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From first woman Thunderbird pilot to fighting Lyme disease

Nicole Malachowski speaks to The Female Lead about how she came to be the first female Thunderbird pilot, and how a tick changed her whole career...

Photo by TSgt Justin Pyle, USAF

I was rather introverted and quiet a a child. I didn’t run with a large group of friends, and very much enjoyed my alone time. I was quite content daydreaming, reading books (Nancy Drew) and enjoyed trying new activities.

I was in the Girl Scouts, ran Cross Country, started flying at the age of 12, participated in The Civil Air Patrol (an auxiliary of the USAF), Air Force Junior ROTC, and was a member of a few school clubs: French club, National Honor Society, Varsity Quiz Team.

Admittedly, even from a very young age, I was quite focused on making my dream of becoming a pilot come true and often worked in that direction. Having such a big goal from a young age helped me stay focused in those tumultuous teenage years. I was not big on socializing and was rather (blissfully) unconcerned about trying to be popular.

I was and remain someone who’s always been pretty content marching to my own beat.

Once I set my mind on becoming a fighter pilot, at age five, I started looking for role models who had gone before me for inspiration. In the 6th grade I discovered the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of WWII. These were America’s first women military aviators. They served in WWII, at a time when cultural and societal barriers were massive for women wanting to serve in the military and fly military aircraft. The fact that they could accomplish this, back in the 1940’s, was a driving force for me to know I could attain my dream in the 1990’s. The heroism, patriotism, and skill of the WASP fuelled my dream across my career, and they remain role models for me to this very day.

(If you haven’t heard of them, I hope you’ll look them up. There are several great films, books, museums, and websites that share their legacy. They were true trailblazers, each and every one of them.)

The rumble of the engine rattled my whole body, and I could smell the jet fuel. I began shaking in excitement.

I distinctly remember the moment I decided to become a fighter pilot. I was about five years old, and my family went to a local air show. There was an aircraft flying called the F-4 Phantom. It had been the workhouse of the USAF during the Vietnam War. It was so loud I had to cover my ears, the rumble of the engine rattled my whole body, and I could smell the jet fuel. I began shaking in excitement; the way only little kids do. That machine seemed to be this perfect combination of power and grace, and I fell in love.

That’s the day I declared my dream out loud for all to hear, “I’m going to be a fighter pilot someday.”

I was very focused on my dream of becoming a fighter pilot starting in Elementary School. I did some research on what it took to achieve that goal and set about taking the intermediate steps needed to make it happen.

I knew you had to be a commissioned officer in the USAF in order to be a fighter pilot, and I knew you needed to have a college degree to become a commissioned officer.

In Junior High I set my sights on attending the USAF Academy for college, which would provide me with a bachelor’s degree, a commission as an Air Force officer (Second Lieutenant), and a chance at a coveted pilot slot.

During high school I joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and Air Force Junior ROTC, studying military service and the science of flight. Through the CAP I received a flying scholarship, and I soloed my first aircraft at age 16.

After that, I found my way to an appointment at the USAF Academy, where I spent four long years in a vigorous academic, military, and physical environment. I graduated high enough to secure a coveted pilot slot upon graduation.

I then went to pilot training at Columbia Air Force Base, in Mississippi, where I graduated 4th in my class. It was good enough to select the fighter aircraft of my dreams: the F-15E Strike Eagle. The rest, they say, is history.

I’d say the entire expanse of my 21+ year military career qualifies as exciting. We’d move every two years or so. With each move came a change in location (from Korea to England and everything in between), new friends, new cultures, new teams, and new job duties. You never knew what the move would entail and you never really had much say.

I found the unknown exciting and I’ve always loved experiencing new things (just as I did as a child). I hate to stagnant and the military helped me avoid that.

I’d also say the excitement of my military career brought a breadth of job experiences: from flying fighter aircraft in training and combat, to working alongside allied partners, to working in the White House twice. Exciting stuff, indeed. That said, now that I’m retired and onto my second career, I’m okay with things slowing down a bit and taking a more leisurely pace.

Photo by The White House

Hands down, the single greatest honor of my career was commanding an F-15E fighter squadron: the 333rd Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, NC. To work alongside an elite cadre of F-15E aircrew instructors, forging the next generation of fighter aircrew was humbling.

At that time, we were deeply undermanned, under resourced, and underfunded (due to sequestration from Congress). We had some leadership that could be quite tough to work for, an unrelenting training schedule, all while supplementing combat aircrew overseas.

These instructors were the finest Americans I’ve ever met. They inspired me every day and, frankly, I’m getting a bit choked up writing this and just thinking of each and every one of them.

