Nicole Malachowski (Colonel, USAF, Ret.)
Combat veteran, first woman Thunderbird pilot, fighter squadron commander, White House Fellow and advisor, patient advocate.
An Unscripted Life
Many have called her a vanguard as one of the first women fighter pilots for the United States Air Force and the first woman to fly in the elite USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the “Thunderbirds”. Titles and accolades aside, Nicole Malachowski has lived life according to a simple mantra – “Live an unscripted life.”
Throughout her career ranging from combat fighter pilot to commander, to White House Fellow, and duty as a personal advisor to the First Lady concerning military service members, veterans and military families, Nicole sought opportunities that she had passion for, rather than ones that followed the expected progression in her career field.
While that passionate, adventurous us spirit yielded a successful military career, Nicole’s flight path was not always smooth. Along the way, she learned how to use undaunted determination to overcome adversity, break some barriers, and live with a higher compassion for humanity. Sometimes you have to yield to a big obstacle in order to be able to overcome it.
Nicole is a leader, an igniter of passion and purpose. She is an advocate for those who have chosen to serve their country and for those who have endured personal challenges, to include complex medical journeys.
In this new chapter of her life, as a retired Colonel from the U.S. Air Force, Nicole looks to share her stories and what she has learned, to help others find and ignite their own unstoppable spirits in order to succeed far beyond what they had dreamed.
Inspired to Serve
The planes were loud and powerful,” Nicole says, recalling the first airshow she saw as a five-year-old during a demonstration of the F-4 Phantom II. She thought, “Hey, I want to do that someday.” She grew up admiring the military service of her father, and both of her grandfathers, and set her sights, at a very young age, on a career in the United States Air Force.
At twelve, she joined the Civil Air Patrol. At sixteen, while other teens were hanging out at the mall and learning to drive, Nicole was accumulating flight time and took her first solo flight. In high school, she participated in Air Force Junior ROTC. The skies were in her future.
Nicole earned her commission from the United States Air Force Academy in 1996. Following graduation with a BS in Management, and a minor in French, she attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi. A year later, she began her career as an F-15E fighter pilot. Nicole later earned an MA in National Security Policy from the American Military University and later earned a second MA in National Security and Strategic Studies from the United States Naval War College.
Nicole’s story is of determination and grit, a life devoted to service, and what it means to be authentic to your purpose. She inspires audiences to push the envelope in all areas of their personal and professional lives.
Career Fighter Pilot
I knew the military was a noble profession, and when you put that together with fighter jets, it was a dream come true.
Against intense competition to fly combat jets, Nicole was among the first group of women to fly modern fighter aircraft. Over her 21-year career, Nicole achieved the rating of Command Pilot with over 2,300 flight hours in six different Air Force aircraft. She served in combat as an F-15E Flight Commander, Evaluator, Instructor Pilot and Flight Lead.
Nicole served as a mission-ready fighter pilot in three operational F-15E fighter squadrons and has flown over 188 combat hours in the Balkans and Southwest Asia, specifically in Operation Deliberate Forge and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During her third assignment to Seymour Johnson AFB, NC, she commanded the 333rd Fighter Squadron, leading an elite cadre of F-15E Instructors in the training of the next generation of combat aviators. Nicole is clear, the privilege of commanding this squadron proved to be the greatest honor, and the most important highlight, of her entire career.
The women of yesterday and today’s Air Force maintain a tradition of excellence, and it is that heritage that has given me this exciting responsibility of being the first female Thunderbird pilot.
Nicole Malachowski was selected to fly as Thunderbird #3, Right Wing, with the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron. She was the first woman to fly on any Department of Defense military jet demonstration team.
During her two-year tour with the Thunderbirds, she completed 140 performances. Always well received by the crowds, Nicole loved meeting fans of all ages, giving of her time, and showing that being part of the Air Force is a calling that is much bigger than the individual. It was a unique privilege for her to be able to represent the professionalism, skill, and teamwork of the women and men of the world’s greatest Air Force.
At The White House
Supporting our service members, veterans and their families, welcoming them into our communities, and seeing them as civic assets, is important work.
From the cockpit to the White House, Nicole has extended her leadership abilities and compassion for the men and women of the armed services to the entire nation.
Nicole was first exposed to the White House as a Fellow in the 2008-09 class, where she served on the Presidential Transition Support Team while assigned to the U.S. General Services Administration. She also served two high-level staff assignments at the Pentagon, first at the
Office of the Secretary of the Air Force Office of International Affairs and later at the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Her most visible White House role was as the Executive Director of the national Joining Forces initiative. She directly advised former First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden on all topics relating to service members, veterans, and military families to include employment, education, mental health, veterans’ homelessness and more.
Tick-Borne Illness Education and Patient Advocacy
In 2012, I was first struck with an illness that for 1,525 days and consultations with over twenty doctors, across eight specialties, remained undiagnosed and misdiagnosed. I thought I was tough as a combat-proven fighter pilot, but a neurological tick-borne illness almost broke me.
Six years after the first exposure to a tick bite, Nicole Malachowski is still fighting the neurological effects of tick-borne illness. A small tick bite ended her distinguished military career in medical retirement. She credits the Dean Center for Tick-Borne Illness in Boston, Massachusetts, for diagnosing her accurately and for building a treatment plan that gave her back her independence and has returned her to a constantly improving quality of life.
This is a battle that she still fights every day. Now medically retired from the Air Force, a job she loved with passion and energy, Nicole is a vocal advocate sharing the extraordinary story of her medical journey, offering hope to others that they, too, can get better. Her goal is to raise awareness and funds to support the advocacy organizations and academic researchers working to find better diagnostics, treatments, and eventually cures, for the full spectrum of tick-borne illnesses.
Nicole’s story of slow neurological decline to complete disability, and her determination to battle for her life and her family, exemplifies what it means to be a fighter and a believer.