Nicole Malachowski - Flying a Weapon

Brian Lord: Today, we have the first female Thunderbird pilot, a White House Fellow, and a survivor, Nicole Malachowski, as she shares what it's like flying a weapon, losing her childhood dream, and the importance of being able to reinvent yourself. This week we follow Nicole Malachowski on her journey to becoming the first female Thunderbird fighter pilot. So first, I had to ask her, where did this fighter pilot dream come from?


Nicole Malachowski: My goal or dream of becoming a fighter pilot actually happened- I remember the exact moment actually, I was five years old and my family went to a local air show that came through and there was a jet there that the Air Force flew at the time called the F4 Phantom, which was the workhorse of the Vietnam War. And when it came by, it was loud, it was fast. It rumbled my chest. I had to cover my ears. I mean, I was in awe. And that's the moment that I fell in love. And that's the moment I remember looking up at my parents and saying, "I'm going to be a fighter pilot someday." And they said, "You're going to be a great fighter pilot someday." And I've been maniacally focused ever since.


Brian Lord: Wow. So what are the steps? Like, Do you like, do, you know, become a pilot in high school or where did you- how did you progress in that?


Nicole Malachowski: Sure. I mean, I think that's a- it's a really good thing to talk about because I get asked that by young people often, like, how did you actually make a goal like that, you know, come true? And it is about taking a lot of micro-steps along the way. So for me, as soon as I could, I joined an organization called the Civil Air Patrol at age 12. I'm a huge fan to this day for what they do for young kids interested in aerospace and flying. And so at age 12, I was able to really take my first flight. I got to put on a little uniform there, be around other like-minded, you know, kids. And then in high school, I joined the Air Force Junior ROTC, like a lot of high schools have, you know, around this country, which kind of further added to like being among a group of people who all were happy to dream big and who were supportive of this idea of joining the Air Force and being a fighter pilot. And so when I was 16-years-old, about the time I was getting my driver's license, I soloed my very first aircraft, a Cessna 152-


Brian Lord: Wow.


Nicole Malachowski: -Out at North Las Vegas Airport. And during that time, I set my sights on what does it take, you know, to become an Air Force fighter pilot. And I knew you had to be a college graduate and I knew you had to get a commission as an officer in the Air Force. And that's where I said I'd like to go to the Air Force Academy. So that's kind of taking you from, I guess, five years old through to college.


Brian Lord: Yeah, well, and then and then what was it like becoming that? Like, how long does it take a person and, you know, to become from, hey, I'm going to the Air Force Academy to actually being that- And you were the first-


Nicole Malachowski: -The first female Thunderbird pilot. Yes. So, yeah. So basically, you know, the Air Force Academy is where I went to college. You can go to ROTC at a university or even officer training school. Long story short, those are all four-year kind of college programs and that's where you get your commission. So at the Air Force Academy, it's still, you know, competitive. You have to get good grades, you know, get good scores on your you know, your teamwork and leadership skills or your athletics, because at that time it was very competitive to still get a pilot slot. So that's kind of four years of where you're just really working focused to get a chance to go to pilot training. And once you're selected for pilot training, that at the time was a one year program. So I was 21-years-old, headed off to pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. And again, another very, you know, competitive program, one that requires a lot of just, you know, consistent focus and taking each day and each flight as they come to you. And again, having at that time very competitive to get, you know, graduate at that time at the top of the class in order to become a fighter pilot. So once you finish pilot training and you get your wings, then you go to get trained in your specific aircraft. So in my case, I was able to select the greatest fighter ever known to man, which is the mighty F-15E Strike Eagle. And that was another approximately a little less than a year-long course. So from the time I entered the academy to the time that I was, you know, a graduated F-15E Pilot was like about a six to six and a half year process.


Brian Lord: And how did people treat you as a woman going into this field with that that previously had not had, you know, many, many people with that background?


Nicole Malachowski: You know, it's interesting because there's a there's so much of a- You know, there's so much that goes into that question. Right? Yeah.


Brian Lord: [Laughing] I love putting the pressure- and by the way, it's a short interview. So take your time!


