She’s Got Grit: Brutally honest lessons in grit from F-16 pioneer “Lucky” Penney

“I fell in love with the Phantom.”

One of my favorite sentences from all of the Grit Project interviews came from Heather “Lucky Penney who fell in love with the F-4 Phantom as an Air Force brat. Her father, who had flown a tour in Vietnam as a Sandy pilot in the A-7D, took a position flying the RF-4 in the Reno Air Guard after he separated from the Air Force. Penney’s father had followed the example of his father before him, Penney’s grandfather, who flew was a civilian pilot instructor during World War II and later owned his own airfield and aviation service. Penney knew she wanted to follow suit, and her mother raised her and her twin sister to dream big and be whatever they wanted to be.

“But I’m not sure my dad ever really took me seriously that I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” she says. “Plus, girls literally couldn’t be fighter pilots back then. The combat exclusion hadn’t been lifted. I just didn’t know that.”

So in 1992, when Penney showed up to Purdue University and went to talk to the ROTC program, they informed her that women weren’t allowed to be fighter pilots. She was uninterested in the military without flying fighters, and thought she would have to leave behind her dreams. She focused on school, studying literature and philosophy, and then applied to stay on for a Masters in American Studies.

“I was in the middle of graduate school when I heard that combat aviation had opened to women,” she says.

She applied to Air National Guard fighter units, and was selected by the D.C. National Guard, the 121st Fighter Squadron to fly the F-16C. After commissioning, she was selected to attend Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) in Wichita Falls, Texas for Undergraduate Pilot Training. There, she would fly the T-37 and T-38, and stay on for Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, learning the basics of fighter tactics flying the T-38. It was there that she really got her first experience of being a woman in a man’s world.

Flight School

“There was a female instructor pilot in another flight, but even though she was great with the guys, she was cold to me and barely even acknowledge my existence. She was widely regarded as one of the best instructors in the Wing, and so her guidance and mentorship would have been so valuable. It was really intimidating and discouraging, and it wasn’t helpful in figuring out the group dynamics. I’ve often said that the jet doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman, it just cares how well you fly. But the truth of the matter is that the squadron is made of people, and group dynamics matter. I had a great bunch of guys in my class, and it was still awkward to negotiate. ”

“But there was one other girl, Christine Callahan, was a couple of classes ahead of me. Grinder [Christine — Grinder is her callsign] was so friendly and supportive, it was a really important lesson on how critical mentorship is,” she said. “Grinder was transformative for me. I knew that if I ever saw another girl coming behind me it was my obligation to look out for her and others. The connection to another woman helped me understand I was not alone.

Find solidarity with your sisters

Christine Callahan wasn’t just a leader there — she eventually went on to become the first female F-35 pilot and remains a strong friend to Lucky and inspirational role model to all young women.

But that experience made Penney reflect on the pressures that difference cohorts of pioneers experience. “Later in my career, I ran into that female instructor, and she is just amazing! I think that as an early female fighter pilot, one of those first movers, she was struggling to navigate her own group dynamics. The first generations of pioneers are always in an extreme minority, and their survival and success relies upon their acceptance by the dominant group. That necessarily divides those first movers — they can’t identify with others in their cohort or those that follow because it endangers their belonging to the group. I realize now that what was going on back then wasn’t personal — we were both just doing the best we could.”

This is one of the areas Lucky suggests is worth exploring: the difference between cohorts of women. We talk about the CFPA, the Chick Fighter Pilot Association I had heard about from a previous Grit Project woman.

We’ve got to take care of each other

“Grinder, the Chicks, and my experiences since then have really shown me that we aren’t in this alone. When we talk about grit, that’s a personal characteristic or quality that appears very individualistic. And there’s truth to that. But I really want to emphasize that we’ve got to take care of each other, mentor, coach, and sponsor each other. Sometimes grit comes from that little encouragement, that bit of strength lent to you by your sisters. We are all in this together, and we’ve got to reach out and support each other.”

I mentioned that my experience had been very different, and that it had been difficult to be stationed with other women.

“I think of us as generations 1 and 1.5,” she says. “The experience you mentioned, the first wave of fighter pilots for us, like Jeannie Flynn Leavitt, Dawn Dunlop, Martha McSally — they already had their wings and they transitioned into fighters. Now what they did, that was sporty! The gen 1.5 group, like me, we were part of the wave going straight from pilot training into fighters and we had a different experience.

