Monday, September 11, 2017

Suicide missions and heroes

I've been thinking about Heather Penney today, because it's 9/11 and this article about her was just published. She was one of two pilots at Andrews Air Force Base who was charged with flying an unarmed F-16 into Flight 93 to stop the plane from reaching Washington. As we know now, the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93 spared her that sacrifice. But that doesn't make her acceptance of the mission any less heroic.

I wouldn't have remembered her name, except that a friend who flies had a chance encounter with her recently. He said that the name sounded familiar to him but he wasn't sure why, so he asked, "Are you famous?" and all she said was, "No, I don't think so." Later he looked her up and found out the story.

So we have three kinds of heroes to think about with respect to Flight 93. First there were the passengers who died to crash the plane. They must have considered themselves essentially dead men already; does that detract from their courage and sacrifice? Not to me. There must ALWAYS be a temptation to stay quiet and hope that the apparently inevitable will not come to pass. They overcame that temptation.

And we have Heather Penney, who says that she did not plan to eject because she was afraid that if she did, her plane wouldn't hit in the right spot to disable the other aircraft.

And we have the other F-16 pilot, Col. Mark Sasseville, who hoped to eject just before his plane hit the other aircraft.

In my book they're ALL heroes.

But - and I hope you don't think this is too frivolous - in a novel, they would pose three different writing challenges. You have the character who reasonably believes he has no chance of survival and chooses to die in a way that may save others. You have the character who accepts a mission tagged with certain death. And you have the character who accepts the mission but not the inevitability of death.

All three of them pose challenges to the writer, but I think that Sasseville's situation is the most moving of them. It's the shred of hope, the desire to live, the willingness to act without accepting that death is inevitable, that tugs at your heartstrings and makes this character so moving.

At least that's my perspective. What's yours?

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