Flying against the headwinds

Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Col. Nicole Malachowski speaks Wednesday night during The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan Speakers Series at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center.

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Nicole Malachowski learned to focus on the runway ahead of her.

That’s what she told the hundreds who packed the Mendel Center on Wednesday night, as Malachowski recounted some of the hurdles she overcame in her 21-year Air Force career.

She played brief videos of her flight demonstrations and ran through several photos for the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan Speaker Series at Lake Michigan College, which marked the first speaker of the 2019-20 season.

Malachowski became the first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, served as a combat veteran, fighter squadron commander, White House Fellow and advisor.

Like most who dream big, her journey began at a young age.

While other high school students were practicing for their driver’s license, Malachowski was accumulating flight time. She was 16 when she took her first solo flight.

She earned her commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996. Following graduation, she attended undergraduate pilot training at Columbus AFB in Mississippi, and began her career as a pilot.

It was after she failed a pre-check ride during her training that Malachowski learned how failure and risk are the price of entry for achieving something great.

“In the right mindset, you come away from failure with a lot more focus,” she said. “Arguably, I stepped away from that failure with a lot more humility.”

Competitively selected to fly combat aircraft, she was among the first group of women to fly modern fighter aircraft. As a career pilot, she served in combat as an F-15E flight commander, evaluator, instructor pilot and flight lead.

Malachowski served as a mission-ready fighter pilot in three operational F-15E fighter squadrons and has flown more than 188 combat hours.

She then came across another headwind when she pursued her dream – becoming a member of the famed Thunderbirds.

After many people told Malachowski how difficult a process it is to become one of the six Thunderbirds – out of the thousands of applicants – she leaned toward withdrawing her application.

However, a superior then told her “nobody wants to lead a scripted life.”

“I was essentially told to dream big,” Malachowski said. “I had written myself out of the script. I realized if you’re going to achieve at a higher level, you’re going to have to take bigger risks.”

Once she was named to the Thunderbirds squadron, Malachowski recalled how tough it was to learn the trail formation.

She referred to it as her Achilles heel because of how uncomfortable it made her.

So she asked squadron-mates for help and they spent the next two days practicing until Malachowski had a better handle of it.

“You are never too big or too experienced to ask for help if you need it,” she said. “It is also never beneath you to offer help to people who may ask for it.”

On the ground, Malachowski became a White House Fellow, where she served on the Presidential Transition Support Team.

But her dream job of piloting came to an end when a devastating tick-borne illness left her unable to speak or walk safely for 10 months.

Malachowski said she felt as though her entire identity was gone in an instant.

From the lowest point in her life, Malachowski learned into another headwind and learned another life lesson: realizing that sometimes you need to yield to overcome a new challenge.

In doing so, she found another way to lead people.

As Malachowski continues to recover from her neurological tick-borne illness, she embraced any opportunity to educate others about her medical journey and became a public speaker about the growing epidemic.

“I can’t bounce back to my old self. She doesn’t exist anymore,” Malachowski said. “What you see here on this stage is what I call a resurgence. It’s about reinvention and I firmly believe everyone can reinvent themselves at any given time.”

Contact:, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski