The two pilots worked quickly, but quietly, each lost in their own thoughts. Colonel Marc Sasseville and Lieutenant Heather Penney stepped into their flight suits and moved systematically through their pre-flight preparations. It was Sasseville who finally broke the silence.
“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” he said.
“I’ll take the tail,” was Penney’s reply.
It was late morning on September 11, 2001 and this was no ordinary mission for the two fighter pilots. Hijackers had flown two airliners into New York’s World Trade Center and one had just hit the Pentagon. Word had come down that a fourth plane was headed for Washington. Sasseville and Penney had orders to take it down.
The pilots had just completed two weeks of air combat training, and the drills were fresh on their minds. However the planes they flew were still loaded with practice ammunition. In fact, there were no armed aircraft available at all. Prior to 9/11, there was no system in place for responding to a localized attack. Everything was geared for a timely response to missiles coming from overseas. It would take an hour to get a jet ready, but by then it would be too late.
So, as Sasseville and Penney took to the air, the only weapons they had at their disposal were the very planes they were flying. “We wouldn’t be shooting it down,” Penney recalled. “We’d be ramming the aircraft. I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”
It’s hard to imagine being put in this type of situation. Most of us will never face a scenario where we are forced to put our life on the line to serve others. But the actions of Sasseville and Penney provide some important insights into the minds of top service providers.
The best take personal responsibility. There were a lot of pilots who could have gone up that day. As a Colonel, Sasseville could have ordered someone else to take the mission. It would have been very easy, even logical, for him to stay on the ground and coordinate things. Penney was still a rookie, the first female F-16 pilot in her squadron. In addition, her father was a pilot for United Airlines at the time. He could very well have been on the plane in question. It would have made sense for a more seasoned, more objective airman to go. Yet, despite having good reasons for staying put, the Sasseville and Penney felt called to act.
The best take action immediately. Sasseville and Penney didn’t wait for their planes to be armed. They didn’t sit through the pre-flight checks that normally take half an hour to complete. They were in the air within minutes. Penney’s crew chief had to run alongside her jet, pulling diagnostic wires from the fuselage as she taxied away. Time was of the essence, so waiting was not an option.
The best take care of others first. As Penney herself acknowledged, these pilots were embarking on a suicide mission. Personal survival, much less comfort, was not a primary consideration. As they searched the skies over Washington for the hijacked plane, the two ran through multiple scenarios, trying to figure out the best way to ensure a completed mission. They considered ejecting just prior to impact, but the thought of possibly missing and allowing the hijackers to reach another target was simply not acceptable. They had to protect the people on the ground.
Sasseville and Penney didn’t have to sacrifice themselves to stop the terrorists aboard United flight 93. The passengers did. It wasn’t their job, but they saw it as their duty. They took action, and they protected those on the ground.
When it comes to serving others, are you all in, or do you hold back? Do you commit completely, or is your service contingent on your own comfort?
To deliver exceptional service, you don’t have to be trained for a particular opportunity.
It doesn’t require that you carry the weight of an assigned job responsibility, or that you even know the people you are serving. Service is an attitude.
Take responsibility. Take action. Take care of others. Serve.