First Woman Thunderbird Pilot

Nicole Malachowski

Change Management. Diversity & Inclusion. Inspirational Stories. Leadership.

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Nicole Malachowski

Speaker Bio

Malachowski was just sixteen years old when she took her first solo flight. While in high school, she joined the Civil Air Patrol and participated in Air Force Junior ROTC. She earned her commission from the United States Air Force Academy in 1996. Over her 21-year Air Force career, Malachowski achieved the rating of Command Pilot with more than 2,300 flight hours in six different Air Force aircraft. She was among the first group of women to fly modern fighter aircraft and was the first women to fly on any Department of Defense military jet demonstration squadron, as part of the USAF Thunderbirds.

As a career pilot, Malachowski served in combat as an F-15E flight commander, evaluator, instructor pilot, and fight lead. She served as a mission-ready fighter pilot in three operational F-15E fighter squadrons and has flown over 188 combat hours, including her proudest moment as a fighter pilot — leading the first fighter formation to provide security for Iraq’s historic democratic elections in 2005.

On the ground, Malachowski was a White House Fellow, class of 2008-2009, where she served on the Presidential Transition Support Team (PTST) while assigned to the US General Services Administration.

She was also awarded the 2019 IMPACT Award from the White House Fellows Foundation and Association and, in 2021, was appointed to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships by President Joe Biden.

Malachowski also served on two high-level staff assignments at the Pentagon, and as the the Executive Director of the White House’s national “Joining Forces” initiative, where she directly advised former First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden on all topics relating to service members, veterans, and military families.

In recognition of her achievements, Malachowski has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame. As she continues to recover from her neurological tick-borne illness, she embraces any opportunity to educate others about her medical journey and this growing epidemic. She is on the Board of Directors at the LivLyme Foundation and is a Patient Advisory Board Member of The Dean Center for Tick Borne Illness.

Nicole Malachowski Topics
Harnessing Headwinds of Change
Pushing the Envelope: Being the Best When It Counts
Breaking Barriers: Conquering Self-Doubt and Cultural Paradigms
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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 change impacting organizations and individuals today,” says 21-year Air Force veteran Nicole Malachowski. A former fighter squadron commander and mission-ready pilot in three operational fighter squadrons and the first woman to fly on the Air Force Thunderbirds, Nicole has the perfect message to inspire audiences to think differently about the headwinds of change they face – organizationally and personally. Drawing on her extraordinary Air Force career, Nicole offers lessons on leadership, followership, and overcoming adversity. She weaves storytelling with breathtaking video from the cockpit of her jet as the Thunderbirds execute precision turns, rolls, and loops – all just 36” from one another at 400 mph and just 300 feet off the ground. Nicole’s keynote helps audiences ignite their own indomitable spirit in order to succeed far beyond what they might dream. “Failure isn’t fatal,” she says, “it’s the price of entry if you want to achieve something great.”

What does it take to be the best? The individuals and teams who achieve at the highest levels have one thing in common: they push the envelope and go to the edge of boundaries. They accomplish as much as possible and do it to a standard of excellence. Pushing the envelope is an aviation term for taking an aircraft to the maximum limits of its abilities. In the business world, pushing the envelope means knowing yourself – certainly knowing your limits – all while using every bit of your ability to maximize your performance, be your best and be consistent.

As a combat-tested fighter pilot and a member of the military’s most elite group of aviators (1 in 2,000 USAF pilots become Thunderbird pilots), Nicole Malachowski inspires audiences with lessons learned from a distinguished 21-year career, giving them the courage to push the envelope in their own lives. That means using inevitable failures to launch to the next level, preparing for turbulence — because change is unrelenting and hard, but you must anticipate it — trusting in teammates’ skill and precision while developing your own, and being mindful of the over-control that leads to performance malfunctions and mutes achievement. Nicole’s presentation provides an unforgettable and practical roadmap for individuals and organizations looking to make the most of their talents and efforts.

Every great accomplishment involves breaking barriers – both culturally and within. Nicole Malachowski is a trailblazer who succeeded in a traditionally male-dominated career field: the world of the fighter pilot. As uncomfortable and risky as stretching the limits of yourself and your surroundings might be, Nicole tells audiences there’s no reason to allow that to dictate your goals and aspirations. She became one of the first women to fly a modern-day fighter aircraft, the very first woman to fly with the Air Force Thunderbird aerial demonstration squadron, and she was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame. She is relatable to women and men with a fascinating narrative of exactly what it took to be a woman vanguard and break tradition.

Nicole offers actionable tools and real-world lessons about pursuing her dream, making choices, all while building a family and achieving success in a career where few women had gone before. Nicole inspires audiences with a message rooted in her personal mantra – “Nobody wants to lead a scripted life.”

Nicole Malachowski

Stories of my life

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Nicole Malachowski


“We cannot thank YOU enough for bringing your inspiring, moving, profound, vulnerable, INCREDIBLE story to our team. If your ears have been ringing it is 120 people saying you were the absolute highlight of the whole offsite. And many told me you were the BEST speaker they have ever heard. [And these people hear a lot of speakers.]”

Law Firm Vendor Association

“I have to tell you, she is unbelievable. Powerful, tremendous story, engaging and more…I cannot thank you enough. She is a winner, role model and legend.”

United Health Group

“Nicole was exceptionally well received. She—truly—did a magnificent job. Connected with the audience, inspiring, thought provoking, funny, real, open. Our colleagues couldn’t stop talking about it. Was the highlight of our event.”


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