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Pilot Scrambled for 9/11 Suicide Mission Retires

06-04-24 WR NGB Vice Chief WEBSITE
06-04-24 WR NGB Vice Chief WEBSITE
Washington Report

A F-16 fighter pilot who undertook what could have been a suicide mission 23 years ago retired May 29 as the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Lt. Gen. Marc H. Sasseville, 61, a Puerto Rico native, had been the No. 2 officer at NGB since August 2020.

Sasseville's successor at NGB has not been nominated.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Sasseville and another then-District of Columbia Air National Guard fighter pilot, Heather Penney, received orders to intercept United Airlines Flight 93.

The airliner had been hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists and was thought to be headed to Washington, D.C.

Two hijacked planes had already flown into the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York City, while a third had struck the Pentagon.

Sasseville and Penney took off from what was then Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland.

They then received orders in the air to use lethal means if necessary to prevent the commercial airliner from reaching the nation’s capital.

But because Sasseville and Penney had scrambled so quickly, their fighters were not armed with missiles on 9/11.

"My challenge was, how do we take down this very unique threat, a civilian airliner ... full of people, full of civilian people?" Sasseville recalled in an ABC News interview published May 31.

Penney and Sasseville decided that if required, they would ram the hijacked plane with their fighter jets — a suicide mission.

"The training kicked in," he said of his decision. "I felt like I was on autopilot."

Sasseville planned on targeting the front of the jetliner, while Penney would target the aircraft's tail section.

The duo's strategy became unnecessary when passengers aboard Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and the plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

"If those heroes on 93 — and by the way, those are the real heroes — if they hadn't taken action and they hadn't done what needed to be done, it would have been a very different outcome for me and my family," Sasseville said.

Sasseville and his wife had two small children at the time.

A 1985 Air Force Academy graduate, Sasseville retired last week after nearly 40 years in the Air Force, most of which was affiliated with the D.C. Air Guard.

Before becoming NGB's vice chief, Sasseville commanded the 1st Air Force and the Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.

Upon retiring, Sasseville had 3,300 flight hours in various aircraft.

He said following the nation's experience on 9/11, America must be prepared for the next round of challenges and potential attacks.

Sasseville added that there may already be signs of those challenges when considering the number of cyberattacks, the flow of drugs coming into the United States, threats in space and artificial intelligence.

"I don't want to paint myself as paranoid, but I know that the bad guys are not letting up," he told DOD News.

"It's easy to forget that there are still people out there who are competing with us, don't value our systems like we do, don't value the international order that we think has served us so well," Sasseville continued.

There is also a need for service to the nation, whether in uniform or as a civilian, Sasseville added.

"If it's not our youth, then who's going to do it?" he asked.

— By John Goheen