When you ask pilot Heather Penney to tell you her favorite aircraft to fly, her answer will be, “whatever I’m flying on that day.” For Penney, who goes by the call sign Lucky, there have been a number of aircraft to choose from during her groundbreaking career in aviation (including the F-16!). Penney signed up for the Air Force as soon as they began accepting female fighter pilots in 1993. She was the only woman in her training class and the only woman in the 121st Fighter Squadron with the Washington, DC, National Guard. She was also a 9/11 first responder with the 121st.
After serving two tours of duty in Iraq, Penney is currently the director of U.S. Air Force Training Systems at Lockheed Martin. Her career has been driven by talent, passion, and grit. She credits the aviation community for helping her succeed. “Flight helps us become our better selves,” Penney said.
With decades of groundbreaking service under her belt—and many achievements yet to come—Penney reflects on what it means to be a woman in aviation and the commitment it takes to succeed, no matter what the field.
A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon, like the one flown by Heather Penney.
It’s never too late to find your passion—and it’s ok to have more than one!
Growing up, I loved the aviation community. I was fascinated by flight, but I was not singularly focused on becoming a fighter pilot. I had a number of different interests: I danced ballet for a long time. In high school, I was in marching band, and I was also in drum corps. I was in the theater. I had a lot of varying interests, but flight always continued to be a constant passion for me.
I stumbled into fighter aviation in graduate school. I had wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I had intended to sign up for ROTC when I got to Purdue, but women couldn’t be fighter pilots back then. I ended up going into literature, history, and philosophy. I was in the middle of my master’s degree in American Studies when I learned that the combat restriction had been lifted for women. That’s when I returned to that dream of becoming a pilot.
If we see female pilots, more and more of us everywhere, it’ll never occur to a young girl that she couldn’t be one, too.
Love your purpose more than you love your ego.
I think the desire to prove oneself, to test oneself, is an important motivation. And not just to prove someone else wrong, but to really test our own skill. That effort is really about pushing yourself to reach your potential and not settle for less. Though, there certainly had to be an element of proving all my naysayers wrong, because there were a number of those! You can’t let them get you down.
Regardless of the environment, the key thing is to truly be committed to being excellent in what you do. There’s inherent value in just achieving mastery and skill, and that’s the more important thing. Because you’ll have days when you really screw up and you’ve performed poorly. If you’re more concerned about what other people think of you than what you’re actually doing, you’ll never be able to survive those days.
If you’re truly committed and have purpose in your heart for what it is that you’re doing, that’s what gives you the strength to get up the next day and go try again—regardless of the naysayers, regardless of how badly you’ve fallen on your face the day before. Because you have a long-term commitment, you’re disciplined, and you love your purpose more than you love your ego.
John Penney and his daughter Heather Penney aboard their Piper Cub.
Failure is a necessary and integral part of learning.
Who hasn’t had one of those days? Your skin burns, your throat closes up. They say you can’t take it personally, but of course you take it personally when you care intensely about what you’re doing! You have to own your actions, you have to own your mistakes. You have to raise your hand and say, “I really screwed that up and it was my fault.” That is not an easy thing to do! Rather than using your emotions to protect your ego, you have to care more about how to learn from those lessons so that tomorrow when you go out, you can do better. Use those emotions to increase your commitment and determination to improve and succeed!
When I was in T-37 training, I thought I was never, ever going to pass the instrument phase. If you’ve ever seen the instrument panel of a T-37, it’s not the easiest. It was really a challenge for me, because I was more of a stick-and-rudder pilot and I had not had much experience with instruments. But I didn’t sit around and feel sorry for myself.
I went home and I studied harder and went in after hours and flew the simulators. I did things over and over and over until it began to make sense and I could do all of the intellectual and physical tasks of instrument flight in the T-37. I passed! I was able to overcome the challenge—what it took was a dogged determination to continue to work hard and a commitment to not give up and to not lose hope.
It’s never too early to be a role model.
Someone who made a huge impact on me was USAF Lt. Col. Christine Mau, the first female F-35 pilot. She went through pilot training a couple classes ahead of me. She helped give me encouragement when I was all out of it for myself.
One of the challenges of being a woman in an all-male environment is that, especially in the fighter world when I went through training, all the instructors were male. It was a de-facto boys club (though the guys I worked with were great!). I just did not know how to fit in. Having the encouragement that Christine gave me just made all the difference in the world.
It’s funny when I look back on it, because she was only two classes ahead of me. She was just another student pilot! But she had such a positive impact on me. It’s never too early to reach your hand down to help someone else up the ladder. You don’t have to have arrived, you don’t have to be someone, to help someone else out. It’s never too early in your career to be that role model, to be that mentor, that coach. Don’t wait to pass it on.
Pilot Heather Penney. Credit: United States Naval Academy.
If you can see it, you can be it.
When you take a look at the female pilot population across the United States, women comprise only six percent of all certificated pilots! Part of increasing the percentage is increasing the visibility of women who are pilots. There is truth to “If you can see it, you can be it.” If we see female pilots, more and more of us everywhere, it’ll never occur to a young girl that she couldn’t be one, too.
Join pilot Heather Penney at the “We Can Do It! Women in Aviation and Space” Heritage Family Day on March 10 at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. From 10 am to 3 pm, enjoy hands on activities for the whole family, take your own Rosie the Riveter-inspired photo, and hear from special guests from the aviation field.
