Air Force pilot: I was prepared to ram Flight 93 on 9/11 to bring it down

Your must-read of the day. We already knew, of course, that Bush had given the order to shoot down the plane if necessary, before it could crash into another building. I remember vividly walking home to Queens from Manhattan on 9/11 and hearing a fighter jet overhead, the only time I’ve ever heard that sound in 30 years of living in NYC. It was obvious even in the chaos of that moment what they were up there looking for and what they were prepared to do if circumstances warranted. What wasn’t obvious — what we didn’t know until today, I believe — was that the jets at Andrews AFB had to scramble so quickly that the pilots didn’t have time to arm themselves before taking off. They couldn’t have shot down Flight 93 or any other hijacked plane even if they had wanted to.

So there was only one option.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”…

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon. Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.

“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact?

“I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he says. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out.

“If you eject and your jet soars through without impact . . .” she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

Flight 93 went down before they ever encountered it, so there’s two more lives saved by the heroics onboard. Coincidentally, I stumbled across the WaPo piece this morning shortly after reading this excellent Danger Room analysis of how Stan McChrystal and U.S. special operations learned to thwart Al Qaeda by adopting some of the group’s most effective organizational features — secrecy, adaptability, and extremely efficient networking, all in dramatic contrast to the military’s normal bureaucratic ways. Read that too if you can spare 10 minutes. McChrystal’s fire-with-fire approach was obviously by design whereas the Air Force’s similar approach to Flight 93 was by horrible necessity, but both are shining examples of American bravery and ingenuity in shifting tactics to confront an irregular threat. Keep it in mind this weekend.