AVIATE with Shaesta

Colonel Nicole Malachowski was the first female pilot for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. A tick bite suddenly changed her life and career.

Episode Summary

Our guest today, who will conclude season two of the AVIATE with Shaesta podcast, is Colonel Nicole Malachowski. At age 5, during a time when women were not permitted to fly for the military, Nicole knew that someday, she would fly a fighter jet. Finishing fourth in her class, Nicole graduated from pilot training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, and was selected for the only F-15E slot allotted to her class. Nicole has served in a few operational tours and went into combat for the United States Air Force. In 2005, Nicole made history by becoming the first woman to fly for the Thunderbirds, completing 140 performances, and inspiring a generation of women aviators. In my conversation, I ask Nicole about her remarkable career and how she managed her mental health along the way. We also discuss Nicole’s physical health, especially after she was suddenly diagnosed with a tick-borne illness, which changed her life and career trajectory.

Episode Notes

Our guest today, who will conclude season two of the AVIATE with Shaesta podcast, is Colonel  Nicole Malachowski. At age 5, during a time when women were not permitted to fly for the military, Nicole knew that someday, she would fly a fighter jet. Finishing fourth in her class, Nicole graduated from pilot training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, and was selected for the only F-15E slot allotted to her class. Nicole has served in a few operational tours and went into combat for the United States Air Force. In 2005, Nicole made history by becoming the first woman to fly for the Thunderbirds, completing 140 performances, and inspiring a generation of women aviators.  

In my conversation, I ask Nicole about her remarkable career and how she managed her mental health along the way. We also discuss Nicole’s physical health, especially after she was suddenly diagnosed with a tick-borne illness, which changed her life and career trajectory.

Episode Transcription

Shaesta Waiz 00:01

Today's episode is brought to you by our sponsor, Atlantic aviation. Atlantic aviation provides aircraft ground support in 80 Plus locations across the United States. I am proud to partner with a company that puts its people first and highly values diversity and inclusion. Atlantik aviation's vision and mission are evident through its relentless focus on culture, safety, and service. Experience the Atlantic attitude today. Check out www. Atlantic aviation.com To see all 80 Plus locations and plan your next visit. Our guest today who will conclude Season Two of the ABA with Shasta podcast is Colonel Nicole Malachowski. At age five, during a time when women were not permitted to fly for the military, Nicole knew that someday she would fly a fighter jet finishing fourth in her class. Nicole graduated from pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. She was selected for the only F 15 e slot for a lot of tour classes. Nicole has served in a few operational tours and went into combat for the United States Air Force. In 2005. Nicole made history by becoming the first woman to fly for the Thunderbirds, completing 140 performances, and inspiring a generation of women aviators. In my conversation, I asked Nicole about her remarkable career and how she managed her mental health along the way. We also discussed Nicole's physical health, especially after she was suddenly diagnosed with a tick-borne illness, which changed her life and career trajectory. Nicole, welcome to the AB with Shasta podcast. How are you doing?

Nicole Malachowski 02:25

I'm doing wonderful today. Thanks so much for this opportunity.

Shaesta Waiz 02:28

Oh, man, it is so wonderful to conclude this season, by having a conversation with you on mental health. I'm so excited. Thank you for joining us. To get to know you a little bit better take us back to young Nicole. What was your childhood? Like? What were some of your fondest memories? And how did you get into aviation?

Nicole Malachowski 02:51

Sure, yeah. So I actually was born and spent my first few years there in central California. In a lot of ways, I was born on second base. And when I say that, what I mean is I grew up in a family where I had everything I needed, right? I had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I want to acknowledge that, you know, a lot of my success comes from that Foundation, which was nothing but timing, luck, and circumstance. And so I spent my first few years there in central California. Then eventually, we moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and I consider Las Vegas, Nevada, to be my hometown. I grew up kind of a very adventurous kid; I was always the one that was, you know, outside, I guess exploring, jumping around on things, climbing things, always willing, of course, to try something new. I guess you could say I definitely had a certain level of confidence. I am glad it was directed in confidence. I didn't get myself in any kind of trouble or hurt myself or anything but tended to be a little bit adventurous. That said, I'm also always has been a very hardcore introvert. Very much a happy person to be skipping along by myself, you know, going to the beat of my own drummer. As far as how I got into aviation, I recall it very distinctly. It was 1979. I was five years old. And my family went to the local Airshow right when the Airshow came to town. It's a big kind of fun family event. It's a patriotic event. And so we went to the Airshow, and there was an aircraft there flying called the f4 Phantom, which you probably recall, the f4 was like the workhorse of the United States Air Force in the Vietnam War. And it came screaming by the runway really low and really fast. And I remember, like it, the engine noise like rumbled my chest, and I could smell the jet fuel. And I remember covering my ears because it was loud. And I started to shake with excitement. You know, the way that only like little kids shake with excitement, and I was just like shaking. And I remember looking at my family and my friends that day, and I said I'm going to be a fighter pilot someday. And at that moment, they turned to me and said, You're going to be a great fighter pilot someday. And I often look back and think if they had said anything else, anything else at that second, I wouldn't be standing here today. So I think it's a reminder of the power of our words to really make or break other people's dreams. So that's where it all started.

