Heather Penney, known for flying a ramming mission to prevent United Airlines Flight 93 from reaching Washington DC during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Senior Resident Fellow for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies at the Air Force Association
Most widely recognized for her service on September 11, Heather “Lucky” Penney was part of the first wave of women who went directly into fighters from pilot training.
Born on an Air Force base in Arizona, Heather Penney grew up around the military. Her father, retired Lt. Col. John Penney, flew jets, too. From age 4, she told her mother she wanted to be a fighter pilot, along with a ballerina, a butterfly, and a volcanologist. She fell in love, too, with jets and the camaraderie of the Air Force community. When her twin sister was helping her mother with the dishes at night, she would sneak into the back room and listen to her father and his squadron mates share flying stories after dinner.
It wasn’t until she got to Purdue University as an undergraduate in 1992 that she discovered women weren’t allowed to be fighter pilots.
While she was still in college, Congress opened up combat aviation to women. In graduate school, she applied and got in. She was the only woman in her class, and although the men treated her well, it was still a boy’s club, she said, and that was hard.
Only a little more than 2 percent of fighter pilots and weapons system officers are women, she said. In 2005, women started the Chick Fighter Pilot Association, a place to discuss balancing career and children and supporting each other.
Her squadron gave her the name “Lucky” when she first arrived, as in “lucky Penney.” She loved flying jets, riding at 500 knots, 30,000 feet up, totally focused on the task.
She was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2006, and then took a job at Lockheed Martin, the global security and aerospace company. She became a traditional reservist, which allowed Penney, then a divorced single mother, more time to raise her daughters, now 12 and 14. (She has since remarried.)
Penney still flies for enjoyment and has her vintage planes, a Cessna 170 A and a Stearman PT13. Her office at the think tank is filled with pieces of aviation history, an engine fan blade from a Vulcan — a British nuclear bomber — instruments from her planes, her first set of wings (from her father), and a model Boeing 314, known as a China Clipper, a gift from her husband. At Mitchell, where she started about a month ago, she researches and writes on air power and Air Force issues.