Nicole Malachowski: No, no. [Laughing] I mean, it's a very good question. It's one I get- I get asked a lot. I have to say, generally speaking, people were supportive or even as supportive as they could be, because, remember, cultural change is very hard. And I think cultural change for any organization is hard, especially when it's across generations. And so what I discovered is, you know, my peers or maybe immediate supervisors and instructors at the time tended to be, you know, supportive and helpful, even fair playing field. If I ever did receive any kind of, you know, pushback or that kind of stuff, it usually came from the older generation who, you know, together we had to make this change happen in the Air Force. So do I have stories of, you know, you know, difficult times? Absolutely. I like to remind people, though, as one of the first women fighter pilots. You know, in the Air Force, all of my instructors, my supervisors, my leadership, all of that, they were all men who invested a lot of hard work and effort into me because I think my successes are because of other people's investment in me. And so it was because of a lot of wonderful men. That's just the fact that I was able to have what I consider to be a successful Air Force career. So for every kind of bad story I had, I've probably got 10 to 20 really good ones.

Brian Lord: What was kind of your career goal once you became that? What did your career look like? And obviously, it kind of takes a turn a little bit, but what was it like, you know, is that you know, whether, you know, flying different jets and, of course, being the Thunderbirds?


Nicole Malachowski: Right. So, I mean, you know, when you're a brand new lieutenant flying an F-15E, my first assignment was at Royal Air Force Lakenheath just outside of Cambridge, England. And, you know, at that time, you're just trying to learn how to not just fly the plane, right? But how to employ the plane, because remember, these are flying weapons systems. And so it's not just about taking off and landing. It's about how do I maximize the capabilities on this jet? And, you know, when you're a young wingman, which is what you are, your sole job is to become proficient at the tactical nature, you know, of that aircraft. And so, you know, for those first two assignments, you know, that's really all I did and all I focused on. And believe me, I mean, these pieces of technology, they're constantly evolving, you know, new software, new weapons, new tactics by the enemy. All of these things that you're having to it's constantly evolving and changing. But I'd say after my second assignment, this was a really large turning point, I think, in my career is where you get chosen not just to be a flight lead, but to become an instructor pilot. And not everybody is afforded the opportunity to do that. And even those who do, and maybe not everybody makes it through. And so to be selected and to be supported and mentored through that process was that point where I realized, "Well, you know, maybe I can do this." Right? Gaining kind of that self-confidence. And so, gosh, by the time I did all that, I was heading back. Well, there was a little foray in there.


Brian Lord: Let's hear about the foray!


Nicole Malachowski: Yeah, the foray! [Laughing] It was a phenomenal foray! And I- one of my favorite assignments ever in my whole career, was serving as an air liaison officer or an ALO with the Army 2nd Infantry Division over on the DMZ in Korea. Wow. And I was like a fish out of water, right? Being on the ground, serving with a whole bunch of extraordinary enlisted, you know, controllers. Right? So the young at that time, only men, young men on the ground who would embed with these army units and would call in American airpower. And I think one of the greatest things was seeing that use of airpower from the ground, learning from what those enlisted could teach me, you know, about that perspective made me a much better fighter pilot. So after I had been on two F-15 assignments, I had been an instructor, I had been an ALO, I got to go back to England again for a third assignment. And this is where I was able to deploy in combat. And I think that just that experience of being with the Army and learning from the enlisted JTACs was like one of the most incredible gifts. At the time, you don't see it. You know, but in retrospect, just it was just extraordinary. So that was the foray. But back to your point, after we had come back from, you know, that deployment, it was one of these things where, like, I had reached, you know, mid-career, I was about 29, 30-years-old, senior captain. And I'm like, "What am I going to do?" I am always someone who has to be working towards something. I don't know why?


Brian Lord: Yeah.


Nicole Malachowski: Not in competition with other people, but mostly in competition with myself. And every year, you know, the Thunderbirds send out a message for applications. And every year, like everybody else in the Air Force, it seemed had deleted it because it's hard.


Brian Lord: Yeah.


