Nicole Malachowski was the U.S. Air Force’s first female Thunderbird pilot. During a 21-year military career she was among the first women to fly modern fighter aircraft. She served two operational tours in England, including a four-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and flew 26 combat missions. She also served as a liaison in South Korea and commanded her own squadron, rising to the rank of colonel. Here, she talks about breaking barriers, leadership, family and the unexpected illness that ended her military career and gave her new perspective.
Q. You started working toward your pilot’s license before even graduating high school, and during your service accumulated more than 2,300 flight hours. Where does your love of flying come from? What does it feel like to pilot a plane?
My love for aviation was born at an airshow that I attended at the age of 5. I saw a fighter aircraft called the F-4 Phantom – best known as the workhorse of the Vietnam War. When it flew by, it was everything a 5-year-old kid could want. It was loud, it was fast and you could smell the jet fuel. I was hooked. That was the moment I decided to become a fighter pilot. Flying feels like pure freedom, with a healthy dose of relaxation and peacefulness.
Q. What led you to a career in the military?
I was raised in a very patriotic family with a long history of military service. My direct ancestors actually fought in the Revolutionary War. Both of my grandfathers served in the Navy, and my father served in the Army. I was brought up knowing that military service was a good thing to be respected, and that it was honorable and noble. When that was combined with a love of fighter aircraft, my dream of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot was born. I knew joining the Air Force would be a perfect combination of community service and my love of aviation. I’m grateful my dream worked out because I really didn’t have a backup plan. One could even say I was a bit obsessed with making it happen.
Q. The military was undergoing some significant cultural changes during your time of service. Can you share a little about that, and how you balanced your commitment to serve with your desire to see it progress in the right direction?
I remember the congressional ban on women becoming fighter pilots being lifted while I was a sophomore at the Air Force Academy. Previously, I’d never fully grasped why a woman couldn’t pilot a fighter aircraft successfully. I remember thinking to myself that women can love their country, too, and that I wanted to show it by voluntarily defending my country – even if it meant combat.
I’m very cognizant that the law changed at a rather serendipitous time for me and that I was afforded a remarkable opportunity that women who had come before me were not. I like to say I’m a product of TLC: timing, luck and circumstance. I never set out to be one of the first women fighter pilots or to shift Air Force culture. I chose to become a fighter pilot because it was my dream. And if by serving successfully, that shifted organizational culture along the way, that’s all the better.
The beauty of being a fighter pilot is that the aircraft only does what you make it do. It couldn’t care less about your gender – or your race, religion or background. It is a very objectively measured career field, which allows women to compete on a truly fair playing field.
Q. You became the first female United States Air Force Thunderbird pilot, went on to command your own fighter squadron and are among the first women ever to fly modern fighter aircraft. Needless to say, you have some experience in trailblazing. Does that come naturally to you? If not, how did you find the courage to keep pushing past boundaries to achieve your goals?
I believe that people who blaze trails, in any capacity, often do so rather unintentionally. Most people who break barriers are simply going after a personal or professional goal, with a distinct amount of focus, determination and grit. I never set out to blaze trails or break barriers. I set out to serve, to do my best in whatever role I was in at that moment and to constantly challenge myself to try something new – to grow. I am somebody who likes challenges, and I love trying things that are perceived as “hard to do.” I was definitely born with that personality trait, but it’s been refined and honed over a lifetime of experiences.
Whenever I’ve experienced moments of self-doubt, as most people do, I remind myself of why I’m pursuing a certain goal. In those moments, I’m always reminded to stay authentic to myself – who I am, what I believe and why I do what I do.
Q. You’ve served in the military, as a White House Fellow and as an advisor to First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama. Is there anything about your extensive government service that you think might surprise your fellow Americans – or perhaps surprised you?
Working in government isn’t easy … it is quite demanding, complex and gnarly. But, if you step back and look at the big picture, it’s extraordinary what our government gets done on any given day, especially from a national security policy standpoint. The bureaucracy, from a strategic level, can seem like a monolithic burden, but I can assure you the individual people, working day in and day out on behalf of all of us, would surprise you with their devotion to duty. I’m not saying it’s perfect – far from it – but after seeing the best and the worst this world has to offer, I’m a firm believer that our country remains the greatest nation on Earth.
One of the things that pleasantly surprised me in the White House was how young so many of these policymakers were. In the military, for better or worse, increased responsibility and authority are married to your rank, which has a direct link to your age and time in service. In the White House, the best and the brightest were afforded autonomy and responsibility that matched their skill level. I loved nothing more than watching a skillful 20-something lead a major policy meeting with folks much older than them. If the skills are there, age shouldn’t matter. I saw some absolutely inspiring ideas, leadership and strategic thinking from some very young folks in the Obama White House. Count me amongst the fans of Millennials and Generation Z – they’ve impressed me every step of the way. Our country is in good hands.
Q. What are you most proud of from your time of service to the United States?
The honor and the opportunity to help fellow airmen achieve their own personal and professional goals.
Q. What advice do you have for women who are in or aspire to be in leadership roles, particularly in fields that are typically led by men?
Leadership requires a tailored approach to each individual who depends on you for support, empowerment and guidance. While I spent my career leading in a male-dominated field, I didn’t shift who I was or how I led based on the gender. The good leaders I have had treated each person on the team as an individual with unique strengths, skills and contributions, and I tried my best to emulate that. This tailored approach is more time-consuming, but it’s the only way to maximize the awesomeness amongst your team. That’s how you find the diamonds in the rough, discover hidden talents and maximize potential. Take the time to treat each person as a unique asset, because they are.
Q. At the height of your career you experienced a difficult medical issue. It took over four years, more than 24 doctors and multiple misdiagnoses before you were finally accurately diagnosed with having a tick-borne illness – all the while suffering from a range of debilitating symptoms from cognitive dysfunction to temporary paralysis. How has that experience shifted your perspective on life and health? How are you doing now?
Having a life-changing medical issue has given me a completely new perspective on my life and what it is I value. As hard as it was to lose my military career to a tick bite, I am so grateful for the profound clarity it has given me. It’s almost as if a fog has cleared, and a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Before, I was just surviving with what I saw immediately in front of me. I now know – and, I mean, really know – the importance of family, who my “ride or die” friends are, and what my purpose is. In a weird way, I’m so glad I got so sick. It’s made me a much more complete human being.
I’m very happy to have regained a good quality of life and to have regained my daily independence. I do have some permanent damage due to the prior systemic infection itself. I’ve had to completely shift my lifestyle and now run my own business, so I can always ensure my daily health is put first. It’s been a radical shift these past two years, but I’m finding my way.
Q. Do you have any wisdom to share for others who may be dealing with unexpected obstacles – health-related or otherwise?
As a pilot, I love my aviation metaphors and this one comes to mind: “The runway behind you is always unusable. All you have is the runway in front of you.” It’s important to remain forward looking. That’s not to say we shouldn’t reflect on the past, but we shouldn’t ruminate on it either. Take off from where you are, with what you have at that exact moment. Onward and upward always!