First Female Thunderbird Pilot

This week my guest is Nicole Malachowski. She is a combat veteran, the first female Thunderbird pilot, a former fighter squadron commander, a former White House Fellow and advisor, and a patient advocate.

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This episode was made possible by Foundation For Women Warriors. Foundation for Women Warriors (FFWW) is a unique support organization created exclusively for the women veteran community. They provide essential programs to enhance the economic and personal wellbeing of women veterans and their families. Originally established in 1920 to serve widows, war nurses, and mothers of fallen service members, Foundation for Women Warriors is celebrating its 100 year anniversary. FFWW honors the service of women veterans by empowering their future through financial assistance, childcare assistance, and professional development.  If you want to learn more about Foundation for Women Warriors and how to get involved head to their website

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Childhood Dream

At five years old Nicole went to an air show in California and saw the F-4 fly and knew she wanted to be a fighter pilot. Even though women couldn’t be fighter pilots her family didn’t dissuade her from joining. She knew at 12 that she wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and even wrote a letter to the Academy letting them know she wanted to attend.

The Air Force Academy

She applied and was accepted into the Air Force and Naval Academy along with ROTC scholarships and choose to attend the Air Force Academy. Even though she knew she couldn’t be a fighter pilot when she began her training at the Air Force Academy in 1992 she was planning to be a tanker pilot.

In 1993, the law banning women from fighter pilots was removed and the doors opened for her to follow the dream she had since she was five. She graduated and went off to pilot training and was able to graduate and become an F-15E pilot. She said she was never the greatest pilot but always worked hard.

Becoming a Pilot

Her first assignment was at RAF Lakenheath in England. And she found herself flying her first combat mission after the Kosovo War ended. She followed her then-boyfriend, now-husband to North Carolina after spending more than a year apart doing long distance. They were set to be married on Oct 7, 2001. September 11th happening less than a month before. There was almost the potential the wedding would be delayed, but it happened. And it actually was the first day bombs were dropped in Afghanistan


She and her husband were given the opportunity to move together to Korea for their next assignment shortly after their marriage and they headed out to Korea. And a few weeks later her former squadron was preparing to deploy for Operation Enduring Freedom. She said it was hard to not go with them.

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We talked about a number of highlights from her career and the challenges that she faced throughout her career. Being dual military, they worked to have open communication with their leadership and also took turns having each other’s career be in the driver’s seat. 

First Female Thunderbird Pilot

In 2006, she became the first female Thunderbird pilot. When she applied to be a Thunderbird she didn’t realize she would be the first woman. Because she had always served in an Air Force where women could be fighter pilots and didn’t realize that she would be breaking a barrier when she applied. It was important for her to not only open that door for women but leave it open for the women after her. She put pressure on herself to not only do the best for herself but also so that the next woman to fill that role wouldn’t be years away.


In 2012 she was a commander of 333rd Fighter Squadron. She loved being a commander and had so many stories of how she was able to impact the lives of her Airmen directly through her leadership as a commander. At the same time, she also began to have strange symptoms that no one could pinpoint what was causing and wasn’t able to fly anymore. She was determined to continue to provide service to the Air Force even if she couldn’t fly. Next, she went to the Naval War College and was a White House Fellow. Then one morning in 2016 she woke up and couldn’t move. She was paralyzed temporarily and was sent to Massachusetts to get seen by a specialist. They discovered she had Lyme disease and had an infection in her brain. 

Finding Purpose After the Military

The military allowed her service to continue as she went through treatment and then in 2017 she was mailed her retirement paperwork and she was no longer in the Air Force. It was a hard transition and very abrupt. She credits the Wounded Warrior Program to help her find herself and what led her to find her purpose again as a Speaker.

She encourages young women to join the military. Nicole talked about the barriers being broken and how much opportunity there is. If there is a desire in your heart to do it, you should.  

Connect with Nicole:

Mentioned in this Episode:

Wounded Warrior Project

US Air Force Academy

US Naval Academy

Air Force Thunderbirds

Related Episodes:

Before Women Could Be Fighter Pilots – Episode 29

Do You Know the Story of the Original Military Women Pilots? – Episode 49

A Navigator in the Air Force – Episode 62

First Female Thunderbird Pilot







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