Mitchell Institute’s Heather Penney Keynotes Oklahoma Celebration of Women in Aviation and Aerospace

December 21, 2023   |   By Janelle Stafford

“No Grit, No Pearl” was the theme of Oklahoma Women in Aviation and Aerospace Day, the seventh annual celebration of women’s contributions and achievements in aviation and aerospace on December 9. Keynoting the event this year was AFA’s own Heather “Lucky” Penney, a former USAF pilot and a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, along with Col. Eileen Collins, USAF (Ret.), the first American woman to command a NASA space mission. The event was sponsored by AFA Oklahoma.

As one of our nation’s first female fighter pilots, then-1st Lt. Heather Penny found herself making history on 9/11 as one of two pilots from the D.C. Air National Guard sent on a potential suicide mission to intercept United Airlines Flight 93, believed to be heading towards the U.S. Capitol.  

Her keynote speech captivated the audience of more than one thousand listeners, as she recounted the events of that day. Noting that enough ammunition couldn’t be loaded on the two fighter jets in time to launch and bring down Flight 93, the plan was for Penney and Col. Marc Sasserville to each ram their F-16s into the United Airlines commercial airliner, if found—one at the front of the plane and one in the rear. Fate intervened, however, as the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field due to the intervention of the brave passengers aboard Flight 93 that day.

Penney’s consistent message throughout her address, however, was one of positivity, hope, duty, and honor. Her career to-date has included two combat tours in Iraq, working for Lockheed Martin, and her current position as a Senior Fellow at AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. She shared with those in attendance the fact that there are numerous ways to serve, whether it be Active duty, Guard or Reserve, civilian service, or a support role with contractors in the defense industry.

Perhaps even more impactful, however, were the one-on-one opportunities to connect throughout the day with Oklahoma Airmen and students alike, sharing inspiration and encouragement with the future generation of warfighters in whatever capacity they might choose.

Oklahoma has been the home of many groundbreaking female aviators, including Eula “Pearl” Carter Scott who, in 1929, became the youngest pilot in the nation when she completed a solo flight at age 13. Pearl has long served as the official “face” of Oklahoma Women in Aviation and Aerospace Day, with attendees encouraged to “wear their pearls” to honor and remember her.

Oklahoma was the first state in the nation to statutorily commemorate the achievements of women in aviation and aerospace. The Oklahoma Department of Aerospace and Aeronautics was instrumental in the passage of state law which officially established December 9 as the annual Oklahoma Women in Aviation and Aerospace Day.