They rose to the occasion, in truly tough times, they worked seamlessly together, we stayed optimistic, and we had fun. I sometimes think it was a miracle of the perfect personalities that managed, at that place and time, to come together, everyone just worked so well; it was true respect and true friendships. And even in light of our external environmental challenges, the culture they created amongst our team ensured they wildly exceeded mission expectations.

I’ve never been prouder of a group of people in my life. And here I am, 10 years later, and not a week goes by that I don’t here from one of them - usually writing to ask me for mentoring advice (some are commanders now), asking for retirement transition advice (yes, I’m now that old), or sharing great family news with me, like marriages and the births of their children. And that makes me very proud.

My son has been known to tell perfect strangers at the grocery store that I was the first woman Thunderbird pilot.

Children have a way of keeping us humble, thank goodness. We have 11-year-old twins and they are getting to the age where they realize that my prior career as a fighter pilot was something special, something rare. They’ve also hit the age where they are starting to grasp the cultural barriers I was part of breaking and I do think they are quite proud of my military service.

My son has been known to tell perfect strangers at the grocery story that I was the first woman Thunderbird pilot. But, at the end of the day, I’m still just their mom (and proudly so).

Now that I’m a professional speaker, they think it’s pretty cool. They often ask about where I’m traveling to, what company I’ll be addressing, what I’ll be talking to them about, and how many people will be there.

They also ask, “why do people pay to hear you talk?” Good question kiddos; just keeping me humble.

Our son is interested in military aviation and talks about one day serving his country and maybe even flying himself. Our daughter is immensely creative and wants to be an architect one day. We are proud of them both.

My 2017 transition from military service to the civilian world was very difficult. I was medically retired for a severe infection from Lyme Disease and other Tick-Borne Illnesses, which resulted in chronic systemic illness and brain injury.

To go from being a high-performing and healthy fighter pilot, to someone without a uniform, a job, or a mission, was devastating.

I spent two years in intense treatment and rehabilitation to get to where I am today, with my independence regained and a quality-of-life worth living. I have reinvented myself as a leadership and teamwork consultant, as well as a professional speaker.

Photo by Leading Authorities

People often tell me they’re so sorry I can’t fly anymore. I often tell them it’s not the flying that I miss, it’s leading Airmen and being part of a team that I miss. So, by doing what I do now, I can fulfil that hole in my heart. I’m simply leading in a different way. Frankly, I impact more people, more quickly, on a grander scale in my new career than I ever would have had I stayed in the Air Force.

I also have a new purpose in life as a patient advocate for those enduring the suffering of Lyme Disease and Tick-Borne Illnesses. I serve on several government boards, non-profits, and within academia, working with an amazing group of courageous patients, caregivers, and clinicians, to change the way the world understands these illnesses.

Tick-Borne Illnesses can be life-changing and can be deadly.

Tick-Borne Illnesses, Lyme Disease and the dozens more tick-borne pathogens that cause disease in people, are woefully underdiagnosed and all too often misdiagnosed.

Lyme Disease has been called “The Great Imitator” for a reason, often mimicking things like Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, just to name a few.

The tests to diagnose Lyme Disease in its earliest stages, when it’s the easiest to fully treat, are terribly inadequate.

The CDC acknowledges nearly 500,000 Americans get Lyme Disease per year, and upwards of 20% (that’s almost 100,000) of those patients will remain symptomatic and become chronically ill and disabled.

I’m one of them.

Imagine what those numbers look like on a global scale, and when you take into consideration all of the other tick-borne pathogens that nobody is looking for.

This late-stage Tick-Borne Illness can be devastating, causing severe physical and cognitive disability, chronic and invisible illness. Tick-Borne Illnesses can be life-changing and can be deadly.

Lyme Disease and Tick-Borne Illnesses are unnecessarily controversial, leading to a stigma that further exacerbates the immense suffering of patients and their caregivers.

The best way to not end up in our community (a group I was unknowingly recruited into by a tick bite)? Prevent the bite. Do everything you can, every day, to protect yourself, your family, your kids, and your pets from the bite of a tick. Avoid brushy areas, use an insect repellent, treat clothing and equipment with Permethrin, and do a daily tick check.

On a positive note, there has been increasing public, medical, philanthropic, and even government interest over the past five years. Our community works every day to increase public awareness and education, to raise funds for novel research, and to nudge policy makers in the right direction. It’s a slow churn, but we’re making noticeable progress.

There are so many wonderful organizations out there working on this very serious issue, but if I had to recommend one to all of you, please check out:

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*All uncredited photos provided by Nicole Malachowski


At The Female Lead, we want to make sure every child has access to positive female role models. If you want to read and share the stories of 67 remarkable women from around the world, you can purchase our NEW BOOK, or nominate a school to receive a copy for free.


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