“In that Generation 1, like you, it was very dangerous to associate with other women,” she says. “Any time you have a minority pioneer moving into a majority group, in order to really being to the group they are in they have to disavow their membership to the minority. I’m not one of them, I’m one of you. That affirms their commitment to the group and validates their presence and belonging.

“In the military, this is even more necessary, especially in the fighter world where it’s very much a master-apprentice relationship. While combat aviation has a tremendous amount of science and math to it, warfighting is still an art. Your professional competence is very much reliant on how much the more experienced pilots and instructors transfer their knowledge to you.

“That’s why there’s a saying that the best learning takes place in the bar. Standards, TTPs [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures] and the fighter pilot code of debriefs is only going to get you so far — to really grow, you need that personal mentorship. You’ve got to be in the club. And if you are, you’re going to get a lot more investment and it’s going to make you better at what you do. This master-apprentice relationship exacerbates the previous dynamic of a minority moving in to an organization. That minority pioneer has to demonstrate adherence and endorsement of the dominant culture.”

Horizontal violence in early integrations

“It’s a well-understood occurrence,” she says. “It’s called horizontal violence or what some may know as Queen Bee syndrome. Through maintaining competition between minority members, the majority is able to maintain its dominance. Women are incentivized to not be a girl, but to be like the guys. It also means you can’t affiliate with other women. Some women tried to out-guy the guys to prove that they belonged. I did a little of that myself. That’s probably what you experienced.

“But let’s be clear here: groups are groups because they share a purpose, values, and codes of behavior. It’s part of what creates connection, loyalty, trust, and strong relationships among the members. To become a member of that group requires the initiate to assume and internalize those values, etc., and prove that to established group. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider that the military is one of the most esteemed and trusted professions/groups in America.

“Combat effectiveness has nothing to do with the size of your dick.”

“That’s part of the reason that each service has core values, states their mission and purpose — the disconnect comes when the codes of behavior and value sets have strayed from the purpose and meaning of the group. Take, for example, the hyper-masculinity and sexualization of the fighter community — what does that have to do getting your pipper on the bad guy and putting bombs on target? This is crass, but I say this in part because the shock value is important — combat effectiveness has nothing to do with the size of your dick. As a fighter pilot, it’s frustrating to me that we have such an amazing heritage, inspiring and courageous histories that we should be connecting with and are more authentically representative of our values, codes, and mission.”

The hardest part of being a fighter pilot

Heather “Lucky” Penney in the cockpit of the F-16

“It wasn’t just the Phantom I fell in love with — I wanted to be a fighter pilot because I also part of the brotherhood. I didn’t want my presence to change it; but simply because I’m a woman, it did. It took me a while to understand that I had to accept that,” she says.

“I had to pretend that all that was ok.”

“But I’m not sure that was such a bad thing. I would hope that the entry of women helps the fighter community refocus on what really matters in our culture, and what really contributes to our mission. Those traditions and rituals we have that are hyper-masculine and sexualized have nothing to do with actually making the team better at what we do, more mission effective at what we do; they don’t create higher performance or esprit d’corps.

The real source of esprit d’corps

“We were in the middle of a mass briefing, and in between each section popped up a hard core porn picture,” she says. “At the end of the mass brief I said, ‘Hey, great briefing guys!’ I wasn’t going to rock the boat. Not only did the commander tell all the guys it was inappropriate and that it would never happen again, but he told me that I shouldn’t have to tolerate things like that, and he apologized. It was a real wake-up moment for me. That was my clue that wow, I don’t have to pretend that these behaviors that I find personally demoralizing and disrespectful were ok. The hyper-sexual locker-room rituals only served to highlight what an outsider I was.

Esprit d’corps comes from the organization that works hard, has mutual respect and trust for each other, and is a high performing organization.

“Now, this is kind of an extreme example, and I hope for the generations of Fighter Chicks that came after me, that this is really just a quaint story from long ago and that they can’t relate. After all, I’m a washed-up has-been, and women have been in fighters for nearly twenty years.

“And let me say — and this is important — that I love my brothers. I really do, and I remain close friends with many of them. They are good husbands, caring fathers, and just good, smart, hardworking, and decent human beings. So why do good people of integrity do stuff like this? Group think and cultural norms can do strange things to people, and it takes a strong insider to help refocus culture on what’s really important.

