November 16, 2007 (by SSgt. Jeremy Larlee) - "Bittersweet." It was a word that crossed the lips of two Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds pilots as they described their feelings about leaving the unit.
Maj. Nicole Malachowski prepares to take off for a practice sortie with the Thunderbirds in an F-16 on February 13th, 2006. Major Malachowski is the Thunderbird no. 3 right wing pilot and just finished her two-year tour with the Air Force Demonstration Squadron.
Majors Ed Casey and Nicole Malachowski performed the last show of their two-year tours as pilots for the Thunderbirds at the last day of the Aviation Nation Air Show Nov. 12 here.
Both officers seemed to be relieved to have finished a grueling schedule that included 68 shows in 21 states and nine European countries this year. But they also expressed how much they were going to miss performing and working with the 132-person team that makes a Thunderbird show possible.
"There are a lot of memories that span the years that I have been doing this job," said Major Casey, the team's lead solo pilot. "There have been many amazing experiences representing the Air Force in front of millions of people across the world."
The two pilots first met 15 years ago when both were cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Major Malachowski said Major Casey hasn't changed a whole lot over the years. She said she believes that his combination of love for the Air Force and his considerate nature makes him an ideal officer.
"Having known him back then, it is not a surprise he became a Thunderbird," she said. "It is definitely a privilege to be able to work beside him."
Major Malachowski also had the opportunity to perform her last show in front of her hometown Las Vegas crowd. She said she feels her life has come full circle by performing at Nellis Air Force Base where her love of aviation was seeded. She said she still remembers attending air shows here as a child.
"I never thought I would be a Thunderbird," she said. "I still don't have my arms around it. I don't think I have fully grasped the significance, and maybe it is something I will figure out in a few years."
She said the one memory of her two-year tour she would hold dearest was performing at the dedication of the Air Force Memorial.
Major Casey said it is hard picking out a specific highlight of his Thunderbird tour. He said he wishes he could share the support he has received from the millions of spectators that have attended the shows.
"I think what I will take away is the unbelievable support that the military has from the American public."
He said it wasn't always easy for him. The constant travel and separation from his wife and three daughters was difficult. It was made easier by working with the caliber of people who make up the Thunderbird team, he said.
"The caliber of folks on this team is a special thing," Major Casey said. "A lot of teamwork and a lot of trust are needed to make this work. We all shared an intense focus to execute the mission like we were trained to do."