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Becoming Thunderbird is dream come true for Nevada native

July 7, 2005 (by Verla D. Davis) - She was only 5 years old when she saw an F-4 Phantom fighter jet soar and maneuver through the clouds during an air show. It was then she knew she would someday do the same.

Capt. Nicole Malachowski has been selected to fly for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron "Thunderbirds" 2006 season, making history as the first female demonstration pilot in the 52-year history of the team. She is a fighter pilot from the 494th Fighter Squadron at Lakenheath. [USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Tony R. Tolley ]

Now, 26 years later, Capt. Nicole Malachowski is getting her chance to do just that and enter the history book at the same time. The 494th Fighter Squadron flight commander and F-15E Strike Eagle instructor pilot here was recently selected to be the first female pilot to fly with the elite U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, better know as the Thunderbirds.

The Las Vegas native said she never considered being a member of the Thunderbirds.

"My husband was chatting with me one day, and he brought it up," she said. "I thought, ‘Really? I qualify to apply? I could never be a Thunderbird.'"

With reassurance from her husband, Captain Malachowski's disbelief turned to motivation.

"The Air Force has so many great opportunities out there, and all you have to do is apply," she said. "It never hurts to try, does it?"

And try she did. Only four to five applicants are selected to demonstrate their flying abilities and compete for one of the three demonstrations pilot positions which come open each year. Captain Malachowski secured one of the positions and her husband said he could not be more proud of her.

"She earned this prestigious job with a great work ethic and a constant desire to do the best," said Maj. Paul Malachowski, an F-15 weapons system officer evaluator with the 48th Operations Group here.

Captain Malachowski credits her parents for her focus and courage to follow her dreams.

"(My parents) would often ask me rhetorical questions to get me thinking," she said. "Questions like, ‘So you're going to be a fighter pilot? How does one become a fighter pilot?'"

Though they never gave her answers to those questions, it was enough to get her interested in finding out the answers for herself and to increase her desire to fulfill her goals.

While still in high school, her love of flying prompted her to take lessons.

"At the end of the day, I would ride my bike down to North Las Vegas Airport, hang out and make friends with some of the more experienced pilots there," she said. "They would take me up for lessons and take me flying."

As a member of the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, she received a scholarship that paid for flying lessons when most of her peers were learning how to drive.

"(The Civil Air Patrol) paid for lessons all the way through to my solo flight, which happened just about the same time I got my driver's license," she said. "The Civil Air Patrol was fantastic to me."

After high school, she was accepted to the Naval and Coast Guard academies, but turned them down when she was accepted to the Air Force Academy, a desire she had since elementary school.

Captain Malachowski continued her love for flying while at the Air Force Academy where she was a cadet glider and instructor pilot for three years.

With more than 1,100 flying hours under her belt, mostly in the F-15E Strike Eagle, the captain will begin her Thunderbird training in November when she will train to fly the No. 3 right-wing position of the diamond formation. The formation consists of four aircraft -- one lead, two slightly behind on either side of the lead, and the final plane sitting in the rear slot.

"We are going to be flying so close at such high speeds together; there is no margin for error at all," she said. "We have to have that area of trust … I can't believe that I am going to be a part of that."

Although Captain Malachowski is an accomplished pilot with more than 200 combat hours, she said her new challenge will be learning to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon during training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

"I am not a Thunderbird yet. I have a long road ahead of me," she said. "I'm honored for the awesome opportunity they have provided me here with asking me to become a part of their team. I think I am living proof that dreams do come true."

Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service