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updated 9/9/2011 4:17:05 PM ET 2011-09-09T20:17:05

When the pilots of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard got the order to intercept Flight 93, the hijacked jet speeding toward the nation's capital, they figured there was a decent chance they would not come back alive.

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That's because the F-16 jets they were rushing to get airborne were largely unarmed, recalls one of the pilots, then-Lt. Heather Penney, leaving them one option to take out the wayward plane: a kamikaze mission.

"We wouldn’t be shooting it down. We would be ramming the aircraft, because we didn’t have weapons on board to be able to shoot the airplane down," Penney told C-SPAN.

In the days before Sept. 11, there were no armed aircraft standing guard in Washington, D.C., ready to scramble at the first sign of trouble.

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And with a Boeing 757 aircraft speeding in the direction of Washington, D.C., Penney and her commanding officer, Col. Marc Sasseville, couldn't wait the dozens of minutes it was going to take to properly arm their respective jets.

"It was decided that Sass and I would take off first, even though we knew we would end up having to take off before our aircraft were armed," Penney, among the first generation of American female fighter pilots, said to C-SPAN.

Penney said each jet had 105 lead-nosed bullets on board, but little more.

"As we were putting on our flight gear … Sass looked at me and said, 'I'll ram the cockpit.' And I had made the decision that I would take the tail off the aircraft," Penney recalled.

Both pilots thought about whether they would have enough time to eject before impact.

"I was hoping to do both at the same time," Sasseville told the Washington Post. "It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping."

Penney, a rookie fight pilot, worried about missing her target.

"You only got one chance. You don’t want to eject and then miss. You’ve got to be able to stick with it the whole way," she said.

The pilots chose their impact spots in order to minimize the debris field on the ground. A plane with no nose and no tail would likely fall straight out of the sky, its forward momentum halted, Penney said.

“The people on Flight 93 were heroes, but they were going to die no matter what," she said. "My concern was how do I minimize collateral damage on the ground."

As it turned out, Sasseville and Penney never intercepted Flight 93. The passengers of that doomed plane made sure they didn't have to.

For more on this story, watch C-SPAN's interview with Penney and read the Washington Post's account of that day.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: 1st phase of Shanksville memorial to be unveiled

  1. Closed captioning of: 1st phase of Shanksville memorial to be unveiled

    >>> ground zero is not the only place that people go to remember the victims of september 11th . every year thousands visit a field near the tiny town of shanksville, pennsylvania, where brave passengers of flight 93 forced the plane down. all 40 passengers and crew died that day.

    >> you can see small american flags there in the distance. we treat this as a cemetery. it is their final resting place .

    >> we laid some flowers down there. it's still hard to talk about for me.

    >> a memorial for flight 93 's victims is under construction right now the first phase is being unveiled this weekend with the dedication tomorrow.

    >> reporter: behind me as you can see the the first completed portion of the flight 93 memorial . right now it's covered up before the dedication ceremony, but it is a white marble wall inscribed with the names of the 33 passengers and seven crew members who were killed on flight 93 on september 11th . now that was the only plane of the four hijacked flights that day that did noit reach its intended target thanks to the quick action and courage of those on board on september 1 19 those on board were able to make phone calls and they found out what was happening around the country and they took a vote and decided to fight back and try to regain control of that airplane. cockpit voice recorders show when the hijackers realized what was happening they intentionally crashed the plane here in rural pennsylvania as opposed to have it taken over by the passengers. that flight was en route to washington, d.c. at the time it crashed it was 20 minutes flying time from the nation's capital. all those on board are still hailed as heroes for saving the loves of so many on the ground. tomorrow there will be a dedication ceremony for this part of the memorial. sunday there there be a memorial service marking the tenth anniversary of september 11th . the president will be here for that. this is just the first part of the memorial. the memorial is not completed. one of the issues here is money. organizers say they're $10 million short from completing this memorial. they are confident they will get that money that they need to complete it and it will be done by 2014 . back to you.

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