Nicole Malachowski: It's... The chance of you being- statistically- being chosen are just extraordinarily small to put yourself out there in front of your peers. You have to be very, you know, vulnerable, like, you know, "Who are you to think that you can apply to be a Thunderbird, what?" And it's true. So I had to overcome all of that. But it was the next adventure. It was the right time, you know, in my career to put my hat in the ring. And so I did.


Brian Lord: And what was that like? So did you get like how do you get informed that you're "Hey, you're in Thunderbirds now?" Do you get like an email? Does someone show up at your door?


Nicole Malachowski: This is another just extraordinary story. So going back to my deployment, I had applied to the Thunderbirds before the deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. And during that time, it was when I got called to do the interviews for the Thunderbirds and I was actually deployed to a combat zone. And they're like, "You know, we can't release you." Long story short, through many miracles in support of some extraordinary people in my chain of command, they let me fly home to Vegas and to do all of these interviews. So midway through my combat tour, I went and I did all that. And then I came back and I, you know, I wasn't thinking about when they were going to make the selection. So we finished up the deployment and we all went home to England and they gave us two weeks off. So my wonderful husband, now of almost 18 years, decided to take me on a cruise. So we were actually sitting on a cruise ship in the Oslo, Norway fjord and it was about 11 o'clock at night, but it was summertime and it was really bright outside. And we were sitting on the balcony and the phone rang, which was odd. Why would anyone be calling us? So here we are in the stateroom of this cruise ship in Oslo and we get on the phone. My husband says it's the Air Force, it's for you. And I'm thinking, this is really weird. And the first thing that happens is my heart sinks because when the phone rings like that on vacation, I was a flight commander at the time. I was responsible, you know, for a dozen or so, in this case, young men. And of course, I was worried that it was going to be bad news. And so I took the phone and I said "Hello." And it was the aide to the general that was going to be on the phone. He said, "Hey, you know, this is... Stand by for the commander of Air Combat Command." And I was like, "What, that's a four-star general. I'm just a young captain!" I'm like, "What?" So I was like, "Oh, thank goodness that it's not someone from the squadron that got hurt or something." I knew it had to do with the Thunderbirds because I knew that the commander of Air Combat Command called everybody, especially the people he has to let down. So I looked at my husband and I'm like, "OK, I'm getting my consolation phone call." So when he gets on the phone, I said, "Hello." He said, "Hey, this is General Ron Keys. Air Combat Command." I'm like, "Yes, sir." He goes, "I'd like to offer you a job." In the middle of the fjord of Oslo, Norway, in summer at eleven o'clock at night on a cruise ship. And I said, "Sir?" He goes, "Don't we have an amazing air force that I found in the middle of Norway?" I said, "Indeed we do."


Brian Lord: I love this great look on your face when you're doing that. I feel like I'm there.


Nicole Malachowski: True story!


Brian Lord: Now, obviously flying with the Thunderbirds is amazing. Just real quick, what's it like flying a show and then to what was your mom's reaction to you?


Nicole Malachowski: So when you're flying a show- and I can only speak for myself, right? I mean, each pilot on the team comes with different experiences and each one flies a different position. So I never want to speak- We're not a monolithic, you know, type-group. So for me, certainly it's a lot of fun, but not necessarily like you're like excited and having fun at the moment because it is the most intense focus that I've ever had for anything in my entire life. Because you're constantly making just a million micro-decisions. You know, you're constantly adjusting the throttle and the stick and your eyesight line and what the other people in the formation are, you know, are doing. So there's no time to be thinking about anything else or even having a ton of fun. It's just I don't know how else to describe it. Just like an athlete going into the ring. It is just pure just focus and determination on exactly what's happening in that moment while staying in front of your aircraft. It's also physically demanding. I mean, it's you know, it's 25, 30 minutes and you're pullin' G forces the entire time. And so it's a good thirty-minute, you know, workout. And for me, it wasn't until I would land and we would be de-arming, I mean, getting ready to taxi in, you know, going to the autograph line with the people that came in the crowd, you know, that's, that's when I would go like "Yeah that was great. Oh my gosh, that was a lot of fun and I can't believe we actually did that." That's the moment where I would sit back and think "fun" and yes, enjoyment and then to be on the autograph line and meeting people. I mean, that's just a privilege. I mean, it's very humbling.