Shaesta Waiz 05:20

Gosh, that is so powerful. What gave you the confidence, as a five-year-old little girl at the Air Show, to turn to your parents and say, that's going to be me someday? Like, what was it? Was it just very elevating or empowering to see the aircraft fly by the noise? I mean, what gave you that confidence to just say that,


Nicole Malachowski 05:41

it was just that gut instinct; there was like a, I know, this may sound odd, but like just the piece that came over me. And I just knew, like, that's what I'm going to do. Now, ironically, in 1979, of course, that was just when they were allowing women to start pilot training in the military across the services. And it was still illegal at that time, you know, for women to become fighter pilots; it was against congressional law, you know, but as a five-year-old, you don't know, and you don't care. And I think she was a five-year-old. We haven't grown into this societal kind of induced self-doubt that says, you know, you can't do these things. Because you're X, Y, or Z as a five-year-old, you don't know the difference. So there was a purity in that confidence and a purity in that dream.

Shaesta Waiz 06:27

Yeah, you know, what's so interesting, as you share the story, Nicole, is that I kind of grew up opposite of you, like, we grew up six girls, and like growing up our whole lives, we were told, you know, basically, don't draw Outside the Lines. Don't be too loud; that's too dangerous. You know, it was just these constant, like, you know, be a young lady. And so, most of the time, it was like, No, that's too dangerous or scary, because you know, you're a girl. And so I just grew up, afraid of everything. And it's shocking to me that I was afraid of flying until I was 17. And I had the chance to fly on Delta Airlines way in the back middle seat as a passenger. And that's when I discovered my love for aviation. And so, as you share your story, I come to this realization that we cannot empower young women enough; whatever it is that they want to do, we have to be supportive and just always tell them that they can do anything that they set their mind to, because they could go on to be the first or set all these records and really change societies. So

Nicole Malachowski 07:40

I just wanted to share with you. And you know, I have told you this before, but I mean, when I look at your story, and I consider where you came from the cultural differences and the different paradigms that you had to grow up within that goes back to what I was talking about earlier, like the timing, luck and circumstance that plays into so many of our lives. And the fact that you were able to overcome that, as well as like your internal, like fear of flying is simply extraordinary. And it's the power that we can have on inspiring other people by sharing our stories. So when you're out there telling your truth, very vulnerably. You know, it validates the feelings of other young people, young young girls and young boys alike. And so the more we share our stories, I think the more that we can indeed inspire others to kind of break through those barriers that they face. And they may be cultural and society barriers. And they may be barriers in their own mind. But we can be dream helpers, you know, by sharing our stories.

Shaesta Waiz 08:40

I couldn't agree with you more and the more stories that we share, the more perspective and insight it's going to give to this generation and generations after them. So yeah, I totally agree with you on that end. So let's talk a little bit about your your early years. Just looking back and preparation for this interview. I just looked at your career. You're a mom of two twins, which I think is so incredible. You've served our country you've represented you were the first Thunderbird woman to fly for the Thunderbirds. You've just had this exceptional and extraordinary career. So I want to take us back to just the early years. In high school you are part of the Civil Air Patrol and work towards obtaining your private pilot's license in high school. In 1992, you enrolled in the US Air Force Academy. You were commissioned by the Air Force as a second lieutenant in 1996. After graduating with your bachelor's degree, while flying at the academy, you were also a cadet instructor and the T G for glider program. You went on to earn two masters degree from the American Military University with the highest distinction. You are also The first Air Force officer to be awarded the Admiral Stephen B. Luce Award. You just worked extremely hard, you earned your wings along with earning three degrees and achieving all of this, Nicole, how is your mental health?

