As a child, Heather Penney fell in love with aviation here in Nevada - at the Reno-Stead Airport. She's best known as one the first fighter pilots to take to the U.S. skies during the 9/11 attacks.
We caught up with the combat veteran last week when she returned to speak at a fundraiser.
Watching her pose for photos with ROTC cadets, you can see her gentle manner and warm smile are genuine, but so are her fierce loyalty and grit...and Heather Penney says she gets it from her family. "My father was a pilot, my grandfather was a pilot and my father was a fighter pilot."
Penney grew up in Sparks and says she loved watching the jets at the Reno-Stead Airport, but what really hooked her, were the stories she heard from her dad and the men on his squadron. "They were sad, they were joyful. It was everything that I hoped it would be," smiles Heather.
But her dreams would not be reality until 1993 when Congress finally allowed women to become fighter pilots.
“I was fortunate to be hired by the DC Air National Guard in Washington, D.C., the 121st Fighter Squadron. When I went through all the training and showed up on base, I was their first and only female fighter pilot.”
Penney made history again on September 11, 2001 when she and her commanding officer were given an urgent order.
“Were asked to go on a one-way mission,” remembers Penney. “It was essentially a suicide mission to find Flight 93."
With no ammunition aboard, the fighter pilots would have to ram Flight 93 with their jets. The hijacked plane was headed to crash into the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.
“Any other service member would have been willing to do the same thing," says Heather.
Penny says the true heroes were the passengers of Flight 93, who lost their lives when they forced the plane to crash onto a field in Pennsylvania.
But sharing her experiences from 9/11 and her two tours of duty in Iraq have helped the pilot see patriotism and loyalty in others. "Where they connect to that special part inside - that we all have inside of us, of courage and service."
Recently Heather's oldest daughter surprised her, admitting that she, too would like to be a fighter pilot.
To learn more about female fighter pilots, click here.