Creating the right environment

What you do becomes who you are.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have a thick skin. I’m not being a ‘snowflake’ about this. What we do matters because it’s what we become.

“You know, being a fighter pilot isn’t something you do — it’s something you are. You don’t just fly fighters — you are a fighter pilot.” But how does that work for a women, if being a fighter pilot means being manly?

“Our group norms and culture define group identity. My bros had to fit in, just like I was trying to (it was just generally easier for them, they had penises).” she says collegially. “What you do becomes who you are. It’s that old saying — your actions become your habits, your habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny.

“I’ve been very candid about the ugly side of stuff, and in any group culture, that’s usually pretty taboo. But we have to talk about these things because silence is tolerance; what is tolerated becomes accepted; what is accepted becomes standard; and what is standard becomes the expectation, the goal. It’s a slippery slope for integrity. This is how nasty or dysfunctional group think happens to genuinely good, decent people.

“It’s really important to ensure that culture — a group’s beliefs, values, codes, traditions, and behaviors — are fully aligned with the group’s purpose and mission. Culture — group identity — fosters group cohesion, shared value sets, trust, cooperation, understanding, loyalty. Frankly, any high-performing team will have a high esprit de corps that derives in part from a strong group identity. This is a good thing.

“Part of the cognitive dissonance that I experienced is that the fighter pilot culture is about professionalism, honor, truth, and competence, but there has been this overlay of hyper-masculinity, locker-room reindeer games that go with it. The belonging, though, didn’t come from that core culture piece of excellence, but on all those games that followed. That drift is where the dissonance occured.

The 30 percent that we’ll never hit

“You know, I always have to caveat this, because these conversations inevitably focus on the negative. There are a lot of really great things about fighter pilot culture, and I am proud to be a fighter pilot. I’m not advocating that we annihilate the ‘fighter pilot’ — what I hope we do is return to our core values in a way that is authentic, connects us to our amazing and courageous heritage, remains functional for our mission and our future, and is inclusive of those who share our purpose and our standards.”

Ready for any mission, at any cost

She and the other pilots worked to energize their chain of command upward.

“After the Pentagon was hit, Vice President Cheney said ‘get somebody airborne.’ And that came from down the secret service down to us.”

Penney took off with flight lead and Squadron DO Marc Sasseville on a mission to find and take out the passenger jet headed for the capital.

But the F-16s they were flying had no missiles, and only 105 training bullets each.

“We both knew that that would not be sufficient to take down any airliner,” Penny says to the reporter. “So Sass’s plan was to ram the cockpit and my plan was to ram the tail of the aircraft.”

Heather Penney talks to the Washington Post about her 9–11 mission

“Were you going up on a suicide mission?” asked the reporter.

“Well, that’s essentially our only option. We weren’t really thinking a lot about…we all knew what we needed to do,” replied Penney.

The aircraft they were looking for was United Airlines flight 93. Penney had no idea it had already crashed.

“As a young fighter pilot I was gung ho, very eager, hair on fire, all thrust no vector, but the events of that day really brought to bear how solemn a responsibility and what a privilege it is to serve my nation.”

“Because you were prepared to die that day,” asked the reporter.

“Yes,” said Penney, “and that there are more important things in this world than me.”

I asked Lucky about her combat deployments, and if she would share a few experiences. In 2003 Penney was chopped to the Colorado Air National Guard as part of the 410 Air Expeditionary Wing. Their primary mission was to prevent the launch of SCUD missiles against coalition allies in the Middle East.

Going to War

“So on the ground these boys were calling for our bombs, and you can hear the shouting and explosions over the radio, and our TAC-P volunteers his initials for danger close…through my NVGs I could actually see the trajectory of mortar fire because of the heat. I was able to trace back to find the pit with my NVGs, and I was able to move my laser marker over the mortar pit and my buddy dropped on my spot while I lazed the bomb in, and the mortars stopped — we were able to give our boys a little breathing room.

“On one day mission we got called up by another SOF troop. They’d run into an Iraqi convoy that wasn’t moving and they were worried that they had been detected. We came on scene and were orbiting, trying to pick out the details in our laser targeting pods, but we really can’t figure out why the tank convoy wasn’t moving, and we couldn’t see any people.

