HIGH-FLYING ROLE MODEL
Col. Nicole Malachowski — who knows
a thing or two about leadership in a
male-dominated field — continued this
theme in her speech. The retired Air
Force pilot, who flew a F-15E Strike
Eagle and went on to be the first female
Thunderbird airshow participant in an
F- 16, also served in 26 combat missions.
“You never know who you are inspiring.
It’s about being a woman and being darn
good advisor, for instance,” she explained.
“I look out, and this is the biggest crowd
of women I have ever spoken to. When I
started out in the military, there weren’t
these kind of events until about five years
into my service,” she told the crowd.
While about 15% of advisors are
women, about 18% of the active-duty
Air Force is female, she says. How many
women are pilots? Out of 12,000 pilots in
the Air Force, just 750, or 2%, according
to the former Thunderbird. But back in
World War II, more than 1,000 women
flew in the Army Air Corps, she adds.
As for female fighter pilots, there are
63 out of a total group of 3,000. “It’s a
small number,” Malachowski explained.
When she was picked in 2005 to be the
first female Thunderbird pilot, “I hated
it,” Malachowski said. “I wanted to be
an extraordinary Thunderbird, a skilled
fighter pilot, so I bristled at the label
But at her first air show, she noticed a
line of about 20 individuals trying to get
signatures from the male pilots and over
100 in her line.
“Most were women who were 18 to
20 years old,” the ex-pilot said. The
response showed her that “it means
something to see someone who looks
like you succeeding. It’s not about [me],
but about the art of the possible.”
“It’s all about authenticity,” Malachowski
explained. “Breaking barriers requires
integrity. You must maintain fidelity to
who you truly are. Do not censor part of
She then went on to explain what it took
to overcome self doubt in a male-dom-
inated environment: “We all have those
moments, women and men alike, when we
don’t want to be different” by raising our
hands or standing out in other ways.
In her mid-30s, after being in combat and acting as a mission commander,
the pilot thought about applying to be
a Thunderbird: “Every year, we were
asked to put in an application. I would
delete and delete the messages,” she said.
A few years into this cycle and after
combat in an F- 15, she asked herself:
“Why not me?”
There were folks who told her the
role was tough and that she might not
get picked for it, Malachowski explained.
She even told a wing commander that
she thought the role was “too big for her”
and might withdraw her application.
“The general said to me, ‘Nobody
wants to lead a scripted life.’ In other
words, it’s OK to be different and to take
risks. Never write yourself or others out
of a script. And you can be that person,
like Major Gen. Mark Matthews was for
me, for somebody else,” she shared.
As she moved on to becoming an
SET LIMITS, GET HELP
instructor in the Air Force, Malachowski
found it important “to believe those who
believe in you,” she said. “Don’t wait until
you are ready for a job or role. Do the
work. You build trust by being trustwor-
thy, in all circumstances and at all times.”
Malachowski highlighted her frustration over a particular maneuver she had
to do for the Thunderbird shows, which
prompted her to ask her teammates for
support; that turned into an extra day or
two of intense practice.
“I asked for help,” she explained. “You
are never too experienced to ask for help
when you need it.”
The former pilot also described her
initial difficulty of maneuvers during air
turbulence. “We all have turbulence in
our lives. You cannot control it,” she said.
“The secret, as the team told me, is to
loosen your grip or the formation falls
apart,” Malachowski explained. “You
have to let go.”
In business, military and other leadership roles, such as working with clients
having trouble, “It’s important to tailor,
Finally, be sure to ask for and accept
help when it is needed, Malachowski
said. “And maintain fidelity to who you
Janet Levaux is editor-in-chief of Investment
Advisor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Then-Maj. Nicole Malachowski, the
first woman pilot in the U.S. Air Force
Thunderbirds. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)