“I Just Want to Fly”

Thunderbird Diamond Formation at the 2009 Dayton Air Show
Wikimedia Commons

Ever seen a Thunderbirds’ air show and those daring diamond formations, and wondered what it takes to become one of those pilots? And, even more, what it would it take for a woman to join the ranks? The Thunderbirds formed in 1953, but it took 52 years for a woman to fit the mix. Major Nicole Malachowski debuted as the first female Thunderbird in March 2006. So why the gender lag, you ask?

Dorothy Cochrane, curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics division, filled museum visitors in Wednesday at a noontime “Ask the Expert” discussion.

At the end of each year, the U.S. Air Force calls for pilots—top guns, basically, who have a minimum of 1,000 hours of flight time—to apply to the Thunderbirds. The current team (not a bunch of generals at the Pentagon) makes the selections, whittling the applicant pool down to 12 semifinalists, who are invited to spend an air-show day with the Thunderbirds. Five finalists interact with everyone from the pilots to the ground crew and take part in several interviews. Ultimately, three new members are ushered in.

“It’s not necessarily who is the best pilot, it’s who’s going to get along. Personality is a huge, huge part of the selection,” says Cochrane. “All of these pilots are top notch.”

Women started flight training in the 1970s, but they were prevented from flying any of the top aircraft. Once the decision was made in the 1990s to let women pilot front-line fighters, females had to work their way through the system. It was just a matter of time before there were female captains and majors qualified to apply for the Thunderbirds, according to Cochrane.

“Sooner or later, someone makes the decision, ‘Let’s have the first woman.’ In some cases, it might just be, ‘Well, somebody’s got to do it. Let us be the first one.’ Or it may just be that someone like Nicole comes along, and they think, ‘She is actually perfect for this, and we’ve never had a woman. Why is that?’”

Major Malachowski’s commitment, credentials and personality made her the one. After graduating fourth in her class at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996, she gained international and semi-combat experience in England, Kosovo and Baghdad. About blazing the way for women, Cochrane says, “She wasn’t really concerned with breaking this glass ceiling. To her, it’s ‘I just want to fly, and I want to fly with the best.’”

Having wrapped up her two-year tour with the Thunderbirds, Malachowski plans to donate her flight gear to the Air and Space Museum. She’ll be speaking at the museum on Thursday, March 27. Find details about the event here.

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