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Heather Penney

United States Air Force Pilot, Senior Resident Fellow for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies at the Air Force Association

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  • Shares heroic story of 9/11 Flight 93 Kamikaze Mission, in order to inspire audiences to take initiative, and handle stressful situations with progressive action
  • Senior Resident Fellow for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies at the Air Force Association
  • On 121st Fighter Squadron of the District of Columbia Air National Guard

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Most widely recognized for her service on September 11, Heather “Lucky” Penney is a renowned speaker on topics ranging from personal courage; decision-making under stress; leadership; organizational transformation; inclusivity; high performance teams; national defense issues; and aviation. She grew up around aviation and warbirds, but women couldn’t be fighter pilots when she went to college; congressional statute excluded women from combat. Pursuing her love of aviation, she stood up the first collegiate team to race in the Air Race Classic at Purdue University, where she earned her B.A. and M.A. She was in graduate school when she learned that Congress had opened combat aviation to women.

Heather was part of the first wave of women who went directly into fighters from pilot training. She applied to the Air National Guard and earned her wings through the exclusive and prestigious Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training, a NATO undergraduate pilot training program where she flew the T-37 and T-38. The first and only woman in the 121st Fighter Squadron, Heather deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom for initial combat operations as a night-time SCUD Hunter in the western deserts of Iraq, also supporting Special Operations Forces. She flew the F-16 for ten years before having to make the difficult decision to leave the fighter aviation as a single mother. She continued to serve, flying the Gulfstream G-100 Astra jet for another six years in the VIP Special Airlift Mission.

For over ten years, Heather was a Director of various Air Force programs for Lockheed Martin, specializing in capture management, government relations, and strategic business development. Her portfolio included the F-22, the F-16, F-35 training, and the Air Force’s Advanced Pilot Training competition to replace the T-38. She now is a Senior Resident Fellow for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies at the Air Force Association, where she researches conducts extensive research on cutting edge defense policy and technologies with a focus on the leveraging the critical advantage that only aerospace power affords.

She has been a regular lecturer at the Air Force’s Squadron Officer School; is on the Board of Directors for the Experimental Aviation Association; is Chair of the EAA Women Soar Society, dedicated to supporting and expanding the presence of women across aviation; and was the Beideman Visiting Scholar at the Oskin Leadership Institute for Widener University from 2018-2019. Heather’s passion for aviation has never faded – she has flown her Taylorcraft BC-12 coast-to-coast, owned several vintage aircraft, and raced jets at 500 mph and 50ft above the desert floor at the Reno Air Races. She has over 3,500 hours with Commercial, CFII/MEI, and ATP ratings; and she has co-piloted the Collings Foundation B-17, brining history alive to communities across the nation. She enjoys flying her WWII Army Air Forces PT-13 Stearman biplane and 1950 Cessna 170A. She is now married with two daughters and rescue dog, Gilmore (named after Roscoe’s lion). When she isn’t in the air, you can usually find her with her family, camping and hiking in a National Park.

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Speaker Video

9/11 and Every-day Heroism | Heather “Lucky” Penney | TEDxChelseaPark

Heather "Lucky" Penney - The Hero In All of Us

NCLS 2017 Heather Penney

WUSA | Fighter pilot remembers 9/11

Leading into an Uncertain Future. The availability of information has created an insatiable appetite for leaders: better information is equated with better decision-making and better outcomes. Yet leading through change or crises inherently disrupts this model. Leaders can be paralyzed by uncertainty in dynamic and unpredictable environments. Penney shares her experiences and lessons on how leaders can ensure their organizations and people are best prepared and empowered to take action when facing the unknown.

Ms. Penney tailors her speeches to each individual client’s needs. She is a charismatic, genuine, and skilled for “fireside chats.” She is also a collaborative and dynamic panelist. Additionally, Ms. Penney can speak to:

  • Future warfare concepts
  • Optimizing Technology and Humans in Future Warfare
  • National Defense
  • Organizational transformation
  • Risk-taking for leaders and organizations
  • Conquering self-doubt and failure
  • Building a culture of empowerment
  • General aviation
  • Women in aviation

9/11: Cultivating the Hero Within. Reflecting on her experiences on 9/11, Penney offers a vision of hope, community, and connection for our nation’s future as an alternative to the fear and trauma that has consumed our collective consciousness. This uplifting and inspirational future is available to all us and the small, daily choices that each of us makes. Penney provides a specific model that helps audiences understand how we can deliberately cultivate heroism in ourselves, and how we can empower ourselves to be a force for good in our communities.

Building a Mission-Purposed Culture. Diversity and inclusion are widely recognized and corporate imperatives but are often resisted as disruptive and arbitrary and villainizing the existing organizational identity and culture. Penney explains through her personal experiences in a fighter squadron how culture is essential to mission performance and high-performing teams, and reframes how we understand the norms, behaviors, and traditions that govern group dynamics. By aligning culture with mission and focusing on purpose, the space for diversity and inclusion is naturally created in a manner that values every team member and empowers them to perform at their best. 

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