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Women Bisnow
April 3, 2008


This issue of Washington Women is presented by
Reznick Group:
"Building Business Value"


By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business


With her head tilted back, five-year-old Nicole Malachowski watched the roaring F-4 Phantoms flying over her hometown of Las Vegas and told her father that she was going to be an Air Force fighter pilot. Never mind that then, in the late 70s, women were still barred from the profession. Her father looked her in the eye and said, “you’re going to be an amazing fighter pilot.”


Malachowski kept a childhood scrapbook of idols like Patty Wagstaff, U.S. National Aerobatic Championship. She stands by Wagstaff’s plane at the Air and Space Museum.


“I come from a very patriotic middle class family. I knew that being in a uniform was honorable. But if my father hadn’t encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” says now-Major Malachowski, call sign Fifi, who in 2005 became the first-ever female Thunderbird, the name given to members of the Air Force’s Air Demonstration Squadron.


Amelia Earhart’s shiny red Lockheed 5B Vega.


Malachowski, who logged 1300 hours flying fighters beginning in 1998, used to delete the annual email about Thunderbird applications. “My mentality was ‘I’m a frontline fighter pilot, why would I go do loops to music?’ But the second part of deleting the message was the thought that other people are Thunderbirds, I wouldn’t get picked.” It was her husband, Lt. Colonel Paul Malachowski, who encouraged her to apply.

After a six-month application process—partly during her Iraq tour—Malachowski made history. “It never crossed my mind that there’d never been a woman. I was blissfully naïve about the attention that would fall on me.” And fall it did. She learned her flight position, #3 Right Wing, by reading it in USA Today.


“It becomes real when you see the helmet. Mine came with a note. It said that for the first time the five-year-old daughter of the woman who makes them wanted to wax the helmets. She told her mother, ‘I want the girl’s helmet to be extra good.’”


There have been fewer Thunderbirds than astronauts—170 since 1953. “I don’t quite have my arms around it yet,” says Malachowski, who traveled 460 days in two years with the Thunderbirds. She calls aircrafts the “greatest equalizer” she knows. “People don’t look at me and think I flew fighters over Iraq, but you take the disbelief and turn it into an opportunity to educate. Twenty percent of our Air Force is female. When people were negative, I said ‘I’m just going to get in my plane and show you.’ You couldn’t tell which one I was—it’s not like there was pink smoke coming out of my plane.”


“It means something for young people on the autograph line to see someone who looks like them. As a Thunderbird I was there to say, ‘of course you can.’”


Malachowski will become a Washingtonian in June when she takes a post as a legislative fellow. “These three years will help me understand the other 90% of the Air Force—less than 5% of it wears wings.” Malachowski tells us we shouldn’t look out for her doing barrel rolls over the Kennedy Center during her stay. “Three years not flying will be hard. I’ve been flying every other day since I was 12.”

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