09/24/06 — A dream that took to the sky

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A dream that took to the sky

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 24, 2006 2:06 AM

Nichole Malachowski was 5 years old the first time she looked up into the sky and dreamed of flying jets. She didn't know if she could or how she would get there.

She just knew she had to fly.

"I went to an air show, just like the one you're going to see in Goldsboro," she said. "I don't know what it was that day, but when I saw the F-4 Phantom flying ... It was the power and the technology and the grace ... all those things combined with my love of country and I said, 'I'm going to be in the Air Force and I'm going to be a fighter pilot."

Now, 25 years later, the 31-year-old is a major in the Air Force and she is not just flying jets.

She's a Thunderbird, and flies the No. 3 jet for the storied Air Force precision flying team.

Maj. Malachowski and her teammates will perform in Goldsboro at Wings Over Wayne.

This performance will be a homecoming.

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base was where she first climbed into the cockpit of a fighter.

"The place where I stepped into my first fighter aircraft, the place where (my dream) became very much a reality, was right here at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base," she said. "I'm definitely ecstatic to be back at the home and birthplace of where I started."

Maj. Malachowski came to Goldsboro in 1998 as a student. She quickly mastered the art of high-speed flight and is currently in her first year with the Thunderbirds.

Being in the sky on Oct. 15 will be a thrill, she said, because from above, she will get to see her career come full circle. It will also be a chance to say thank you.

"What we're doing is flying this air show to represent all the men and women in Air Force blue, who are out there fighting the global War on Terror," she said. "We want to thank the people of Goldsboro for supporting their men and women in blue for years now. I've been to a lot of bases and I'd probably say it's the closest-knit base-community relations that I've seen in my Air Force career."

Coming home will also give her the opportunity to reunite with her first love -- the F-15E Strike Eagle -- which "oh, by the way, is the worlds greatest multi-role fighter," she said.

"I'm really an F-15E pilot at heart. It's special. I love that aircraft ... I'm excited to see the F-15Es parked on the ramp there ... I look forward to the day when I can come back and fly the F-15 in combat with my brothers and sisters."

Still, flying the red, white and blue F-16 is a close second, she added. The two jets are more alike than people know.

"The F-15E and the F-16 are both multi-role fighter aircraft. Oddly enough, the fundamentals are much the same ... Much to people's surprise, the transition was relatively simple and seamless. People ask me a lot, you know, what's the difference? It's hard for me to answer that. I do not know how to employ the F-16 tactically. I am not trained to employ it as a fighter pilot ... whereas with the F-15E, I flew that for years in combat."

Maj. Malachowski might be a trained F-15 pilot at heart, but when she gets into the F-16 cockpit, she's a Thunderbird.

"I love the maneuverability of the F-16," she said. "It's extremely responsive and agile. The other thing I appreciate about it is the cockpit visibility ... You feel like you're really strapping on the F-16."

Maybe that's why every time she's goes up in the jet, she has to remind herself that the experience is real.

"I am living a dream," Maj. Malachowski said. "I cannot believe that I live in a nation that provides a gal from Las Vegas the opportunity to not only fly an aircraft that's so representative of our nation, but to be able to be given the opportunity and the privilege and the responsibility to represent our great Air Force and our country to people all over the United States. It's like living a dream. It's very hard to grasp the concept that I'm Thunderbirds 3. It's like I'm looking at it through someone else's eyes. It's just hard to believe."

She knows the performance will be a thrill for those on the ground, she said. Men and women of all ages will likely get that same feeling she experienced as a little girl.

"The aircraft are going to take to the skies," Maj. Malachowski said. "There are two things that happen there. You've got four aircraft that fly in the diamond formation, and what we try to demonstrate is just the precise formation flying ... Then you'll have our solo pilots. That's where you're going to get all your power, speed and noise. It's just fun and exhilarating."

Maj. Malachowski is the first female to fly with the Thunderbirds. Still, she said, as a young dreamer, she never anticipated that being a woman would stand in her way -- and it didn't.

"I didn't know at the time that women couldn't fly fighters, and it wasn't until I was in college that the law changed. But that didn't matter because I had my sights set on serving my country in the Air Force. I was always surrounded by family who told me I could do anything I want."

And so she set out to do just that -- and never looked back.

"I am just as excited and proud and humbled as anyone who has ever been able to wear the Thunderbird patch," Maj. Malachowski said. "What's interesting is that there are plenty of female fighter pilots that came before me. There are a lot of women out there flying aircraft as we speak. What I've learned is because of the unique mission of the Thunderbirds, I'm able to put a face on the 20 percent of our Air Force that is female -- the ones who are out doing their jobs, supporting their country alongside their equally capable male counterparts. That's what made the Air Force so attractive to me as a little kid -- it's a capabilities-based organization. The aircraft is certainly a great equalizer."

She said she doesn't get any special attention for being a female pilot -- or any slack from her teammates.

"Every guy I'm flying with has flown with women. It's really, to us in the Air Force, not a big deal. It's wonderful that it's a catalyst for discussion for educating the public on the diversity that is our Air Force. Whether it's gender or religion or ethnicity, it doesn't matter. Our Air Force wants people who have the warrior spirit who want to defend their nation and want to be a part of a team. So, do I think I've paved the way? Again, it's unique to the American public. So, I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to educate or inspire other young women to believe in themselves and follow their dreams, whatever they may be."

And maybe, just maybe, there will be another 5-year-old girl who looks into the skies and sees her future.

"I hope that when they come see our team fly, that somebody out there in the audience, some little boy or little girl, looks at our team and says 'You know what, I want to be a part of the Air Force team, too,'" she said.