The Wikipedia page says

Two F-16 fighter pilots from the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard, Marc Sasseville and Heather "Lucky" Penney, were scrambled and ordered to intercept Flight 93. The pilots intended to ram it since they did not have time to arm the jets; this was in the days before armed jets stood ready to take off at a moment's notice to protect the capital's airspace.[140] They never reached Flight 93 and did not learn of its crash until hours afterwards.[141]

Is this exactly what I think it means? Crashing into another aircraft? What I’m picturing is the fighter pilots coming in above and behind, and using the nose of their aircraft in either a downward or upward motion to eradicate the stabilizer and elevator completely.

Any info is greatly appreciated!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I can't see this linked anywhere in the answers, so I'll just link it here. Header did a TED talk: youtube.com/watch?v=2gOo08NMSrs $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 5:07
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    $\begingroup$ I'm reminded of the RAF tactic against V1 flying bombs of wing destabilisation: fly the interceptor plane very close, but not touching the wing surface of the target. The airflow disruption could "stall" one wing, and the primitive guidance system could not recover and crashed. $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Firefigther1, it's likely you're wildly over-reading a wiki page. Even if the person who most recently edited that page, copied that text including the word "ram" from some official document, it's totally unclear what the full original context was. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ Note that ramming has been a viable last resort air combat tactic for basically the entire history of air combat: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_ramming (see the RAND study mentioned in 2nd last paragraph) $\endgroup$
    – llama
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ In a Hollywood action film the F-16 pilot would probably swoop in front of the jetliner and then use the afterburner as a weapon, drop an external fuel tank into one of the engines, or maybe deploy a drogue cute over the cockpit to blind the pilots... $\endgroup$
    – user45623
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 19:51

3 Answers 3


(disclaimer - Former USAF armament specialist)

The intention was not necessarily to "ram", but rather get eyeballs on the situation and take whatever action was needed. That may have, eventually, been a "ramming".

Obviously, that was not their first choice of action. And ramming a 757 was not a thing that was practiced or planned for.

As far as " this was in the days before armed jets stood ready to take off at a moment's notice", that is false. There were 7 bases around the country, with fighter jets on alert. On that specific day, 2x F-15 from Otis AFB, MA and 2x F-16 from Langley AFB, VA had already launched to intercept the other airliners that were in play. Those 4 were fully armed.

Andrews AFB MD was not one of those few alert bases.

The pilots from the DC Guard knew that the WTC had been deliberately targeted, and would take whatever action that turned out to be needed.

For them being 'unarmed', that is the usual case for 99% of fighter jets on US soil. They don't all sit around with missiles and hot guns. And to put missiles on them takes time. Time they didn't have. It would be a minimum of 30 minutes to get the missiles out of the storage area, tow them to the flightline, and load them on the jets.

Munitions are NOT stored right next to the jets.

While the DC Guard jets were being launched, other jets were being prepped with missiles. Turned out not to be needed.

The question often asked is how the USAF was caught with their pants down. Well, the alert jets around the country were mainly for threats coming in from the coasts or over Canada. Russian Bears, for instance. Perimeter defense. Not a known friendly civilian airliner, suddenly turning hostile once it is already inside the perimeter. And up until the mid-90's, there were many more jets on alert around the country. East coast, probably every couple hundred miles. Loring ME, Griffiss NY, Langley VA, Shaw, SC, on and on all around the coast and borders. The drawdown of the mid 90's did away with most of that tasking.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ Having armed fighter jets is one thing. What about land-to-air missiles? Weren't there any that could be used to shoot down that plane? $\endgroup$
    – mactro
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 13:21

Just read the Washington Post article that was cited in the Wikipedia article.

The intention of the two F-16 pilots was to ram the Boeing 757 in a likely suicide mission, since they had no ammunition and no other armed aircraft were standing by:

The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington. Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition. Or missiles. Or anything at all to throw at a hostile aircraft.

Except her own plane. So that was the plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer went up to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day. “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”


In the monumental confusion of those first hours, it was impossible to get clear orders. Nothing was ready. The jets were still equipped with dummy bullets from the training mission.

As remarkable as it seems now, there were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington.

One of the pilots was going to ram the cockpit of the Boeing 757, and the other pilot was going to ram the tail. They didn't target the engine because the hijackers might still be able to guide the plane to their target:

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating. “I’ll take the tail.”


“We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target. My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

They also thought about ejecting out of their jets just before impact, but there was the risk of missing the airliner if they did so:

He also thought about his ejection seat. Would there be an instant just before impact? “I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he says. “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out. “If you eject and your jet soars through without impact . . .” she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of dying.