On Monday, July 11, fans at Petco Park in San Diego -- the site of the 2016 MLB All-Star Game -- will cheer on Major League Baseball stars as they launch home run after home run during the 2016 T-Mobile Home Run Derby.
Yet even before the start of this annual fan-favorite event, the crowd will also witness the celebration of a young "All-Star" who showed tremendous courage by publicly demonstrating values used by my father, Jackie Robinson, to break a personal barrier. This lucky grand prize winner was chosen out of nearly 18,000 entries in the "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" essay contest run by Major League Baseball and Scholastic, and generously supported by official MLB sponsor Church & Dwight.
The program began in 1997. That year was the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier, and during a wonderful (yet cold) ceremony at Shea Stadium on April 15, Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig, with my mother, Rachel, and President Bill Clinton by his side, announced that my father's number 42 would be retired throughout the game in perpetuity.
Following that momentous evening, my mother and I divided invitations from clubs to attend their ballpark ceremonies to honor my father's legacy. One of my first ones was with the Seattle Mariners in the Kingdome, and I was invited to throw out the first pitch. I was so nervous entering that massive cement structure filled with cheering fans and a mob of press, and I was fearful that the ball wouldn't reach home plate.
Before I knew it, there was Ken Griffey, Jr. (currently a Hall of Fame electee) walking up to me with his wide grin and strong arms. We exchanged encouraging words and signed baseballs. Cameras flashed. When a reporter asked me if this was just about celebrations at ballparks, I paused. My parents were activists, I explained. My dad was deeply invested in youth, and right then I knew that this Jackie Robinson ballpark tribute had to impact the wider community. Three months later, I retired from twenty years as a nurse midwife and educator and began an amazing second career as an Educational Programming Consultant with Major League Baseball.
Breaking Barriers is a character education and literacy program for students in grades four through nine. The program teaches that we all face barriers in our lives, even Major League players. We help students understand the importance of character and how Jackie Robinson used nine core values to overcome his barriers. The national essay contest is at the heart of the program as students apply the lessons they've learned to their own lives. By participating, children discover strengths in their own character that will help them overcome their personal struggles, challenges, hardships, and, yes, barriers.
It's hard to believe that this spring we will announce our twentieth class of essay winners. Over the years, kids have shared the full range of personal barriers, and in the process have inspired us with their resilience. Winners receive prizes that include: a trip to the Major League All-Star Game, laptop computers, a class visit from me, classroom sets of Breaking Barriers T-shirts, copies of my latest novel, The Hero Two Doors Down, and tablets for their teachers. Occasionally, the stars will align and we add a ballpark visit with players to the mix.
Over the years, the Breaking Barriers program has reached more than 22 million children across the United States. To commemorate this twentieth anniversary, we reached out to past winners to find out the long-term impact the program has had on them. The responses had common themes of self-confidence, confidence as a writer, and hope.
Peter is now a freshman at NYU Shanghai. He was a 2012 grand prize winner and an active Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) Scholar at that time. I saw Peter last month in New York when he came in for the annual JRF conference. Born on the West Bank in the Middle East, Peter's winning essay described his family's escape from war when he was five and his personal journey since coming to America.
Peter now speaks multiple languages and is positioning himself to be a leader in global affairs. He wrote that the experience of winning the Breaking Barriers essay contest was inspiring, "namely in the confidence and hope in myself that the contest sparked ... the experience showed me exactly what setting my mind to something can accomplish: big things."
Malcolm, the 2015 Breaking Barriers grand prize winner, will be in our lives forever. He's an avid baseball player from New Orleans as a member of that city's MLB Urban Youth Academy. Malcolm's poignant essay described how he'd been bullied for years because he stutters. What shined through the pain was his indomitable spirit. It was equally clear that by winning the breaking barriers contest, Malcolm's status at school was elevated, and he has pledged to send us his report card each term. He's also getting help including being sponsored by MLB to attend a summer camp for kids who stutter. Malcolm summed up his experience this way: "Winning the contest in 2015 has allowed me to find my voice."
We met Megan when she was 14 and she had 14 surgeries for a rare disorder. Her grand prize-winning essay showed incredible writing talent. Megan is also a baseball historian. She was so impressive that after spending some time with her at the 2011 World Series, Commissioner Emeritus Selig hired her as the youth reporter for MLB.com.
Megan, who is now studying journalism at Miami University (Oxford, OH), recently described the program's impact on her life in the following way: "It is one of the formative experiences of my life. From Breaking Barriers, I have gained the world: confidence in myself and my self-identity, memories to last a lifetime, the professional opportunities of my dreams and some of the most treasured relationships ... I could go on and on."
I also could go on and on sharing stories from the lives of hundreds of children we've met through the Breaking Barriers program. Over the last five years, I've faced my own barriers--the most tragic being the day my 35-year-old son had a fatal heart attack. The loss was indescribable. Then, I met Raymond (one of the grand prize winners in 2014). He was a shy fifth grader who'd survived repeated brain surgeries and I find myself thinking, Wouldn't my father be proud.
For the past twenty years, I've shared my dad's story with children, emphasizing his strength of character. As a children's book author, I've been able to expand my reach and inspire another generation with lessons I've learned from him. This work is powerful and I feel grateful.
My father once said, "A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives." This is the way he lived his life, on and off the field. His legacy in baseball and beyond reflects the power of this statement. From the bold display of the number 42 across Major League Baseball clubs, Jackie Robinson Day, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life, Jackie Robinson is a living legacy.