Then-Maj. Nicole Malachowski prepares to take off for a practice sortie with the Thunderbirds in an F-16 Fighting Falcon. Malachowski was the Thunderbird #3 right wing pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Justin Pyle)
Then-Maj. Nicole Malachowski answers questions at the Women in Aviation and Space Family Day March 14, 2009 at the National Air and Space Museum's Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The event featured female air and space pioneers, including astronauts, a World War II Women Airforce Service Pilot and several aerospace experts at exhibit booths where visitors could learn hands-on about science and flying. Major Malachowski was the first female Thunderbirds pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski)
Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski smiles for an official photo. Malachowski was the first female pilot with the Thunderbirds and is the commander of the 333rd Fighter Squadron at Seymore Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. (U.S. Air Force photo)
by Airman 1st Class Alexander W. Riedel
Air Force News Service
3/19/2013 - FT. GEORGE G. MEADE (AFNS) -- Since 1953, the Air Force's air demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, have captivated spectators across the world and showed its audiences what the Air Force's aircraft are capable of.
For two years, Lt.Col. Nicole Malachowski surprised audiences not just in the air, but especially when she stepped out of the cockpit of the fighter jet as the first woman to be accepted for a seat on the Air Force's premier show team.
Being on the crew took Malachowski full circle to the root of her career, she said. At just 5 years old, she visited an air show with her parents and was fascinated by the powerful roar and agility of the F-4 Phantom II.
"I remember looking my father in the eye and saying 'I want to be a fighter pilot some day,'" Malachowski said.
Soon she began the journey to the cockpit by participating in the Civil Air Patrol at age 12 and took to the pilot's seat for her first solo flight at age 16 -- getting her pilot's before her driver's license. She continued on her path, by applying to the U.S. Air Force Academy, receiving her commission in May 1996.
Malachowski went on to serve in three operational F-15E Strike Eagle fighter squadrons, holding positions as a flight commander and instructor pilot. She quickly amassed more than 1,600 flying hours, including 185 hours of combat time in Operation Deliberate Forge and Operation Iraqi Freedom. On the ground, she also served alongside the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division as an air liaison officer in South Korea.
In every job, Malachowski excelled, and her flying talent and real-world experience eventually got her selected as the first female pilot in any American military air demonstration team.
In interviews, however, Malachowski often repeated that she didn't think her gender set her apart.
"What we need to concentrate on is what we have in common, which is that warrior spirit that's in all of our hearts, that has created us the way we are -- to choose to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves," Malachowski said during a speech at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in 2006.
But her role as a pioneer in the team was not lost on the officer.
"I never thought I would be a Thunderbird," she said in 2007. "I still don't have my arms around it. I don't think I have fully grasped the significance, and maybe it is something I will figure out in a few years."
For her, the teamwork of all Airmen is what makes the Air Force mission possible.
"Women have been an integral part of the Thunderbird team for decades," Malachowski said in an Air Force press release; hinting at the enlisted women who served in support and maintenance roles with the thunderbirds since 1974. "The women of yesterday and today's Air Force maintain a tradition of excellence, and it is that heritage that has given me this exciting responsibility of being the first female Thunderbird pilot."
In late November 2007, Malachowski finished her tour with the thunderbirds and performed her last show in front her hometown crowd in Las Vegas, Nev. But Malachowski's career did not stop with her last airshow.
Leaving behind the stressful schedule of the show team, she took on new challenges from supporting senior government leaders as a White House fellow, to her current position as the commander of the 333rd Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
Malachowski said she hopes her service in the Thunderbirds was an example to young girls and to all children that they can achieve their dreams.
"The message to all young Americans is that it's great to have a dream; it's great to have goals," she said. "Pursue something that you are passionate about, and then pursue excellence in that. And surround yourself with a positive team. I hope that when they see the Air Force Thunderbirds, they realize they can achieve any dream, and that a great team to have is certainly the Air Force."
In the Thunderbirds' famous flying diamond formation, Malachowski flew in the F-16 Fighting Falcon No. 3, right wing jet -- a position again filled by a woman today. Maj. Caroline Jensen continues to inspire dreams at airshows across the country.
"Women have been involved in aviation since the time of hot air balloons," Malachowski said at the 19th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference in San Diego, March 14, 2008. "It's only normal to me that women are going to add their strength and skills to the effort of pushing aviation forward."