Brian Lord: What was your mom's reaction to you being in that?


Nicole Malachowski: So my mom, bless her heart, she's probably just like any other mom. Now I'm a mom, so I understand it. But at the time I didn't get it. My mom could not watch an air show! So she would come out there and like make it through like maybe two or three of the first maneuvers, you know, she would start crying, you know, mascara down her face and she would have to go inside whatever building or go sit in the car because she just couldn't watch an air show. Now as a mom I totally understand why.


Brian Lord: So, so from that I know I mentioned earlier that just being a pilot, I just saw the first part of your story. Where did your life sort of start to take a turn after that? Like how long and when did you find out that something was off?


Nicole Malachowski: Sure, yeah. So I did have- I like to call it my life plot twist, you know, because it was completely unexpected. But the plot twist has been something that has really been a gift. And I choose to kind of see it that way. I ended up having the biggest privilege of my career, which was serving as the commander of the 333rd Fighter Squadron. So I was an F-15E squadron commander having the privilege to work with the most extraordinary instructors and students in the entire Air Force, as far as I'm concerned. And I had been there a few months and I went to the doctor because I had been feeling like I had the flu really achy, wasn't feeling right. It was the middle of the summer. And I actually had- I also had a rash on my right hip.


Brian Lord: And where were you stationed?


Nicole Malachowski: I was in Goldsboro, North Carolina, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. And so we went in and, you know, there was kind of like, we think you have a virus. This is probably a spider bite. You know, here's some ointment. And like, I think it. Is like seven to ten days of antibiotics, and so I didn't think anything of it, but then what would happen is these symptoms would start to just kind of wax and wane. And about three months after that initial, you know, feeling that something wasn't right, I started having neurological issues. So word-finding problems, slurring, a lot of paresthesia. So pins and needles tingling on the right side. And I also started losing some coordination in my right hand. At that point, they started thinking that things were getting a little bit more serious. We had forgotten about the bite in the rash and all of that. And they were starting to think that to watch me for multiple sclerosis. I'll try to shorten a very long story. But over the next four years, these symptoms would wax and wane and they would grow in severity and they would start to impact different systems of my body to the point where they eventually impacted every system in my body. And by the summer of 2016, I hadn't been to work for over a month because the doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with me. And I woke up and for a brief moment, I was like completely locked in. I couldn't open my mouth or speak and I couldn't move. It was an extraordinarily scary moment that only lasted, you know, a few seconds. It seemed like an eternity. That's when we know something was really wrong. And so to the Air Force's credit, I did get sent up to see some wonderful doctors up in Boston, Massachusetts, and where I was finally diagnosed. So I like to tell people my amazing career, that dream I had since I was five-years-old was gone in the blink of a bite. I actually had neurological late-stage, tick-borne illness. So a little tick, a little arachnid ended this fighter pilot's career. So from the time of my first symptom to the time of diagnosis was 1,525 days, 24 doctors across eight specialties and three misdiagnoses. And so one of the greatest joys of being broken like that, right? I had my career taken, my identity taken, my means of providing for my family was the opportunity to reinvent myself! And there's a lot of awesomeness in that. One of the things I talk to audiences about, right, is that we all have the capacity for reinvention at any point in our lives. And I love aviation metaphors, of course. And it's the runway behind you is completely unusable. All you have is the runway in front of you. So I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a little bit of a pity-party because I thought I'd still be in the Air Force right now talking to you today. I thought I'd still be flying F-15Es in the Air Force, but that wasn't, you know, to be. So I took the pity-party for a few days and then did the fighter pilot thing and shook it off, you know, and said, "OK, I'm not going to talk about what I can't do anymore. I'm going to talk about what I can do."


Beyond Speaking is hosted by Brian Lord and produced by Eric Woodie

Nicole Malachowski: First Woman Thunderbird Pilot, Combat Veteran, Fighter Squadron  Commander, White House Fellow & Adviser, and Indomitable Spirit

Bring Nicole Malachowski to your next event.

Find out more information, including fees and availability.