Wing honors first female Thunderbird pilot

  • Published
  • By Dr. Roy Heidicker
  • 4th Fighter Wing historian
On May 25, 1953, the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit was activated at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. For more than fifty years the Air Force Thunderbirds delighted audiences around the world with their exciting aerial precision skills. But it was not until 2005 that the first female pilot was selected to join this august organization. That pilot, Maj. Nicole Malachowski, had served in the 336th Fighter Squadron, and is one of the greatest heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing. March is Women's History Month so it is particularly fitting that we take this opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of Major Malachowski. 

At five years of age, Major Malachowski attended an air show featuring an F-4 Phantom performing aerial maneuvers. The child announced to her parents, "I am going to be a fighter pilot someday." 

Despite the fact that in 1979 women were not allowed to fly fighters, her family completely supported her goal. Major Malachowski pursued her dream of flight, soloing in an aircraft even before she got her driver's license. 

Her family taught her self-reliance and self-confidence, and she combined these qualities with good hard work. She earned a coveted appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1992. She endured the rigors of one of America's premier universities and graduated in 1996 with a major in business management and a minor in French. 

Major Malachowski, callsign "Fifi," completed pilot training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, and F-15E Strike Eagle training here. She completed assignments at RAF Lakenheath, England, as an Army Liason Officer at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea, and at Seymour Johnson. Major Malachowski has more than 1,300 flying hours, including more than 1,000 hours in the F-15E. 

She has flown nearly 200 combat hours in deployments. In fact, Major Malachowski said that her proudest achievement is not in becoming a Thunderbird but in leading the first fighter jet team to provide security for Iraq's democratic elections. 

"I was able to witness with my very own eyes, a very historic day. We're talking about thousands of Iraqi people, literally risking their own lives to stand in line to get the opportunity that we as Americans sometimes take for granted," she said. 

In addition to courage, achievement and selfless service, Major Malachowski has that quality common to many of our greatest heroes: humility. 

Whenever possible, she turns the spotlight away from herself in order to showcase others. Speaking of the role of the Thunderbirds she said, "We are a team whose job it is to go out there and represent the United States Air Force and the 530,000 men and women who wear Air Force blue with the honor, the respect and the dignity that they deserve. We're out there to represent what we know to be true - the fantastic hard work, dedication, and professionalism of the men and women in our Air Force that we have the privilege to work alongside." 

Major Malachowski met a young boy who only had a month to live through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. His wish was to meet a Thunderbird pilot. 

"People talk about our military people being so courageous and heroic and they are, and I'm very proud to be a part of the Air Force, but you look at a kid like this and you think, 'What is courage? What is heroism? It's standing right in front of us.'" she said. "This is why we wear these uniforms and why we go out there and defend our nation." 

Major Malachowski's pioneering efforts at being the first female pilot to fly in any military aviation demonstration team are paying dividends for others. Captain Samantha Weeks has completed her training as the next female Thunderbird pilot and is on their schedule flying the number 6 jet as the opposing solo pilot. 

Major Nicole Malachowski's awards and decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster, and the Air Force Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters. One of the 4th Fighter Wing's greatest heroes has distinguished herself by protecting our troops in Kosovo and Iraqi civilians on their election day. She has broken barriers in becoming the first female Thunderbird pilot. But I believe this extraordinary lady is at her best when she encourages the thousands of children who adore and admire her to follow her example to become the best they can be. 

This great warrior, seasoned in the realm of courage and chivalry, is leading the young knights to the path of heroism and honor.