By 2nd Lt. Idalí Beltré Acevedo | 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Retired Col. Nicole “FiFi” Malachowski, the first female Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Team pilot, is scheduled to share her story at Schriever Air Force Base, Dec. 19.
Col. Jack Fischer, 50th Space Wing vice commander, invited Malachowski to Schriever to share her story of overcoming obstacles to emerge stronger.
“We were classmates from the U.S. Air Force Academy,” he said. “I actually joined the bowling club to hang out with her because she’s awesome. We flew F-15E Strike Eagles together and crossed paths while she was a Thunderbird [pilot] and I was [flying] F-22’s because sometimes we were at the same air shows.”
Fischer said he admires Malachowski’s perseverance and grit through adversity and how she is a constant source of inspiration.
“No matter [what she faces], what difficulties she is challenged with, she overcomes it,” Fischer said. “Life is not [always] going to go the way we plan, and the true measure of you as a person is really how you react to that, how do you put your heart back into it so you can succeed and she is just a great example of doing that time and again.”
Malachowski recalled her first Air Force air show experience and its impact on her life.
“I remember the very day that I decided I wanted to become a fighter pilot,” she said. “I was five years old, and my family had gone to an air show where I saw a fighter jet. I remember watching this jet scream by. It was a feast for the senses, it shook my chest. I had to cover my ears because it was so loud. I remember smelling the jet fuel and thinking, ‘wow, that’s what I want to do some day, I want to become a fighter pilot.’”
She joined organizations like the Civil Air Patrol and the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, who instilled discipline in her and helped her network with individuals with similar goals and aspirations.
“As a kid, I luckily stayed focused on that goal, and I knew that in order to become a fighter pilot I had to go to college and become a commissioned officer,” she said. “So that narrowed it down to Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarships or the Air Force Academy. I was lucky enough to be selected to go to USAFA.”
Malachowski served as a mission ready fighter pilot in three operational F-15E squadrons and accumulated more than 2,300 flight hours, including 188 hours in combat.
At the prime of her promising career in 2012, her life took an unexpected turn when she started suffering the effects of a devastating tick-borne illness that would worsen during the next four years to include disorientation, confusion, anxiety and temporary paralysis.
Malachowski shares her personal testimony and experience with her life threatening disease in an effort to create awareness of the need for prevention, more reliable diagnosis and treatment.
“I thought I was tough as a combat proven fighter pilot, but tick-borne illness destroyed me, brought me to my knees and ruthlessly broke me,” Malachowski said.
“It would be 1,525 days between my first doctor’s visit and my accurate diagnosis. Often I was told I was just suffering from stress.”
Malachowski’s health crucible was certainly a turning point in her life that regretfully robbed her of her career as an Air Force pilot but at the same time, taught her how strong she was and how much she could endure as a human being.
For Malachowski, experiencing her illness gave her a new perspective and purpose in life.
“I am so grateful for the clarity my illness gave me,” she said. “As I sit here, two years post medical retirement, I look back and I believe being a fighter pilot and an officer in the Air Force gave me the characteristics and skills needed in order to endure my illness. I was never meant to just be a fighter pilot or just be an officer in the Air Force, my purpose was bigger than that.”
Malachowski credits her military service for her successful battle back.
“Now I mentor Airmen who have endured or are enduring similar circumstances to me. I help people walk that path,” she said. “I still see myself as an Airman and a wingman and I always will. If hadn’t been an Airman and a fighter pilot, I [probably] wouldn’t have endured the medical trauma and the loss of my career and my identity as well as I have.”
With humility and honesty, Malachowski admitted suffering through her illness and recovery. In the middle of her pain and struggle with her disease, Malachowski made the decision to focus on the good, what she could do, instead of what she couldn’t.
“I have stories to share and I can still lead people but in a different way,” Malachowski said. “I have a need in my heart to be with people and that’s what drew me toward what I do now, a career in motivational speaking. I am very happy where I am at.”
This mentality and positiveness helped her overcome negative thoughts and come out stronger, with a clearer view of her future, leaving her painful past behind.
“The runway behind you is always unusable, all you ever have is the runway in front of you and that’s what was going through my mind as I was going through that difficult transition,” she said.
Malachowski took time to encourage Airmen to lookout and be kind to each other.
“All that it takes is one simple email, one quick word or pat on the back and you might be that one catalyst that helps somebody through a hardship or over that last hurdle,” she said. “It’s not that hard to just nudge each other along, it doesn’t have to be big things; just a smile to a person in an elevator who is looking down, you don’t know what is going on in their lives, just be kind.”
Malachowski’s visit will include a lunch at 11:30 a.m. in the DISH dining facility Dec. 19 (seating is limited, please be there early), and a tour of wing operations units followed by a keynote address at 2:30 p.m. in the Bldg. 300 Auditorium. This presentation will be streamed live to the base through the Schriever AFB Facebook page. Malachowski will conclude her visit with “Mentor Time” at 3:30 p.m. at Bennie’s.
For more information on Malachowski’s visit, call 719-567-5001.