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3.   Profiles From WAI: USAF Maj. Nicole Malachowski

"Just Fly Your Life"

Aleta Vinas, Aero-News, 25/3/2008


Most people remember their first love. For Major Nicole Malachowski (and probably a lot of aviators) it was an airplane -- the F4 Phantom. She was five-years old, at an airshow and it was the moment that defined her future. She would be a fighter pilot.



"I liked the power, the speed, the noise, the technology, all of that," Malachowski recalled.

Her family roots are military, two grandfathers in the Navy, then one went on the Army. Her father was drafted into the Army during Vietnam. "I was raised knowing that wearing your Nation's uniform was a noble and honorable thing from a very young age," Malachowski said. Couple that with the love of airplanes, the Air Force was a natural fit.

Nevermind that it was legally impossible at that time for women to fly fighters. She was reminded of the legal impossibility in sixth grade, when one of her teachers mentioned to her women were not able to become fighter pilots. The statement only strengthened Malachowski's resolve to change the rule.

Luckily, the rules were changed before she had to take up the fight. She is grateful to that teacher, whom she recalls as "a wonderful teacher" for the extra help he gave her in her weaker subjects -- especially math.

Her road was not always easy and her biggest support came from her parents. "I am standing here today, wearing this uniform and happy, educated and healthy with good values and priorities because of my parents," Malachowski gushed. "For me when I had those hard times my dad would always say 'just fly the plane.'"

Malachowski used the saying as a metaphor for her own life. "Just fly your life. Do what you can, have self-accountability, have self-awareness and go out there and dream big. Have a passion, pursue excellence in it." She holds on to that message even today. 

After graduation from the US Air Force Academy, Malachowski had her choice of fighters. She remembered the F4, and considered the F-15E Strike Eagle as the replacement for the Phantom. "It's the finest multirole fighter out there, it does air to air and air to ground but predominately it's bread and butter and what it's good at is air to ground," said Malachowski.

In her role supporting the ground troops "who are fighting the enemy face to face," Malachowski feels the F-15E does it best. During her time as a Strike Eagle pilot, Malachowski flew over 185 combat hours. She has been fired upon numerous times but has not had to fire herself.

Malachowski applied to become a Thunderbird and was selected on her first application. The open slots were #1, which she knew she was not eligible for, #3 Right Wing and Opposing solo #6. In the interview, when asked which slot she wanted, Malachowski requested #3. "I wanted to fly in the diamond formation." Malachowski said.

As an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, she spent her career "flying single ship down low," so she was up for something different. Malachowski notes, however, that "when you're chosen to be a Thunderbird, it just doesn't matter. You're just so privileged to be there."



Being the first woman on the Thunderbirds garnered extra attention for Malachowski and the team. The team saw it as an opportunity for the Air Force to spread its message, especially to females. "It wasn't just extra work for me, it was extra work for all of us," Malachowski said. "But it was for a good reason, we knew that we had to seize the opportunity to share the message with more people."

Flying as a Thunderbird was what she expected. "It was a lot of mental endurance, mental stamina, definitely physically demanding and tiring."

The Air Force has its syllabus and the training to prepare a pilot. The one thing that Malachowski was not quite ready for was "the absolute impact you can have on people, especially young children. You become an instant role model by default and that is a very humbling feeling but it is also a huge responsibility and one the Thunderbirds all take very seriously."

"One word, one action, one note of encouragement can literally change someone's life and I think that's pretty powerful stuff and I don't think that's something I ever imagined". Malachowski handled her mission with excellence.

Though she has no actual numbers, Malachowski has received more than a dozen e-mails over her two years as a Thunderbird, from recruiters, saying young girls have come in because they saw Malachowski or Major Samantha Weeks at an airshow and want to do what they do.



Major Samantha Weeks is in her second season as a Thunderbird as Lead Solo #5, and carrying the torch Malachowski passed on. Major Dyon Douglas Opposing Solo #6 is the first African-American solo.

"It's the diversity and the strength of the people that gets the mission done," said Malachowski.

Females have been in the military and flying fighters for a while now, Malachowski has received no negative comments about women flying from her peers. "It's operations as normal," she states. Any negativity she encountered seemed to be from the civilian side of things... but her answer is to continue the day to day activities with the women to show that there is no difference with women in the air or on the ground.

Malachowski attended the Women in Aviation Conference to be inducted into the WAI Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame. "I was positively overwhelmed to find out. I don't feel like I'm old enough to be in some kind of a Hall of Fame," Malachowski admitted. "The idea of being a pioneer, I don't think has hit me yet. I'm not removed enough from my Thunderbird experience to really have gotten my arms around the whole thing."



Malachowski apparently ducked when they were tossing out pilot egos. "I am the result of an investment of a lot of people including a lot of support from the women here at Women in Aviation who were rooting for me all the way and that is what helped me get through successfully. When I'm up there accepting that honor, it's for everybody and me saying thank you to them."

Now that her successful two year stint with the US Air Force Thunderbirds as right wing #3 is complete, Malachowski is working an interim position as Deputy Chief of the US Air Force Warfare Center Commander's Action Group under Brigadier General Hoog.

In mid-June Malachowski is moving to a position that is not quite as glamorous as the Thunderbirds... and involves fewer airplanes. Malachowski will be flying a computer in Washington D.C. undertaking a Legislative Fellowship position. She will be assigned to a Senator or Congressman and act as military liaison. She'll work on Capitol Hill learning about civilian-military relationships.

In her new position, she will be away from military flying for three to four years. Malachowski is thinking of getting back into civilian flying as a way to keep the wind beneath her wings. With her positive outlook, Malachowski doesn't see not flying as a negative overall. "This is a very normal progression in the Air Force. Once you approach the rank of Lt. Colonel it's time to go learn about the rest of the Air Force. Less than 4% of your Air Force actually wears wings, less than 10% has anything to do directly related to the maintenance or functioning of an aircraft. It's the other 90% that get that aircraft airborne and if I'm truly, honestly to be a leader in this Air Force then it's my responsibility to learn what the other 90% do."



Malachowski is married to Major Paul Malachowski. The separation during Malachowski's time as a Thunderbird did not affect the relationship. "When I made the decision to apply for the team , it was more like 'we' made the decision to apply for the team." Malachowski stated. "He was my biggest supporter and fan." Major Paul Malachowski is an aviator as well, so the understanding was there and the mutual respect.

When Malachowski begins her new position in DC, her husband will be moving right along with her. "Using the joint spouse program he is moving at the exact same time to a job with the Pentagon." Malachowski said with a smile.