(Sourced from Air Force News Service articles and Air Force TV News)
4/2/2013 1:05:02 PM ET Our Son met the Maj Malachowski at the Capitol Air Show in Scaramento CA as a 12 year old Civil Air Patrol Cadet. It was amazing how she took 45 minutes to meet with all of the cadets and answer questions open and honest answers not the canned fighter jock responses.Here it is 6 years later and I am proud to say that our Son has been accepted as a USAF Special Operations Trainee soon to be on his way to Superman School Pararescue School Never discount what Role Models and programs like the Civil Air Patrol can do.
KW Sturgill, SF Bay Area
3/21/2013 9:36:09 PM ET Danica Patrick 10 take a seat. There is a REAL DRIVER in the house.Boy am I impressed. Thanks for your continued service and example.Terry BrownVietnam Vet 67-68VS-21 Fighting Redtails
Terry Brown, Brownsville CA.
3/21/2013 1:11:33 AM ET As a CrewDawg I remember back in 2004 with the 494 Panthers then Capt Malachowski was my first pilot also the WSO was Capt Dugan. They both wrote me my first at a boy--which I still have until this day. She is an awesome pilot officer and great human being wether at homestation or deployed in the AOR. I say good for her that she is making history in the USAF and beyond
3/20/2013 10:36:15 PM ET Never gave much thought to role models until the day my young daughter saw Maj. Malachowski walking through the crowd at KEDW's airshow. When she found out she was one of the T-birds her look of complete amazement while she stated Girls can be Thunderbird pilots too will forever be cemented in my memory as the time my daughter realized she could do anything. Having a dad in a flight suit is one thing but seeing another girl wearing one made all the difference in my daughter's life. Thank you.
Bill Adelmann, March ARB
3/20/2013 9:26:35 PM ET @Paul Hate to be picky but the article just said she was fascinated by the F-4 at an airshow not at a Thunderbird show.
Tbird , Henderson NV
3/20/2013 5:08:23 PM ET @paul smith The article did not say she saw an F-4 Thunderbird only that she saw an F-4 at an airshow when she was 5 years old. The aircraft she saw could have been from any number of fighter units not just the Thunderbirds.
3/20/2013 3:55:36 PM ET Re Paul Smith at EdwardsShe said she saw an F-4 at an air show at age 5 in 1973. You are making the assumption that she saw a Thunderbirds performance at the air show not simply an F-4 taking a flight. Cheers
Todd, Scott AFB
3/20/2013 3:54:56 PM ET @ Paul Smith The article nevers says the F-4 she saw was with the Thunderbirds just that she watched one at an air show. Not all planes at airshows are with the Thunderbirds...
3/20/2013 2:39:03 PM ET Hate to be picky but the Thunderbirds stopped flying the F-4 in 1973. Based on her date of birth she didn't see the F-4 Thunderbird show referenced in the article.
paul smith, edwards
3/20/2013 1:55:19 PM ET Lt Col Malachowski and I were in the same Civil Air Patrol Squadron together in Las Vegas at the same time. She always knew she would be a great fighter pilot and more We both achived our dreams together as kids thanks in part to the CAP. Some day I hope to refuel her jet at FL240 before it all ends.
Phil, Altus AFB
3/20/2013 12:33:46 PM ET Understanding one another's differences and achievements makes us a more cohesive fighting force. Shame folks like pilot don't seem to understand that.
3/20/2013 11:42:17 AM ET I've met Lt Col Malachowski she is a great officer and a nice person in general. I didn't know she was the first female Thunderbird pilot until this story came out. Very honored to have met her on base.
SJ, Seymour Johnson
3/20/2013 8:36:37 AM ET @Pilot she is a pioneer because she was the first female Thunderbird pilot. I agree that we should stop highlighting our differences and treat everyone equal. But should we ignore great role models like Lt Col Malachowski I have met her and she is an outstanding officer.
A SCNO, An AFB Near You
3/20/2013 5:40:18 AM ET I met Nicole on air Tattoo 2005From that time on for me a legend Lady Thunder became real
Simone, Rome Italy
3/19/2013 8:26:52 PM ET Stop making gender an issue You are implying that it's a big deal that a woman can fly a fighter in formation...they've been doing it for years. Implying this is something special is a knock on all other female pilots. We have female pilots in all aspect. Treat them equally and stop making gender an issue.
3/19/2013 12:27:26 PM ET Awesome You have my support