When the pilots of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard got the order to intercept Flight 93, the hijacked jet speeding toward the nation's capital, they figured there was a decent chance they would not come back alive.
That's because the F-16 jets they were rushing to get airborne were largely unarmed, recalls one of the pilots, then-Lt. Heather Penney, leaving them one option to take out the wayward plane: a kamikaze mission.
"We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We would be ramming the aircraft, because we didn’t have weapons on board to be able to shoot the airplane down," Penney told C-SPAN.
In the days before Sept. 11, there were no armed aircraft standing guard in Washington, D.C., ready to scramble at the first sign of trouble.
And with a Boeing 757 aircraft speeding in the direction of Washington, D.C., Penney and her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville, couldn't wait the dozens of minutes it was going to take to properly arm their respective jets.
"It was decided that Sass and I would take off first, even though we knew we would end up having to take off before our aircraft were armed," Penney, among the first generation of American female fighter pilots, said to C-SPAN.
Penney said each jet had 105 lead-nosed bullets on board, but little more.
"As we were putting on our flight gear … Sass looked at me and said, 'I'll ram the cockpit.' And I had made the decision that I would take the tail off the aircraft," Penney recalled.
Both pilots thought about whether they would have enough time to eject before impact.
"I was hoping to do both at the same time," Sasseville told the Washington Post. "It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping."
Penney, a rookie fight pilot, worried about missing her target.
"You only got one chance. You don’t want to eject and then miss. You’ve got to be able to stick with it the whole way," she said.
The pilots chose their impact spots in order to minimize the debris field on the ground. A plane with no nose and no tail would likely fall straight out of the sky, its forward momentum halted, Penney said.
“The people on Flight 93 were heroes, but they were going to die no matter what," she said. "My concern was how do I minimize collateral damage on the ground."
As it turned out, Sasseville and Penney never intercepted Flight 93. The passengers of that doomed plane made sure they didn't have to.