October 11th, 2006 14:47 EST
First woman Thunderbird pilot proud to serve
Women have served in the Air Force for years, making valuable contributions, but gender and race differences have never been an important factor in accomplishing the Air Force mission, the first woman pilot on the Air Force Thunderbirds said here today.
"What we need to concentrate on is what we have in common, which is that warrior spirit that's in all of our hearts, that has created us the way we are -- to choose to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves," Maj. Nicole Malachowski said during a speech at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Major Malachowski, who flies the No. 3 jet as the right wing pilot in the Thunderbirds' diamond formation, is in town with the team for the dedication of the Air Force Memorial Oct. 14. She has been with the Thunderbirds for a year, and this will be her 55th demonstration.
Being the first woman Thunderbird pilot is an honor, Major Malachowski said, but the more important thing for her is the opportunity to serve with so many talented men and women and share the Air Force story with the public.
"We are a team whose job is to go out there and represent the United States Air Force and the 530,000 men and women who wear Air Force blue with the honor, the respect and the dignity that they deserve," she said. "We're out there to represent what we know to be true -- the fantastic hard work, dedication and professionalism of the men and women in our Air Force that we have the privilege to work alongside."
The Thunderbirds spend a majority of their time doing community outreach. As part of that, they speak to a lot of children, Major Malachowski said. Meeting with these children, especially those who are part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, is a blessing for her, she said, and gives her a healthy dose of humility. She recalled meeting one young boy who had only a month to live and whose wish was to meet a Thunderbird pilot.
"People talk about our military people being so courageous and heroic and they are, and I'm very proud to be a part of the Air Force, but you look at a kid like this and you think, 'What is courage? What is heroism? It's standing right in front of us,'" she said. "This is why we wear these uniforms and why we go out and defend our nation."
Major Malachowski first became interested in flying at the age of 5, when she saw an air show in her native Las Vegas. She set her sights on becoming an Air Force pilot and never looked back. She started flying with the Civil Air Patrol when she was 12, and by 16 was doing solo flights. After high school, she attended the Air Force Academy and has since seen various assignments as an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, including a tour in Iraq. She said she hopes her service in the Thunderbirds is an example to young girls and to all children that they can achieve their dreams.
"The message to all young Americans is that it's great to have a dream; it's great to have goals," she said. "Pursue something that you are passionate about, and then pursue excellence in that. And surround yourself with a positive team. I hope that when they see the Air Force Thunderbirds, they realize they can achieve any dream, and that a great team to have is certainly the Air Force."
Women have served in the Thunderbirds since 1974, just not in a pilot capacity, Major Malachowski said. Of the 130 officers and enlisted personnel on the Thunderbird team, 15 are women. Besides the six demonstration pilots, the Thunderbirds are made up of support personnel from about 25 different career fields.
The Thunderbirds have a grueling schedule, as they are on the road about 220 days during their eight-month air show season, but every team member considers it a privilege to serve and share the Air Force story, Major Malachowski said. For her part, she said she is just glad to have been born into a time of opportunities for women in the military.
"Women love their country too, and there are a lot of us who choose to do that by wearing a military uniform," she said. "I have seen and traveled the world, and it is just a wonderful thing to be a woman living in a country that provides you so many wonderful opportunities and freedoms that are unmatched anywhere else in the world. And the Air Force simply takes that to another level."