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A Conversation With Col. Nicole Malachowski

by Katie Pietrak
Nicole Malachowski, First Woman Thunderbird Pilot, Combat Veteran, & Fighter Squadron Commander
A leader, a combat veteran, the first American woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, an instructor, a White House Fellow, and an inductee into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame, Colonel Nicole Malachowski was one of the incredible motivational keynote speakers at our 2018 Inspire: Leading Authorities' Day of Ideas conference on February 23rd.

During her passionate talk, Nicole shared her personal journey of becoming the first woman to fly in the Air Force Thunderbirds and her experiences of facing overwhelming challenges and overcoming adversity throughout her career, all while being an unwitting trailblazer in aviation, leadership, social awareness, and healthcare.

In flying, headwinds slow you down. At their worst, they cause you to change your plans and impact the effectiveness of weapons in combat. Headwinds demand that pilots be resilient and resourceful, literally on the fly. “Headwinds are the perfect metaphor for the challenges we all face in our personal lives and in our professional lives,” said 21-year Air Force veteran, Nicole Malachowski.

Nicole captivated the audience with her candor, authenticity, humility, and humor, challenging them to think differently about the headwinds of change they face, organizationally and personally. Drawing on her extraordinary Air Force career, she offered lessons on leadership, creating a high-performance culture, dealing with change, and harnessing the opportunities that come with the inevitable challenges we face.

Nicole’s memorable talk left the audience feeling inspired to accomplish more than they thought possible and surpass even their boldest expectations to succeed. "Failure isn’t fatal," she said, "it's the price of entry if you want to achieve something great.”

Q&A With Thunderbird Pilot Nicole Malachowski

How did you get your call sign?
That is a question I get asked all the time. The fact is that’s very secret code for fighter pilots and not something you share unless you are sitting at a bar one-on-one. What you need to know about call signs is that it means you are combat qualified and it means that the squadron has accepted you as ready to go into combat with them as their wing man. It’s a huge deal. And the second thing you need to know about call signs is that it is always making fun of something somebody did. Call signs are always making fun of the pilot.

Did you feel pressure being the first female Thunderbird pilot?
I didn’t feel pressure that I was the first female Thunderbird pilot. I wasn’t as concerned, apparently as other people were, about being the first. A lot of it was timing, luck, and circumstance. I was born at the right time and I met the qualifications, so it wasn’t that a big deal. The men that I flew on the Thunderbirds with were my age and they had never known an air force without women fighter pilots in it, so I didn’t really get any pressure from them, which I’m often asked. The place that I did feel a lot of pressure was to all the other women military pilots. I’m not sure if you know that we had women military aviators that flew in World War II and they were called the WASPS: Women Airforce Service Pilots. We are all a part of this long legacy and there were so many extraordinary women military aviators flying out there around the same time I was that are still out there flying today. I was acutely aware of the responsibility that I had not just to get the door open but to perform in a way during my assignment that the door stayed open. So, any pressure I felt was always to represent the other women military aviators with the respect, and the skill, and the dignity that they deserved.

You mentioned a couple mentors who helped you gain confidence. Are you now a mentor to young men/women? If so, what key advice have you passed along to them?
I love being a mentor. Yes, I am a mentor. I am a mentor to not just young women and young men and not just to people who want to go into the military or want to go into aviation, I am also a mom and I like to consider myself a mentor to my two babies. The number one advice that I’ve always given to people is to always surround yourself with positive people. If you do that, I honestly think that you can achieve anything. You must pick people that are on your team and those are people that have to believe in your dream as much as you do. Don’t waste your time or effort on people who don’t. That doesn’t mean they tell you everything you’re doing is right, no, it means they believe in your dream as much as you do and will nurture you along the way. We find ourselves getting hung up on the naysayers and the people who criticize and that’s a waste of time and noise that you must let go of but I find that most people are either neural or very supportive. The people who are negative are always in the minority. I have found that good people always hang out with good people so nurture that network. And the opposite is true, bad people usually hang out with other bad people.

What have you told your kids to give them the confidence that your dad gave you?
My kids will someday come to understand that they were literally born brave and born to make a difference in this world. They survived our harrowing pregnancy, being born three months early, and endured weeks in the NICU to make their mark on this world. Right now, they're too young to appreciate all of that, so we try to nurture their tiny spirits with daily support and affirmation. At their current age of seven, they are becoming acutely aware of observable differences between people...we remind them of the beauty that 'we are all uniquely made'. That's a phrase you hear in our house often, it's intended to teach them to embrace others as they are, but to also embrace and develop their own unique strengths. They've started to see the inevitable teasing amongst kids, or the comparisons some make...we remind them that they shouldn't be like everyone else or feel pressured to live up to other’s expectations of what is cool or not. We remind them 'you do you', another phrase you'll hear often in our house...and a parenting tip I borrowed from my last boss, Mrs. Michelle Obama. Finally, we remind them of the importance of hard work and responsibility...they've got a chore chart, we talk about it every day after dinner. Those chores include not just physical tasks (like making their bed), but behavioral tasks (like be kind, use manners, no fighting, etc.). My kids know that they are free to make choices, and that those choices have consequences. If we come to an impasse, I'll remind them 'you have a choice'. If they want something, they know they have to put in the effort in order to achieve it and that big goals require a lot of persistence and determination. When I hear one of them say 'it's too hard', we remind them that it's their responsibility to try again...that they need to practice and learn these skills to become great 'community helpers'. I'm tickled that they seem driven and responsive to the idea of becoming 'community helpers'. Our son wants to be a Lego Master Builder (a future engineer?) ...he builds wildly amazing machines with moving parts. Our daughter wants to be an architect and city planner...she designs homes with playground slides coming from the bedroom windows. We are immensely proud of them both and they are deeply loved. 

How did you deal with fear on combat missions and how did you prioritize in the face of that fear?
In all honesty, I never felt what I'd describe as 'fear' while flying in combat. I felt determined, focused, and prepared. I always felt hugely responsible for, and accountable to, my wing men and the troops on the ground. We were acutely aware of the seriousness of what we were about to go do. The fact is, we practiced endlessly to ensure we were prepared for our missions. When you strap into your jet and launch into combat, it is with such an intense focus that all that enters your mind is getting the mission done and getting all your wing men home safely. It's akin to a professional athlete "getting in the zone" before a big event. The focus is intense, so much so that other emotions were totally compartmentalized for me. That said, once a mission is flown and contingencies are handled, there can certainly be some emotion, especially when it involved troops on the ground. But, it only occurred to me after the combat sortie. Any emotion resulted in an intense resolve to get back in the jet and do it again the next day. 

Need a speaker for your next event?

If you’re looking for a strong female speaker covering hot topics such as motivation, inspiration, leadership, or teamwork, consider Nicole Malachowski.

Want to learn more about Nicole or check her availability and fees for your next event? Call 1-800-SPEAKER or live chat with a member of our team right now.

Want more inspiration?

To get a better feel for what we covered at our Inspire conference, catch up on anything you may have missed, or learn more about the rest of the motivational speakers featured in our Inspire lineup:

  • Check out more of our favorite moments from the event, including presentation and Q&A recaps from our other keynote speakers
  • Subscribe to the Leading Authorities' podcast, Speaking Of, and listen to the latest podcast episodes we recorded with our Inspire speakers including Nicole
  • Follow us on Twitter @LAISpeakers and see the inspiring tweets and photos that attendees shared 

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