The story of the near kamikaze mission to take down United Flight 93

Pilots went into the air unarmed, looking for the hijacked flight with only one way to take it down

FILE In this May 31, 2018, file photo, visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial pause at the Wall of Names honoring 40 passengers and crew members of United Flight 93 killed when the hijacked jet crashed at the site during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, near Shanksville, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) (Gene J. Puskar, Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Imagine coming into work one day like you normally do, but then later on, frantically embarking on a mission in which the success of it might result in your death.

That’s the scenario American fighter pilots dealt with on the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to

After news that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers, Col. Marc Sasseville and Lt. Heather Penney headed out to the pre-flight area to get in their jets, with word coming that another plane had hit the Pentagon and that United Flight 93 had been hijacked and was headed toward Washington, D.C.

United Flight 93 was presumed to be headed for the White House or Capitol building.

At first, the two took off in their jets with no clear orders, but then they got instructions to find United Flight 93 and shoot it down.

The only problem was, their jets weren’t armed, so the only way they could take out the plane was by ramming into it while in the air.

In other words, it became a kamikaze mission.

The plan was for Sasseville, born in Ohio to an American father and Puerto Rican mother, to ram the plane at its cockpit, while Penney, the daughter of Air Force Col. John Penney, would try and strike the plane’s tail.

The two circled the airspace near Washington, D.C. for about 90 minutes, but ultimately, didn’t find anything before word came that the plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers bravely confronted the hijackers in the air, forcing the crash.

“I made a decision with my life and I swore an oath to protect and defend,” Penney said to “But these were just average, everyday people -- mothers, fathers, school teachers (and) businessmen. They’re true heroes.”

This article was initially published in 2021. It has since been updated.

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.