Nicole Malachowski 10:18

Right? I think, you know, I'm so glad we're talking about mental health, right? Because it's been wonderful to see how society is starting to embrace this discussion over the last, you know, five to 10 years. I mean, mental health is indeed as important as our physical health. And to be honest, my mental health has, you know, adjusted and been in different places in different phases, of course of my life, I think I'm like any other human being, when things are going well, as I'm working towards maybe a goal or a target, you know, your mental health can be in a very good place. And then when we face those difficult times, the setbacks, the failures, that's when you know, you have to find, find who you are right, and dig really deep, I think back to the first time, I had a challenge in my career flying. And honestly, it was when I failed a check ride at pilot training. You know, I didn't want it to be this fighter pilot. Since I was five years old, I had flown starting at the age of 12, the idea that I got to pilot training, right, which is this big culminating event, I knew it was so important to perform at my highest levels every single day. So there's a lot of pressure there, to fail at checkride. Right, like literally mathematically, made it much more difficult for me to graduate high enough to get a fighter. And I remember that day. And going back to my dorm room, I couldn't even walk past the classroom to see my peers and my other students. Because I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I felt like a failure, like my dream was never going to come true. I didn't know what to say to them. And I remember going back to my room and putting my face on my pillow, and crying. And I think that's okay, I needed to get out the sadness, I needed to get off the fear. I needed to acknowledge the pain and the stress. And I think sometimes physically getting that out is very important. And then then I grabbed the Kleenex, you know, and I cleaned myself up. And I made a phone call, I made a phone call to sue Ross, who was my mentor at the time. Now Sue Ross had been my English teacher while I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy. But Sue Ross was also the first woman Air Force pilot, I met in uniform. And I remember staring at her wearing these silver wings, thinking oh, my gosh, this woman has hung the moon. And she has, and she's still that kind of person to me today. And in that moment, I thought I'm going to call sue because Sue's gonna know what to do. And I got on that phone call. And Sue is that type of person that all of us need in our network, right? The type that applauds you when you're successful, the type that picks you up when you fail. But as importantly, and I could argue, most importantly, the type of person and network that you have around you, that will give you the attitude check you need when you need it. Because I was on that phone making excuses for why I had failed that checkride. And she wasn't having it. And all she kept saying was Well, are you gonna get back in the jet tomorrow? And that was that question and that kind of support that I needed to get back in the jet and to try again. So that was a hard mental health moment. But I think the point was getting through the pain, acknowledging the hardship, being sad, and then finding a resource for help and actively seeking out that resource for help. And that got me back in the gym the next day. And the rest is history. Of course.

Shaesta Waiz 13:50

You know, Nicole, when I think about just the pressures that a lot of young people are facing in terms of getting into college, how rigorous it is and difficult, those pressures and then when they don't get into their desired schools, that failure paralyzes them. And what you just shared is just a fascinating example that failure really is just another opportunity to get up, learn and do better. And so, your messaging around failure is great. You really need a support system that is so important. But I love how you shared you need to get it out. You know, don't internalize it, don't keep it in, cry it out. You know, however, you can get those emotions out and process them, I think, is just spot on. But a real example.

Nicole Malachowski 14:42

I want to talk about failure. People ask me about it a lot, right? And my mantra is this failure is the price of entry for achieving something great. Oh my gosh. And I think that when you look at failure as a as a natural part of the human condition, when you look at failure As part of the process like that's your mindset going in, when you fail, you can harness it for benefits. Because I think you come away from failure a lot more committed to what you're trying to do. I think you come away from failure a lot more dedicated to putting in the work. And you come away from failure, a heck of a lot more humble. And I think we can agree that those are some pretty important characteristics and traits. So failure is indeed, the price of entry for achieving something great.


Shaesta Waiz 15:25

Oh, wow, I love that. And because we're on this topic of failure, and you speak so openly about it, how can women better manage failure so that it doesn't significantly affect their mental health? What would be your like tips for that? Realize right


Nicole Malachowski 15:43

now that failure is a part of the human condition. So if you choose in your mindset to view failure as something that can indeed be positive, when it happens, you'll be able to view it in that light. You know, the key is that a lot of times, society or the organizations we work with, or the people we work for, often kind of veil failure in this negative light. And I don't necessarily think it's true; there are very few places and contexts where failure is actually catastrophic, right? I mean, as a fighter pilot failure, there are moments right that it can be catastrophic. But usually, as we go through life, failures are opportunities to realize you're stronger than you ever thought you were right to be creative and innovate different ways to do things and find different kinds of solutions. Failures help you identify gaps in resources or skill sets that you can go out and fill eventually. And so I think it has to do with starting your mindset today, that failure is part of the human condition, fellas, the price of entry for achieving something great, it's gonna happen. It's not a matter of if it's going to happen; it's a matter of when it's going to happen to you, and how are you going to choose to respond to that failure? And interestingly, you know, one of the pieces of advice, especially when young women asked me, you know, going into college, like, what do I do, and I'm feeling the stress of XY and Z and in society, and my parents want me to get this degree. And I know I should, you know, do this job, but my heart is over here. Look, let's just all back up. Only you can define success for yourself. Don't ever let any other person's team organization define what success should look like for you. And when you're confident in your goal and what success looks like for you, it becomes easier to break through the noise; it becomes easier to take away some of that societal pressure and stress. And your definition of success over time is supposed to change. And it should change Given your age, your experience, your cont the context. And so that would be another thing as you can take that societal and personal stress you put on yourself by realizing, honestly, only you get to define success for yourself. Once you realize that it's Superframe.

