By shearing the tail off the 757, Major Penney would be sending the airliner vertically down. It would have a smaller impact area, thus hurting fewer people on the ground.

Major Penney said that she was so engrossed in her mission that she “had no time for emotions.” What she had done was she had mastery over her emotions, and had chosen the emotion of fierceness to accomplish her mission. 

Major Penney did not even let the possibility that her own beloved father - whom she is very close to - who was then a United Airlines pilot flying the Flight 93 route might be in the cockpit distract her. Major Penney said “I couldn’t think about it. I had a job to do.”

Major Penney (and also Colonel Sassville) was obviously Centered, Open, Aware, Connected, and Holding it all together (in COACH state) in the midst of an extremely stressful and chaotic situation. The two pilots, the ground crews, the air controllers were all connected, working as a well oiled team. The pilots' minds were clear, receptive, and alert, allowing them to hatch the plan on-the-fly as they dashed to their waiting F-16 fighters on the tarmac.

Major Penney, acted with conviction as her F-16 screamed down the runway which she believed would be her last mission. She said she felt the adrenaline, and her only thought was on accomplishing her mission that day. There was also a strange serenity - that of one who was totally composed. “I genuinely believed that was going to the last time I took off,” she said.

Epilogue: In the end, Major Penney needn’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice that she was so prepared for. The passengers on board the ill fated Flight 93, took matters into their own hands, overpowering the hijackers and thwarting their plot by crashing the 757 in an open field in Pennsylvania.

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