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 — from November 2005 to November 2007 — 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 2,300 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 air show.
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 serving as squadron commander of the 333rd Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB, 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. Lauren Schlichting..
“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.”
Malachowski was medically retired in 2017, after 21 years of service, because she contracted a tick-borne illness. In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.