Shaesta Waiz 18:02

You know, as you share that, it takes me back to when I decided I wanted to fly around the world. It was just so untraditional because in the Afghan culture when you say pilot, people, usually nine times out of 10, Think of airline pilots. And because I wasn't going on that track, I started a nonprofit, and I started flying a bonanza. And it was tough. We didn't have a lot of funding. I was living in a poor college. College kid, I had that budget. And so I just remember going to family gatherings and parties and people saying like, what are you doing? Like, why are you not flying for the airlines? Or why?

You know what, why are you doing this whole different thing. And it was tough because it really weighed me down. And you know, they just didn't understand it. And I remember having this moment, as you said, it's a mindset, where I thought like, they're only going to get it. Like if I do it. And I just have to speak with confidence and just, you know, stay true to my course. And when I am done, they're going to understand it, but then their definition of a pilot is going to expand. So you know. So that was what you just shared with me that made me think about that. And yeah, that kind of helps your mental health is if you just make that commitment with yourself and say, you know, when I do this, people are gonna understand,


Nicole Malachowski 19:29

yeah, I'm sitting here listening to you. And it's like, you're such an I just, you're such an extraordinary woman just to me. You just nonchalantly you're like, oh, and then one day I made the decision to fly around the world. I just adore that whole thing. And I'm just so proud to know you, and you know, to your point, I'm only you can define what that goal looks like. And you have to remind yourself along the way that you were doing this because it was your dream. You didn't do this to prove anything to anybody else. You weren't necessarily Doing it to expand other people's hearts and minds; you felt a calling. And you felt drawn to this goal and to this dream, which indeed did change people's hearts and minds, you know, along the way. And I think we have to remember that we need life is way too short for us to be adjusting and censoring ourselves for other people's expectations. I'm very not concerned anymore with other people's expectations about what I should or should or should not be doing. I'm very tuned in to what I should be doing. And one of the things people say is, " Nicole, you know, you've had a successful career, you've overcome a lot. What's your recipe? What's your secret? I'm confident you get asked that question as well. Chance to, and I'd love if there was like a step-by-step checklist I could give people, but that's not how life works. You know, at the end of the day, I think success or my success has come through what you just hit on, which is this idea of integrity to yourself. When you look at the word integrity, the first few definitions are telling the truth and knowing the difference between right and wrong. But suppose you scroll down and look at the word integrity, like definition, number four or five. In that case, it says maintaining fidelity to the whole, being true and loyal. And I think we need to maintain integrity in ourselves, who we are, what we value, and why we prioritize things a certain way. If you know who you are, what it is you value, and why it makes it so much easier to navigate failures, turbulence, headwinds, naysayers, and all of the goods, you know, along the way. So just a few thoughts on that. I think you nailed it when you talked about being true to yourself.


Shaesta Waiz 21:43

Thank you. Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Okay, so let's talk about your professional career and those expectations that you just mentioned. So for the United States Air Force, you served on two operational tours and flew into combat several times. How did you manage the expectations of being a woman flying a fighter jet? Doing these operations flying into combat? How did you manage those expectations? And just the naysayers, the people who are just doubting you? How did


