March 1, 2021

When Col. Nicole Malachowski was in middle school, women were prohibited from becoming fighter pilots. Yet Malachowski, who wanted to fly military jets from the moment she first saw them flying overhead at 5 years old, was not to be deterred.

She joined the Civil Air Patrol while in middle school, soloed at 16 and participated in Air Force Junior ROTC during high school, subsequently earning her commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy. By the time she graduated from undergraduate pilot training at Columbus AFB, Malachowski was among the first group of women chosen to fly modern fighter aircraft.

“My peers had never known an Air Force without women, so I had the same pressure any fighter pilot feels to perform,” said Malachowski, noting that any pushback to having women fighter pilots was more a generational thing. Mentors played a key role throughout her career, including a life-long woman mentor who first taught her at the Air Force Academy, as well as many male mentors who encouraged her along the way.

Malachowski is a combat veteran as an F-15E flight commander, evaluator, instructor pilot and flight lead, and has more than 2,300 hours in six different Air Force aircraft. She has also served as a White House Fellow and was the executive director of a White House initiative where she directly advised former First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden on all topics relating to service members, veterans and military families.

Perhaps her greatest honor and achievement came when she was selected to become the first woman Thunderbird pilot – the first woman to fly on any Department of Defense military jet demonstration team. “I knew I was opening a door and I was very aware that I wanted to leave it open,” said Malachowski, who as a trailblazer felt some self-imposed pressure to perform flawlessly.

Malachowski is recovering from a debilitating neurological tick-borne illness and is now retired from the military, but her career is proof that women now have opportunities in the military and in aviation that they did not have years ago.

As for encouraging more girls and young women to pursue a career in aviation, Malachowski said just focusing on women aviators during Women’s History Month or on Girls in Aviation Day is not nearly enough.

“This has to be a long-term strategic goal,” she added. “We have to put in the work 365 days a year. We need to share our stories deeply and consistently. We have had women fighter pilots for nearly 30 years now – how many girls know that?”

Malachowski will share her story later this month during the NBAA GO Leadership Summit. Learn more about the event and register today.

NBAA is running a series on women in aviation throughout March, which is Women’s History Month.