One afternoon a few years ago, I found myself on the ramp at Nellis Air Force Base walking around a Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle with Nicole Malachowski. It was a U.S. Air Force Weapons School jet, all loaded up with inert ordnance for a training mission to be flown the following day. It was a kick for me to be walking around the massive fighter with a pilot who’d taken this beast to war, learning things about the airplane I hadn’t known before.
When things began to wind down, we stepped out from underneath the sun shelter to begin the walk back to the car. I noticed a familiar scream of Pratt & Whitney engines, and looked down the flightline a little further, seeing two F-15Es taxiing back in our direction.
I recognized the solid red stripe running horizontally along the top of the vertical stabilizers of both jets, as well as the LN tailcodes they displayed–indicating they were assigned to the RAF Lakenheath.
I tapped my friend on the shoulder. “Check that out, FIFI. Old friends of yours.”
“Hey! That’s the 494th-—my old squadron!” she said with a big grin.
The backdrop to the east of Nellis is spectacular, with Frenchman Mountain jutting up out of the desert floor nearly fifteen hundred feet higher than where we stood. It was late in the afternoon, and the shadows were long on the rugged western slope of the mountain, which rises at a steep angle to the south and east of the runways. The terrain’s various shades of brown were in stark contrast to the dark grey paint on the two powerful fighters that were taxiing perpendicular to our line of sight, and for a moment, no one spoke or moved. The only sound was the the high-pitched shriek of the twin F100-PW-229 engines on each jet as they rolled past.
“I’ve been to war in that jet,” she murmured, following the lead airplane with her eyes.
I shot a glance at Nicole’s face, and what I saw there was intriguing to me, something that I won’t soon forget. It was a flash of recognition, and then it was as though she had been transported to another time and a far away land, getting ready to fly a real mission, with real bullets and real bombs on her airplane, where the consequences of failure could mean death—to more than just herself and her crew. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives hung in the balance in the scene her mind’s eye was revisiting.
At the time of her appointment to the Aerial Demonstration Squadron, she was one of five hundred sixty-eight female pilots in the entire United States Air Force. Of that number, only seventy-one were flying fighters. What would she say about those numbers? “Irrelevant.” She is one of many, no more noteworthy than any who came before her, or who have arrived since.
For those of you who missed last week’s installment, we continue our interview with Nicole M.E. Malachowski.
One hundred eighty-eight of her total flying hours have been spent in combat operations over the Balkans and Southwest Asia. Her first exposure to the reality of being a tactical aviator came barely three years after her graduation from the Air Force Academy. That’s where we pick up:
FS: What was your first exposure to combat like?
FIFI: I flew in Deliberate Forge, which is what they changed the name of Operation Allied Force to the day that hostilities officially ended, yet there were still combat missions going on. Crazy, fun, weird time. The first night that I was flying with a full load of live weapons, a full load of external fuel tanks—I mean the Strike Eagle can carry a lot of stuff. There were thunderstorms, I’m on the tanker, and I had the squadron commander in my back seat. That was my supervision, because no one knew me from Adam, and I was a brand-new lieutenant, and I was also wearing NVGs. There’s a much longer, more drawn-out upgrade program now, but they just handed them to me and said, “Here you go, Lieutenant.” I’d only flown with them once or twice during mission qualification—they were brand new at that time.
FS: Were you nervous?
FIFI: I don’t want to say that I was ever nervous, but I think that first night I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is actually real. This is at night, full bombs, thunderstorms, squadron commander pit, going into an actual combat sortie. I only got a dozen sorties or so. I got my gear up, and stayed visual on my flight lead during those sorties. That was the big victory for me at that time. As a young wingman, you are there basically to stay visual and be there to support your flight lead. If you can stay visual and support your flight lead, then it’s a successful time.
FS: What’s been your most noteworthy moment thus far in your career?
FIFI: My most proud Air Force moment was not being a Thunderbird. It is leading the first formation of fighter aircraft over Baghdad on the historic Iraqi election day. That’s how the ATO fell out, and how the schedule fell out—I lucked into it. To be there, and to be able to witness history like that, and to be a part of it—to know that we as Americans did a lot to ensure that this day happened. There’s the other feeling as you look down there, you realize that these people are risking their lives to do something that we as Americans sometimes take for granted—and that’s vote.
To be able to sit there and see that—I’d never been more proud to be an American than on that day. I’d never really felt like what I had done was making a difference until I saw that, and I was able to be a part of it. And that’s all because the Air Force let me do it. They trained me to do it, and then they let me do it. And I got to be a part of history in my flight. We were able to see that happen and see those people lined up, so organized, so courageous, and so disciplined. It’s just neat to be able to see things with your own eyes instead of whatever version you’d see through the media.
FS: Do you feel like you’ve had an impact on others?
FIFI: I hope that I have had an impact. It’s not up for me to decide or assess or somehow quantify those things. I guess the point of what I’ve been trying to say—everybody has the ability to positively impact everybody else, and it doesn’t have to be something big. It’s as much as taking the time to let the veteran tell the story the fifth or sixth time; the smile at the person in the elevator who is clearly having a bad day. Taking the time to answer every kid’s letter, regardless of what their questions are or how many times you’ve answered that same question.
One word, one pat on the back, one little action of encouragement to another person, especially kids, does have impact. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to see the end state, or grasp, or somehow quantify that—it doesn’t matter. I know what my intentions are, and those of the rest of my team that was out there, and I have to believe that every now and again someone gets it—and someone’s maybe just motivated a little bit more. I’ve been lucky because I have gotten a couple of letters from people who’ve said, “Hey, what you said meant something to me,” and that makes me realize that all of the little extra effort is absolutely worth it. So that’s for other people to decide.
