Female Thunderbirds pilot shares experience
LAS VEGAS (AP)- Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski tried to share the spotlight as she shared her experience as the first female pilot in the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.
“There were plenty of wonderful female fighter pilots that came before me, including the WASPs back in World War II,” she told about 50 visitors Wednesday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington, D.C. “And there are a lot of wonderful female fighter pilots fighting the global war on terror.”
The WASPs were Women Airforce Service Pilots – civilians who flew military aircraft for the Army Air Force.
Malachowski, a 1992 Las Vegas high school graduate, has been flying fighter jets for nine years. She couldn’t avoid her celebrity but tried to keep the focus on the Thunderbirds, based at Nellis Air Force Base just outside her hometown.
The team was in Washington for Saturday’s dedication of the U.S. Air Force Memorial. The pilots are scheduled to perform a flyover during ceremonies at the memorial site in Arlington, Va.
Malachowski joined the Thunderbirds last November, after combat duty in Iraq.
On Wednesday, she spoke about her first year on the team, conflicts overseas and representing the Air Force with the team of six F-16 Falcons. The Thunderbirds spend more than 200 days traveling to air shows between March and November.
“People say, ‘You’re a Thunderbird. It must be so great,”‘ Malachowski said. “You betcha. Like I said, it’s an honor and a privilege. It’s a two-year lifestyle change, though, I’ll tell you that. It is extremely tiring and exhausting work.”
New Thunderbird pilots practice flying alongside a single partner before gradually adding more jets in tighter and tigher formation.
Combat missions and air show flying are similar, Malachowski said, because both require training and teamwork.
“When you go into combat and people start shooting at you, you’re almost like an athlete … you’re so focused on the mission; and when things start getting dynamic, you rely on the two things you need the most: Your training and your teammates.”
The Air Force first allowed women to fly in 1977, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that women began flying combat missions, said retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.
“It has taken a while to get here, but we’ve come a long way,” Vaught said.
While there are only six performing Thunderbird pilots, there are 130 team members, Malachowski said. Fifteen are women.
“I don’t think it’s a bad deal for a girl from Vegas to be flying two of the world’s greatest fighters,”she said of the F-15 and the F-16.
Malachowski said it was strange to find herself stationed in Las Vegas after spending time at Air Force bases around the world.
“It’s where I flew my first Cessna ride. Every time I take off in a Thunderbird jet, we fly right over North Las Vegas Airport and I look down there,” she said.
“I used to sit down there and look up at the F-15s and F-16s and be like, ‘Wow I want to do that someday.'”