Unsung Heros

Nicole Malachowski

Lieutenant Colonel Nicole Malachowski was the first female pilot to fly with the Thunderbirds. As a combat pilot, she flew 26 missions in an F-15, providing air-to-ground cover for troops fighting in Iraq.

QUESTION: Why did you join the Air Force?
NICOLE: Well, I joined the Air Force I guess for a couple of reasons. I came from your kind of standard, patriotic middle class American family. Both of my grandfathers had been career military, Navy and Army, and my father had also served in the Army during Vietnam. So, I was raised on those military stories, those stories of patriotism and I grew up in a household where it was considered noble and honorable and a good thing to do to serve your country. Then you kind of combine that with my love of fast aircraft, fighter aircraft, which I discovered at the young age of five. So, when you put those two things together, aviation with the love of military service, the natural answer for me was to join the Air Force.

QUESTION: What was the impact of the air show when you were a child?
Absolutely. My parents took us to an air show there in central California and I saw an aircraft called the F4 Phantom flying. The F4 aircraft was the workhorse of the Vietnam War, you know, and it was loud and it was fast and you can smell the jet fuel and it was technology and power. What more would a five-year-old kid want to do, I mean, it was everything all wrapped into one and that was the day I decided I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I remember looking at my dad and going dad, I want to be a fighter pilot and I remember him saying, you’ll be a great fighter pilot some day.

QUESTION: When you were five women weren’t allowed to fly.
NICOLE: Right. Women were not allowed to fly fighter or bomber aircraft. At the time, literally that year when I was five, 1979, it was when women were first allowed into pilot training. So, I’ve kind of been growing up synonymous with this evolution of women military aviators. It is kind of an interesting connect.

QUESTION: When you joined, were you aware of the obstacles?
NICOLE: I did not become aware of the obstacles until I was about 12 years old. It was an interesting story behind that. When I was in the sixth grade, all of us had to stand up and talk about what we wanted to be when we grew up and how we were going to get there. Each Friday a different student would stand up there and I remember standing up and saying that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Here I am, 12 years old in front of all my peers, and a lot of people started laughing, girls can’t be pilots, girls can’t be fighter pilots, and I remember my teacher informing me, very unceremoniously, that it was against the law for women to fly fighter aircraft. And I remember running home to my dad. My dreams that I have had since I was five were being shattered right before my very eyes, and talking to him about that, and that realization. That was hard for a 12-year-old girl, it was hard to realize that everything I thought I could do, that I wanted to do, that I dreamed of doing, wasn’t going to be allowed because of some law.

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