FS: I watched you get a ton of enjoyment out of interacting with the children you encountered while on the Thunderbirds. What was that like for you?
FIFI: Nothing will melt you faster than what kids say or do for us. It is humbling. I have kept every single email and letter that I have ever gotten. I have a wonderful friend who organized them into sixteen six-inch binders, in chronological order. And if you read through these letters, you realize two things. For one, they’re not actually writing to me, because they don’t know me at all—that’s what’s so cool about it. They are writing to what you symbolize to them. They’re writing to what you ignited, by your actions, inside of them. That’s cool.
When I think about those moments that have happened, they are what re-energizes me for what I do. I need those moments, so they are inspiring to me. They give me energy. They give me enthusiasm. So when you get into the grind, or get tired, or think, “I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing.” They remind you that what you’re doing is worth something.
If you read these letters, you wouldn’t believe the stories that other people will tell you. It’s about these people—and each one is unique, with unique stories and unique things to share. It’s fun. Little girls to young men to older people that have been somehow inspired by what they saw me do or heard me say. That’s priceless.”
FS: Can you think of any organizations that have made an impact on you, either short term or long term?
FIFI: As a Thunderbird, my eyes opened to the Make-A-Wish organization. Hands down, my favorite photo of my two-and-a-half years as a Thunderbird was with that boy at Hill Air Force Base who had cerebral palsy. He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t control his bodily movements, but he and I were talking—we were having a conversation. There is no doubt in my mind. He loved airplanes, he loved the Thunderbirds, and he was thrilled.
To see the courage in these kids, some of them facing life-altering disabilities, some of them terminally ill, and to interact with their families—and to see the love, and the strength, and the support…that will get you right there in the heart and remind you how lucky you are, and how lucky we are as Americans to have people like that in our country. To see them handling such difficult situations with such grace is really empowering.
FS: Any other encounters like that stand out?
FIFI: I had a gal come up, and she was a double amputee of her legs. She wheels over, petite and young—early twenties, and she was talking about how she lost her legs in Iraq due to an IED explosion. She was telling this intriguing story of courage, and you’re giving her your full attention, and you realize you’re talking to a bona fide American hero—a warrior.
She looks at me, and asks, “How are you so courageous? It’s just you and whole bunch of guys. How do you do it? How do you get it so that you fit in?”
I look at her and I’m thinking, “Lady, I don’t hold a candle to you!” She’s asking me for advice? I was just standing there speechless. I’m thinking, “Oh my God!” This girl’s looking to me for an answer. I’m not Superman. I just stumbled. That was only a ten minute conversation, but the rest of the night, I just needed to be by myself. I don’t even remember what I told her. But that she thought enough of me to ask me such a serious question—without knowing me—because of what I symbolized to her. That’s powerful…humbling.
FS: What are your thoughts on time? Do you feel like you have enough? How has your attitude about it changed over the years?
FIFI: It definitely changed after I was in Iraqi Freedom the last time. I mean, when you’re talking to people on the ground who aren’t there ten seconds later? Oh yeah…Your perspective on life changes a lot. Little things. Someone cuts me off in traffic—that used to upset me. I don’t stress as much anymore. I don’t take work home—I used to do that, and I try not to talk about work at home. That is private time, between me and my husband and my family. I don’t know that I need more or less time, but that I’ve grown to understand that quality of time is important.
I am a much more relaxed person after having witnessed war firsthand. You are not going to get me upset that my Starbucks didn’t come back right. Have you seen these people?! They get upset because their Starbucks Coffee didn’t come back right, or they’re flipping someone off in traffic, or they’re rushing so much that they won’t hold an elevator for somebody else; they won’t hold a door open for anyone these days because it’s all about them—because they’re having a bad day.
I say to you, “You don’t know what a bad day is!” I don’t know what a bad day is. I realize that my bad days meant nothing compared to what just happened to that Marine on the ground. It’s about the quality of time. I don’t live stressed anymore. I’m not going to waste my time that way. I wish other people realized that they don’t have a clue what a bad day is.
FS: What is the one thing that you think about at the end of the day?”
FIFI: I think, “God, I hope I did something today to help somebody else.” Even if it’s—you know what I’m talking about—when you walk down the street and you see someone that is looking a little sad, just smiling at them. I mean, my gosh, what have you done today? If you spend your life more concerned about other people and helping other people, the path in front of you will smooth out.
So those examples are all around us; they’re not in the media, they’re not at the Oscars, they’re not where you find money. It’s where real people are dealing with real issues and helping each other out.
To use the Air Force slogan, which I love, above all, we’re all Americans. Above all, we’re patriots. Above all, we’ve chosen to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Above all, we’ve decided to put our lives on the line in defense of freedom. That transcends gender. That transcends race and religion. That transcends generations. That same warrior spirit that the Tuskeegee Airmen had is something you see in the female SP leading convoys.
So who is Major Nicole “FiFi” Malachowski? She is a daughter to her loving and supportive parents. She is the funny, inquisitive, geeky sister to her siblings. She is the nurturing, doting mom to her children. She is the supportive and adoring wife to her husband. She is a loyal, conscientious friend to those fortunate to be in her circle. She’s an officer in the United States Air Force, and a fighter pilot by trade. She is a warfighter, with the wisdom and experience to show for it. She is a role-model for young and old, men and women, boys and girls. She is a mentor to those for whom her very presence has made a difference in their lives. She is my friend, and I am blessed beyond measure to be able to say that.