Women's Leadership Live Women's Leadership Live

Recognizing the Leaders of 9/11


Today we woke up to the same clear blue September sky we woke up to 15 years ago, but it seems everything else in our world has changed.

Images of war and terrorism and sacrifice that have dominated our newscasts – and for too many of us, our own lives and families – seemed unimaginable before that fateful Tuesday morning in 2001.

In the years that have passed, we have heard countless stories of heroism. The first responders who ran into the burning buildings while others were running out. The off-duty firefighters who suited up anyway, never questioning their commitment and knowing their skills were needed. The office workers who guided others down smoky stairwells. The airline passengers who crashed the hijacked plane into a Pennsylvania field, diverting it from its intended target. Though nearly 3,000 lives were lost that day, we know thousands more were saved by the efforts of those who did not expect to be heroes when they woke up that morning.

On this September 11, we want to recognize one particular hero – a woman whose story we had not heard until just a few years ago when she was honored alongside Women’s Leadership LIVE CEO Linda McMahon at an event in New York City. In a room of remarkable women, Maj. Heather Penney stood out.

Soon after Congress opened combat aviation to women, Maj. Penney applied to the 121st Fighter Squadron of the DC Air National Guard and was reportedly its first female F-16 pilot. She was at Andrews Air Force Base near the nation’s capital when the U.S. was attacked.

Then known as Lt. Penney – or by her call sign, “Lucky” – she was ordered to take down United #93, which appeared headed to Washington. Her plane had no weapons or missiles on board, and there was no time to load them with ammunition. The only thing she had that could stop the hijacked flight was her own plane. She and her partner were effectively called into a suicide mission – and to take with them the lives of every innocent passenger and crew member on board.

In the end, of course, it was civilian passengers, whom she describes as the day’s true heroes, who did what she had been called to do – down the hijacked plane before it could strike a populated target.

For ten years, she gave no interviews about her experience until she spoke with the Washington Post in 2011. Perhaps she felt she was just doing her job. Perhaps putting country above self meant not seeking recognition or adulation. Perhaps she felt she was just doing what anyone in her position would do – make the sacrifice her military duty required her to make. Whatever the reason, we encourage you to know her story now. Read more about her service – not just on that single day, but in her entire career – to our country.

On this observance of 9/11, we salute Maj. Penney among the many heroes of that day. She is a leader and a role model whose courage and selflessness are unparalleled.

It was her duty to serve. It is our privilege to honor her.


Back to Blog