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9/11 Pilot: Air Force veteran retires, reflects on mission to save lives after 2001 terror attacks in New York, US Pentagon

NEW YORK — Twenty-three years ago, F-16 fighter pilot Marc Sasseville was sent on a mission he thought could be his last.

Two hijacked planes had flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a third had struck the Pentagon. Sasseville received orders on September 11, 2001 to prevent another hijacked plane en route to Washington from reaching its target. That plane was United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked by four Al-Qaeda terrorists and eventually crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz spoke with Sasseville about the heroic operation he carried out with fellow F-16 pilot Heather Penney, who was just 26 years old at the time.

They both left from Joint Base Andrews near Washington DC, not yet knowing what their mission was.

“One of the memories that will stay with me forever is seeing the Pentagon on fire and being able to smell the fumes that came from it,” Sasseville said. “The burning concrete, the fuel from the plane that hit it.”

Sasseville added that the “event and everything that has happened since has been for me a motivating necessity that we must be able to continue to look ahead and be prepared for future challenges.”

He told Raddatz that after seeing the devastation, he immediately thought of December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

“Here we go again,” he said. “We have just been attacked again and we are really challenged to respond.”

Ultimately, Sasseville and Penney were given the chilling task of locating Flight 93.

Because they flew their fighter jets so fast, their fighters were not armed with missiles.

“My challenge was, how do we take down this very unique threat, a civilian aircraft… full of people, full of civilians?” Sasseville recalled.

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

“Training started,” Sasseville said of his decision. “It felt like I was on autopilot.”

Sasseville would target the front of the jet and Penney would target the tail section.

At home, Sasseville had a wife and two young children, ages five and three, who were unaware of his mission – including his willingness to give his own life to save others.

“It’s a testament to Sass’ leadership that he didn’t ask anyone else to lead that mission,” Penney told Raddatz about his choice to intercept the hijacked plane. “He wouldn’t ask anyone else to give what he wasn’t willing to give.”

Sasseville and Penney would later learn that the passengers and crew of Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and fought back against the terrorists. They regained control of the plane before it crashed in an empty field in Shanksville, killing everyone on board.

“If those heroes at 93 – and they are the real heroes, by the way – had not taken action and done what needed to be done, it would have been a very different outcome for me and my family. ‘, said Sasseville.

After both pilots landed their aircraft at Joint Base Andrews to refuel, they took off again – this time on a combat air patrol mission over the nation’s capital. Little did they know they would be escorting Air Force One when President George W. Bush returned to Washington. Photos taken at the time by the press corps accompanying Bush show Sasseville’s F-16 flying in front of the left wing of the presidential jet.

When he returned to his wife Karin and their children, Sasseville remained silent about his role on September 11. He hugged his family tightly, told them he loved them and said he would be “away from work for a long time because something really bad had happened to America.”

Karin later heard the story about her husband’s actions that day. Sasseville said she was in awe of him and proud of him.

Sasseville remained in the Air Force after September 11, eventually becoming a three-star general and the number two officer in the National Guard.

Now, after four decades of service to his country, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Sasseville retired from the Air Force on Wednesday. He made his last flight in an F-16 on May 15 from Joint Base Andrews, the same base from which he and Penney took off on September 11, 2001, with orders to find Flight 93 and destroy it en route. to direct current

The unarmed F-16 jet that Sasseville flew on September 11, 2001 has been reconfigured by the Air Force – ironically, to serve as a target drone for pilots in training to shoot down for training purposes.

Karin and their children attended Sasseville’s retirement ceremony.

“It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve, and a truly rare opportunity for me and my family to make a difference,” Sasseville said during his speech. ‘Now you have the watch. Thanks everyone.’

To kick off his retirement, Sasseville and his family travel to Puerto Rico, where they take some well-deserved time off to rest and relax.

“I’m going to learn to play golf again,” he said, adding that he also plans to rediscover who he is now and “get back to a normal life.”

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