Nicole Malachowski: Nobody Wants To Live A Scripted Life

Gail Davis, 23 August 2023

Have you ever had a goal or a dream so audacious that the idea of speaking it out loud literally formed a knot in your stomach? There’s the voice in your head that starts saying, "That dream is too big for you. It’s too complicated." Maybe you have an idea that would disrupt your entire profession or the team that you work on, go against the status quo, but you're thinking, "I don't want to be the one to rock the boat." And so you keep that idea or that dream inside. We've all been there.

Nicole Malachowski grew up in Las Vegas, not far from Nellis Air Force Base - known as the Home of the Fighter Pilot. It's also home to the United States Air Force Thunderbirds. In high school, Nicole would take her brown bag lunch outside and overhead would come these Thunderbirds screaming by with their smoke trail on. As she watched, Nicole thought, "I want to do that someday."

An Impossible Dream?

A little bit of context: In the American active-duty Air Force today there are about 12,000 pilots. Of those, about 3,000 are fighter pilots. And of those, only six in any given year have a chance to be a Thunderbird. It's statistically improbable that anybody becomes a Thunderbird pilot, but it's not impossible. And Nicole had harbored this dream since she was a kid.

The Annual Call For Applicants

After high school, Nicole attended the Air Force Academy and began her military career. Each year the Air Force would send an email saying the exact same thing: "We're looking for three new Thunderbird pilots. Here are the qualifications. Here's the application. It's a two-year assignment. Three pilots are new and three pilots are experienced and on their second year." And every year, even though she harbored that dream, when that email came into her inbox, Nicole would delete it. "Other people become Thunderbird pilots,” she told herself, “not you.” 

Why Not Me?

In 2005, Nicole found herself at the height of her experience and skillsets, the height of her career, flying a beautiful F-15E Strike Eagle. She had every single certification and qualification. She was leading peers safely in and out of combat in Iraq. That year the call for applicants’ email arrived, Nicole finally thought to herself, "Why not me?"

After tossing and turning all night long, in the morning, with just enough courage, Nicole walked into work and spoke her lifelong dream out loud. She told her peers and her colleagues, her supervisors, her chain of command, "I'm applying to be a Thunderbird." 

“Man, it was hard to do,” Nicole says. “That voice in my head thinking, ‘What if they all laugh at you?’”

Just One Problem

“I remember as the days went by, people were generally supportive. But then if I had a dollar for every time I heard this: ‘You know, Nicole, it's hard to be a Thunderbird. You know, Nicole, you probably won't get picked. You know, Nicole, they've never had a woman Thunderbird pilot before! Are you sure you want to do that?" Over and over and over, and more that voice of self-doubt grew in my head. But I stayed focused and said ‘Okay, I'm going to do this. What's it going to hurt?’”

Nicole put together the application, which was gnarly and complex as you might expect. Aside from all the performance reviews and certifications, the thing that had the most sway in this application was a letter of recommendation from the first full bird colonel in Nicole’s chain of command.

Nicole drafted a letter for the colonel’s signature and walked the application to his staff. With all the courage she could muster, she slid it across the desk. “I will never forget this moment,” Nicole says, “The guy looked right at me and he said, ‘You know, Nicole, it's hard to be a Thunderbird. You know, Nicole, you probably won't get picked. You know, Nicole, they've never had a woman Thunderbird pilot before, and the colonel only has one recommendation he's allowed to give, so we're not sure we want to waste it.’”

Boom! Nicole felt sucker punched. The wind came out of her sails. “You can imagine how I felt in the moment,” she says, ”I reached across that desk, I grabbed the application and I removed it. I said, ‘You're right. I'm so sorry for having bothered you.’ And I walked out with my application feeling embarrassed and ashamed. ‘Other people become Thunderbird pilots, Nicole, not you. What were you thinking?’”

Letting It Sink In

Nicole did what any self-respecting fighter pilot would do in that moment – she walked across the street to the Officer's Club and grabbed an adult beverage. As she was talking to the guys about flying, inside she was saying, "Thank God I didn't risk failure. Thank God I didn't put myself out there. Thank goodness I didn't embarrass myself."

As Nicole was sitting there, in walks the wing commander, a 6'6" general who is the poster child of the macho male fighter pilot. He walks over to Nicole and starts making small talk. As she’s trying to be cool in the conversation, Nicole’s immediate supervisor comes over and says, "General, did you know Nicole's applying to be a Thunderbird?" Nicole was mortified because neither of them knew what had just transpired across the street and that she had removed her application and was no longer applying.

Nobody Wants To Lead A Scripted Life

“General Matthews - he looks way down at me, and he goes, ‘That's great, Nicole. How's your application going?’ I’m thinking, I can't believe this is happening. I looked up at him, way up, and I said, ‘You know, sir, it's hard to be a Thunderbird. You know, sir, I probably won't get picked. You know, sir, they haven't had a woman before, so I don't want to waste anybody's time.’”

“Everybody else's expectations about what I should or shouldn't be doing. Everybody else's unconscious bias. The cultural paradigms of the Air Force at that time had taken up room in my own head and were now coming out of my own mouth,” she later recalled. “At that moment, General Matthews gave me one of the single greatest gifts of my career. It's a set of words that I have used for every professional success I've had since then. He squeezed my shoulder kind of hard, I think to get me to shut up because I was just making all these excuses, and looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘Nicole, nobody wants to lead a scripted life.’ Then he walked away and left me in silence.”

Making The Dream Come True

Nicole sums it up, “And with those words, he told me it was okay to dream big. He told me it was okay to risk failure. He told me it was okay to be different. And it wasn't so much that he was telling you and me to write ourselves into the script; what I believe he was saying is don't ever write yourself out of the script. And as teammates and friends and colleagues, don't ever write anybody else or their wild ideas out of the script either.”

When people asked Nicole if she ever got the letter of recommendation from the Colonel? “No,” she told them, “But I did get a letter of recommendation from a general.” The rest, as they say, is aviation history.


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