Here at FighterSweep, there is no denying we have some absolutely incredible opportunities. I’m not just talking about flying in fighters, producing world-class aviation imagery and video, or the knowledge, experience, and expertise of our contributors. Arguably, what delights us more than anything else is the chance to meet and spend time with fantastic people in the community and learn their story, and in turn introduce them to all of you so you can go inside their world and see “what it’s really like.”
March is Women’s History Month, and we thought it fitting for this week to introduce, or perhaps re-introduce, all of you to Lieutenant Colonel Nicole M.E. “FIFI” Malachowski. Many of you may recognize the name, but there’s so much more to her story than being the first woman to fly a red, white, and blue F-16 in a demonstration for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
We’ve been friends for almost a decade and from time to time, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to sit down and talk to her about a variety of topics. This week’s “Warrior Wednesday” is excerpts from interviews I’ve done with her during her assignments at Nellis Air Force Base and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
She is a fantastic individual, helping to inspire a younger generation of female pilots while juggling the responsibilities of being a wife and mother, a leader in today’s Air Force, and flying the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle. Not all of the questions are flying-related, but it will certainly give you a better idea of who she is, and why so many people have been inspired by her.
FS: Your inspiration to become a fighter pilot was inspired by seeing a demonstration of the F-4 Phantom II when you were five years old. Tell us about that.
FIFI: I think what I really liked about it was that it was so loud. It was so powerful. I can’t imagine the Thunderbirds flying a whole formation of F-4s—that had to have been pretty unbelievable. Instantaneously it was the noise that caught my attention—to a kid that’s certainly interesting. Then, the speed and how low they flew—this was back in the day when airshows were a little more free-wheeling, especially Air Force participation, so it was really an awesome display. I liked the power, I liked the technology, I liked the speed, but I also thought that it was pretty graceful. Believe it or not, I think that flight is very graceful, so those things together raised the notion that, hey, I think I can do that someday.
FS: Is there anything from your childhood that you feel like was difficult to overcome, or perhaps something that you still might struggle with as an adult?
FIFI: Definitely something that is typical of me, and I’ve gotten better at it, but as a kid…I was definitely not the popular kid; I was the geek—I was the outcast. I would take my lunch-pail, and I remember that it was a Rescuers Down Under metal lunch-pail, and I would take my little lunch and I was perfectly content sitting by myself in the middle of the football field, or wherever. Even on Saturdays at my own house, just leaving my brother and sister behind and just sitting in the back yard and opening my lunch-pail. Everything was perfectly organized and set out. I’m content that way because I think I’m pretty introspective. Even today I struggle; I like to meet people—I am very good at the Thunderbird autograph line or the public relations events—but it’s really not my nature. I’m very, very shy—I know that sounds crazy.
FS: Who were some of your role models growing up?
FIFI: I’ve always been impressed by ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I felt that way a long time ago as a kid. It was the person who I’d see climbing into a Cessna—that was my hero. I did do a little bit of aviation study as a kid. My parents took me to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum when I was younger. Of course I knew all about Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, and one of my heroes, Patty Wagstaff. So I did follow that—but I really wasn’t following women in aviation per se, as much as I think people that were out there trying new things.
FS: Was there one specific person who encouraged you to think about serving in the military?
FIFI: No question, I think, my grandfather on my paternal side, Robert Ellingwood; he really taught me the value of military service from a young age—he was VFW, American Legion, having been both Army and Navy. I always thought he was the coolest thing because of the stories he had, so I knew the military was a noble profession, and when you put that together with that F-4, I thought the Air Force is going to be a really great place.
FS: What was your first flight lesson like?
FIFI: I took my first lesson in what I believe was a Piper Cub when I was twelve years old, but don’t hold me to that. My grandfather, at the time was Mayor of Ontario, California. He had a lot of friends who were pilots. One of them offered to take me up, and we just stayed in the pattern, and he let me fly. I’ll never forget it—he let me fly, and at one point he told me that I needed to power up—this is when we were going around. I was really slow about it, and I remember he my grabbed my hand and shoved the throttle in. It actually kind of shocked me that he was so aggressive. He said to me, “you need to fly the plane. Don’t be meek about this; put the plane where you want it!” I will never forget that. I remember sharing the story with my dad, recalling how the plane did what I wanted it to do—you put that power in there and you get instantaneous response. Confidence. Courage. Own the aircraft, don’t let it own you.
FS: What is one of the most important lessons you’ve brought forward with you from childhood that has helped you face the challenges of today?
FIFI: Self accountability. I look around at some of the kids these days and I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of them, and it’s a concept that is kind of missing. It’s always somebody else’s fault that I didn’t get one hundred percent, or it’s always someone else’s fault that I didn’t get first place. It’s not a matter of getting first place or second place, but at the end of the day, sometimes you quantify things. Ninety-nine percent of the time that something didn’t go my way, or doesn’t go my way today, I can trace it back to my preparation and my performance—nobody else’s. It’s easy to blame somebody else or to blame some other situation, but that’s not reality. It was always about self-accountability.
FS: What’s one of your more memorable examples of that?
FIFI: In pilot training, in the T-37s I actually failed my second check-ride. I got a One-Downgrade U(nsatisfactory). I had failed to set my flaps in the appropriate range (prior to takeoff). In the T-37 you set your flaps before you taxi, but as you taxi the hydraulics sometimes can move those just slightly out of range. But I took the runway, and I was feeling pretty good, and flew right past it on my checklist. The instructor knew that it was so slightly out of tolerance that we were fine to take off, but he didn’t say anything. I flew my whole sortie, came back, landed, and was feeling like, “That went well!” I got through the whole ground eval with him, and he told me that I got one downgrade U for checklist discipline. He explained to me what I did, and I felt horrible.
FS: How did you react to that?
FIFI: I remember calling my mentor, and her asking me if I was going to just sit there and mope, or if I was going to do better—it was just one check ride. At the end of the day, my one downgrade U was better than others who had gotten three downgrade goods on their flights. That was a traumatic event right there, but I got through it because of her and because of my classmates that helped me get past that little speed-bump. So, yes, (former) Thunderbird Three failed her second check-ride in T-37s; but, it’s character building, and it all goes back to self-accountability. I learned checklist discipline. I learned that it’s not okay to just fly through things—that you have to stop on each step. I learned, at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility—no one else’s…and I learned that one thing does not define the person or the future.
FS: The ban on women flying combat aircraft was lifted while you were still in the Air Force Academy. What was the atmosphere like when you got to your Strike Eagle Formal Training Unit just a few years later?
FIFI: When I walked into the Strike Eagle squadron for the first time, you could see that some of the instructors weren’t exactly thrilled that they had a girl coming through. It wasn’t totally novel, but it was still a really new concept in ninety-eight. They were really concerned that I met the height and weight standards because I was a lot more petite back then. That caused a big stir because it was still new at the time, and for some of these guys I was the first example they’d come across. I just never let them bother me.
I had a great flight commander, and there were one or two old, crusty, but well-respected instructor pilots that took me under their wing. Maybe not because they were gung-ho about female fighter pilots, but because they knew it was the right thing to do. They knew that my performance was a direct reflection of their instructional skills. So they at least had the maturity and professionalism to say, “Alright, I’m going to make this happen.”
There were so many people that wanted me to be successful that overlooking the small handful that were maybe less than enthusiastic about my presence.
FS: We’re going to be doing a write up very soon about the two decades that have passed since women have been flying fighters. What would you say to a young woman considering a career flying combat aircraft?
FIFI: The airplane is the greatest equalizer in the world. An aircraft is the greatest equalizer that I can think of. It doesn’t care if you’re a man or woman, black or white, Muslim or Christian. It doesn’t matter. It’s really objective, too. You either have bombs on target or you don’t. You either are able to shoot down somebody else, or you can’t. So even those people that who were (or are) maybe naysayers could only stand on those legs for so long. As long as you just repeat your performance and stay the course and just fly the plane, eventually they realize—even if they’re thinking in their own mind [that it’s not okay]—they can’t continue to be naysayers because they start looking like fools. So ninety-five percent of my experiences, vis-à-vis this whole female fighter pilot thing, has been positive. I think those are pretty good odds, whether you’re in the military or not.
FS: What else would you say about your experiences and some of the milestones you’ve achieved thus far in your career?
FIFI: I don’t see this as my experience. No one goes through these big life moments or events by themselves—no matter how alone you think you are. It’s the people who realize and are aware enough of those around them that are able to recognize that those things are there, touching your life every step of the way—the good and the bad, and everything in between. Together with my parents I have made it to where I am today. Together with my husband I had the courage to apply for the Thunderbirds.
I made it through [that first year on the Thunderbirds] because of Scott Zamzow, Steve Horton, Brian Farrar, Ed Casey, and Tad Clark…period. Let’s not forget Angie Johnson—from Public Affairs. For every question I was asked, they were asked the same things over and over again. And those guys, they weren’t boys—they were men, and they are the ones that carried me through. It could not have happened for me any better; if you had asked me to pick the greatest peers to have, to be able to handle the extra attention on the girl on the team, I could not have picked a better group of people. They have my undying loyalty for the rest of our lives in anything they ever want. I would work for any of them any day and I am lucky they were in my life at that time.
My success or whatever you want to call it, being the first female Thunderbird pilot—if that’s really even worth anything—is theirs. I am not the most talented pilot in the world. I am not the most talented officer in the world, and I’m not the best person in the world. I’ve just been really lucky—really lucky—to have had people that have carried me along the way. That’s the truth.