Also notable is the fact that Heather Penney was willing to carry out the mission even though she knew it was possible her father was in the cockpit of Flight 93:

Later, as the Penney family checked in on each other from around the country, they marveled at the other fateful twist on the extraordinary events: the possibility that Penney’s own father could well have been in the cockpit of her airliner target.

John Penney was a captain at United Airlines at the time. He had been flying East Coasts routes all the previous month. The daughter had no way of knowing whether the father was airborne or not.

  • $\begingroup$ Would it be frowned upon to switch the answers? I feel like this answer and the one below it answers the question best? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Firefighter1 Not at all. You're the final call on the answer you find best suited to your question. $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 13:35

I'm sorry that some are frustrated that there aren't interesting links, but not everything is on the Internet.

The media loves to tell the story of the unarmed fighters ready to (presumably give their lives to) ram the jetliners. But they actually have two weapons at their disposal.

TP rounds are real bullets

And peacetime fighters carry them for a variety of reasons. However, they will only fire if the gun is mechanically and electrically enabled, which cannot be done from the cockpit - if the ground crew did not enable these, the cannon would be inoperative.

A bullet is just a chunk of metal moving fast.

A combat fighter-jet round is not a bullet; it’s a shell like an artillery shell, effectivly a flying hand grenade. It includes a device called a fuze which makes it detonate on impact or flight time. The bursting charge fires, blowing shrapnel in every direction. Just what you need to down enemy fighters. These jets didn’t have any of those.

The Vulcan cannon recovers its empty shell casings, so even a combat fighter that’s Winchester (out of ammo) has a lot more weight than one with no ammo at all. (again because of the brass) "No ammo" would be undesirable for weight and balance reasons, and why swap ammo in/out every time they go to the range?

They tend to fly with M55A2 "TP" which stands for "Target Practice" rounds, and are mixed with M220 "TP-T" Target Practice/Tracer" rounds. These are cheap, and don’t have the expensive fuze or the bursting charge. But they’re not blanks; they do have a “fast chunk of metal”. In fact, practice rounds used to be painted, so when they swapped paint with a practice target, it could be examined to see who shot the round.

A practice round will do a hell of a lot of damage to a non-jinking, subsonic jetliner. Simply putting a random hole in an airplane is unlikely to crash it; that’s why shells are needed in dogfights. But with a jetliner, the fighter pilot would have time to line up accurately on an engine and hit it with enough practice rounds to wreck it. (At small risk to shrapnel damaging the fighter, but the pilot can eject).

Or could focus on a control surface, such as the elevator or its operating mechanism.


Ramming is not necessarily a suicide gesture. It was often used as a tactic in war by pilots who had no intention of dying.

It is a matter of ramming sturdy points on your aircraft, such as weapons hardpoints, landing gear mounts, or even drop tanks; against fragile points on the other airplane. Pilots are well familiar with these points.

Such an attack could be made at great advantage against a jetliner, which has no rearward visibilty at all, and could not anticipate the attack.

Also from comments (Thanks WPNSGuy):

Actually, the jets are generally loaded with 20mm TP. Weight and balance. Non explosive, non incendiary. But will fire just like combat level rounds. In the F-16, 510 rounds. The issue is the gun is hard wired safe by an external device, that can only be removed from outside the cockpit. In the interest of time on that morning, I do not know whether the ground crew removed that on those 2 jets.

[The safety lock] is not complex, but the access port is right next to the intake. If engine is already running, not a place to be taking things apart. And generally, it is safety wired.

And again, thanks WPNSGuy:

I can't find any specific published references for jets being loaded with 20mm TP all the time. But, in 16 years as an armament spec, 9 years specifically on F-16, I can't think of a single instance when a jet was loaded with non-fireable dummy rounds. Yes, fiberglass duplicates, weighted appropriately, exist. But we didn't fly around with them. And unless the jet was on a specific training mission for the gun, it was mechanically safed with the 'holdback tool', and/or electrically safed by having the actual power cable disconnected.

And thanks too to Charles Bretana, who says:

I have 2000+ hours in a USAF fighter (The F-4C/D/E Phantom). The F-4E had an internal gun. And we ALWAYS carried 640 rounds of 20mm TP ammunition. The only thing necessary to arm the gun was to pull a safety pin out of the gun assembly before we took off. Why you ask? Why not load "Dummy" rounds instead? Why? Then for any training mission the arming crew would have to offload the dummy ammo to load the TP. And Logistics would have to manufacture these dummy rounds and distribute them, Why do that when we already had thousands and thousands of TP rounds available?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 10:05

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