“We’re just fixated on our sensors trying to zoom in to get finer detail, refine our focus, black-ho/white-hot/TV, so we can understand what’s going on. Finally I looked up out of the drool cup and out my canopy and realized we were on an Iraqi bombing range; the convoy was a pretty beat-up bombing target, and you could see the strafe pits and the bullseye of the main target with its range rings and even a run-in line. The SOF guys had stumbled on an Iraqi bombing range! Needless to say, they were relieved. Looking back, it was quite humorous.”

I suggest that the ground support must have been very gratifying, and Lucky concurs, but qualifies it with what she knows of both reality and doctrine.

“Doing the ground support is really emotionally satisfying like Haditha — I knew we saved those guys’ lives, and that matters. Other times I was called for a troops in contact situation and you calm the situation, put your bombs where they need them, you’re making a real difference in those guys’ day. And I’m grateful that as a fighter pilot, I can get there fast, apply force and turn the momentum of the fight. We’re the Army’s guardian angels. But as an airman I’m really pissed any time I’m doing CAS [Close Air Support], and especially when those guys have to call in danger close. The point of air power is to be able to project power such that the boys on the ground don’t ever have to get into a force-on-force troops in contact — or if they do, it’s with such an advantage that it’s not even close or fair. The fact that in OIF the ground was rushed, it got so screwed up that they needed us to come in and save their bacon … Desert Storm was the text-book example of the application of airpower. Carlisle [the Army War College] is able to teach Desert Storm as a ‘100-hour war’ because the Air Force had already been in combat for 36 days. We had blinded, paralyzed, and essentially disarmed the Iraqi Army before the U.S. Army even got to the field. Now that’s ‘preparing the battlefield.’

“You have to remember, the whole reason the Air Force was born was that during WWI, the airmen were flying over the trenches and were horrified. They thought, my God, there has to be a better way than all this slaughter. That was the genesis of ‘over, not through,’ the notion that by attacking the adversary’s critical nodes and infrastructure — whether it’s ball bearings, oil refineries, electrical grids, or command and control communications centers — you can prevent them from being able to field their forces. The Army is all about force-on-force attrition warfare, but that’s heartbreaking to me.

“Close Air Support might be gratifying in the moment, but I’d rather blind and paralyze the enemy, preventing the adversary forces from even coming to the field, so that the Army can march down the highway completely unmolested and just walk in. That’s satisfying at a much deeper level. That’s how it’s supposed to go.”

I ask what Penney is most proud of from her time in service, and she remembers one of her hardest times.

The Hardest Time

“When I finally called the knock it off and told my bosses I had to leave the jet, I had to make the decision, and I chose my daughters. The day of my final flight, of my bros I’d been on good terms with but who was also one of the more ‘traditional’ fighter pilots said to me, ‘You know, Lucky, I’m really sad to see you go. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since you said you were leaving, and you belong here more than half of the guys in the squadron: you’re more of a fighter pilot than most of the guys here.’

“What he was acknowledging was how deeply I believed in what our core values were, how passionate I was about our mission, how hard I worked for tactical credibility and competence, my integrity, and how focused I was on our craft. I had earned his respect. And that really meant a lot to me, even if it was as I was walking out the door. His words somehow validated all the heartache I had through all that struggle. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss the jet, my bros, and the mission. I’d go back in a heartbeat. I don’t miss the bullshit but I would take the bullshit for everything else.”

Heather Penney at the Reno Air Races

We finally come around to grit, though we’ve been talking about it throughout the conversation.

Grit: Let’s Be Honest

Sometimes it sucks. It will be hard, and sometimes it will be ugly.

“We have to be really honest with these girls. Sometimes it sucks. It will be hard, and sometimes it will be ugly. There will be days where you make horrific missteps, and your eyes will be puffy with tears and humiliation, and will be awful, and you’ll have self-doubt and wonder if you’re good enough. And if we don’t talk about the bad times, these girls will think that none of us experienced anything that like what she’s going through; that we were unswayed, always confident in our abilities, undeterred in our vision, and that we never faltered or failed in our execution. And it will increase her own self-doubt, and may cause her to give up.

“Grit is about falling down and getting back up again. It’s not just about outside challenges; sometimes the biggest challenge comes from inside ourselves. When we say reach for your dreams we have to say it comes with a shitload of hard work and heartache and it’s not easy. But it’s so worth it.

“You’ve got to love what your dream is more than you love yourself. I’m not saying allow yourself to be disrespected or allow yourself to be harmed. But it can’t be about your ego. If you focus on what you love you’ll be able to get kicked in the teeth, you’ll be able to fail, you’ll be able to make mistakes, and you own it and you get up the next day and you do it again. And because you’ve been through that, because you owned it, you can internalize those lessons learned and not be defensive. No excuses. You can really focus on growth and improvement. New jet, new day.

“If you have a dream and you mess up, it’s hard not to take it personally because we care so much. We’re so invested in our dreams. That passion is what makes our dreams so compelling, meaningful. And doing hard stuff isn’t all bad. You will have successes, and you have to celebrate each step and milestone. Gain energy, confidence, and experience from your wins. That will give you momentum and heart, and help you stay positive and hopeful during the rough spots. Doing the hard stuff feels good because it’s deeply satisfying and meaningful. It’s what makes us get out of bed every morning, hungry, with our teeth sharp and our blood on fire. But you must take your ego out of it. If you love your dream more than you love your ego, you’ll be able to take those setbacks and learn from them, and go out again the next day and do it better than before.

You’ve got to love what your dream is more than you love yourself.

“Grit is a combination of determination and perseverance. A willingness to work hard, get our fingernails dirty. It’s commitment. It’s an outward-leaning posture: there’s no place for self-pity — that’s ego, self-indulgence. Grit is fundamentally hopeful, empowering: you can make a difference, you can achieve your dreams.”

Where did she find her own grit?

“The F-16,” Lucky says. “I loved the F-16, I loved the tactics, I really wanted to be a good fighter pilot. I loved it so much I wanted to master the art. I was really on fire for it. I ate it, I slept it, I dreamt it, I loved every piece of it.”

I ask her if grit is something you’re born with, you either have it or you don’t? Penney suggests that grit is something that anyone can cultivate in their character. “You have to first recognize that you need it, and that takes a level of self-awareness and brute self-honesty that some people aren’t willing to face. I do believe that there are some people who have inherent grit — they are born with it — but for many of us, grit is a choice that we make,” she says. “And then it’s a daily choice until it becomes habit, until it becomes character.”

“Some people let life happen to them. They’re not willing to accept that their life is of their making; they don’t recognize that being passive is a choice in and of itself,” she says, “We all have the power to make the world that we want to live in. It’s a line, but it’s also true: ‘We make our fate.’ The world we build for ourselves, our lives, doesn’t ‘just happen.’ Yes, we all live in a combination of circumstance, opportunity, and resources, but we can choose our attitude and our actions. That’s really empowering.”

When I ask about books she’s reading, she laughs and says, “I wish I had more time to really read. Right now I’m just starting a history of the F-111 program. I read a lot of airpower, as well as technical aviation books. Right now I’m really about learning mountain flying and improving my spot and short field landing skills. I love histories, and I love biographies. There is so much that we can learn and apply to our own lives. And I devour leadership and self-development books. They’re super-easy and quick reads because they’re written for grade level. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’m always looking to improve myself, to grow, to be my best self. That best self will be at a different level every day, but I strive nonetheless. And those books can be inspiring, help me become more self-aware, give me a few pointers or a new perspective. Even on the top of my game, sometimes I need a little reminder, or a new technique, or more inspiration.

I have two daughters, and I read a lot of YA fiction because I read what they’re reading. We have conversations about the books, and it helps us connect. It’s also a parenting tool for me to continue to guide them and have discussions about situations and character. My daughters are voracious readers, so they’re hard to keep up with. Everything from the standard pop culture series (ugh, I hate vampires, zombies, and princesses) to graphic novels and Newberries. I love Kate DiCamillo. Her rhetoric is elegant, lovely, and imaginative. She has a wicked sense of humor, and her books are compassionate, sweet, deep, and redemptive. She deals with some very difficult issues for young people. It’s interesting because a lot of young adult fiction is focused on identity creation. It’s not just coming of age but really about becoming who you are. And that struggle is always relevant, no matter what age you are. We are constantly learning, transforming. We are always in the process of becoming.” She laughs again. “Heck, I’m still trying to figure out who I want to be when I grow up.”

Although Lucky left the F-16 years ago, she hasn’t left the cockpit. She’s raced jets at the Reno Air Races, she copilots the Collings Foundation’s B-17 when she can get away, and she owns a vintage 1950 Cessna 170 taildragger and a 1942 Stearman.

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