Nicole Malachowski 22:22

you know? Well, first of all, I'd like to say I did fly in three operational squadrons; I got my score and got the typical love right there. You know, one of the beauties, I think of being a pilot and a fighter pilot. I'm sure that you agree that what we do as a profession is very objective. There is a lot of career field where there's a lot of subjectiveness, like whether people like your art or not, whether people think you as a lawyer stood up and gave a good presentation in front of the jury, right? That's very subjective. Whereas with flight, it's pretty darn objective. I mean, there are very measurable things. And in the fighter community, everything we do is on tape. Right. And when we land from a mission training, combat doesn't matter. We always go into debriefing and watch this tape literally frame by frame by frame; debriefing almost always takes longer than the sortie in the mission itself. And it's in that debrief, right, where you are measured to a standard, a set standard. It's in our regulations, it's in our tech orders, it's in our tactics and procedures. And so, very objectively, they can see that the woman is indeed performing up to or exceeding the standard. So at the very beginning of my career in the 1990s, I'll admit that there were a lot of people who weren't happy about my presence in a fighter squadron. I wouldn't exactly call my first fighter squadron the most welcoming environment. And it was difficult because I do believe that I was having to work twice as hard to go half as far I think that old adage is definitely true. I could make the same mistakes as any young lieutenant and woman, and it would be completely blown out of proportion to meet their narrative. See, I told you, the woman wasn't strong enough. See, I told you that women weren't aggressive enough to be fighter pilots. See, I told you, you know, et cetera, on and on. But as I felt this kind of pressure, and I felt some of those naysayers, I just reminded myself that the jet doesn't care about your gender. The jet just wants to be flown. There is indeed a communicated standard of performance. I know what that is. And it's up to me to do the work to meet that performance. And when those things came together over the weeks and the months in that first year, which was hard. Then objectively, you get into the debrief, and the performance and execution are there. And along the way, you change minds. Some of the naysayers realize, well, I don't really have a leg to stand on anymore. And I will tell you that the vast majority, by the end of my first assignment, of the gentleman I was flying with were either very supportive or neutral, which was Good, right? They had come a long way. And then there was a very small, sometimes very vocal minority who just wasn't going to change their mind. And most of them were older. It was a generational issue. And I would remind myself, you know what, someday they're going to retire. And at that point, it's going to be my Air Force. You know, and I just kind of outlasted them. But I love being a fighter pilot because, as a woman in a male-dominated career field, it's a very objective environment. And so things were measurable. At a certain point, you can say what you want about women pilots, but when it's in the debrief, and it's on film, you start to kind of lose that negative leg to stand on, and you either need to be supportive or get out of the way.


Shaesta Waiz 25:43

So I interviewed Patty Wagstaff, aerobatic airshow pilot season one, and she, yeah, she really. She described how when she performed and won the aerobatic championship the first time, she went back at it again a second time and won it and then a third time and won it. And she said she had to do it three times. Because one time wouldn't suffice. Someone would say, Oh, she got lucky. The second time, it would have been a coincidence. So she just purposely went after the championship three times so that it's done as I've proved myself. So yeah, you know, it's just the things we have to do in the beginning to change the perspective and

Nicole Malachowski 26:34

you know, someone like Patty Wagstaff, you know, like, obviously, just global icon, you know, extraordinarily, you know, and she did it because she had the skills, right. And now she, now people don't, you know, kind of come for her because like, it's right there. It's the same thing for me in a way about having successfully been a Thunderbird pilot, you know, even though I had been in three operational fighter squadrons, even though I had safely led my peers in and out of combat. Even though I had every single certification and qualification, you can have as an F 15 fighter pilot, including being an instructor, pilot, evaluator pilot, and mission commander. There were still people, right? And sometimes you can't help it. It gets to you. You're like, what do I have to do? You know, too, what more, My goodness, does I have to do? And when I applied to be a Thunderbird, I wasn't doing it to prove anything. But when I finished and as I look back on that moment, and are on that kind of two years, that's where I finally met, I met that Patty Wagstaff bar, right, that paddywhack stuff. Y'all can say whatever you want, but I did it. You know, and it was done. And at that point, people, you know that naysayer, so kind of went down to a very, very minimal type level? Because at that point, what can you say? You can't fake winning the aerobatic national championship. You can't see flying in a Thunderbird air show. You can either do it or you can't. And so it's nice. I feel the same way you know that Patti did, I guess in that example that you just shared? Once I became an expert, I was like, I've done enough; now I can just be me and do what I want to do.


Shaesta Waiz 28:11

So let's talk about your time with the Thunderbirds. So in 2005, you made history by becoming the very first woman to fly for the Thunderbirds completing about 140 performances. I'm curious to know, Nicole, what was it like to see your aviation career come full circle from when you were five years old? And you saw you know that aircraft fly over you today than showing up at your first performance as a Thunderbird pilot?

Nicole Malachowski 28:41

Yeah, no. I mean, it's a super cool feeling to be chosen to be a Thunderbird, whether you're a pilot, or you're a maintainer, or anybody else on that team, because it's certainly an honor and a privilege. But yeah, there is some sweetness right to that full circle notion. And I knew that out there at these air shows and at these flybys that there were little kids on the ground, right, they were going to be just like me, who are going to look up and go, I want to do that someday, whether it was little, little girls or little boys alike. Or this idea that, wow, this woman did that. That means that I'm capable of doing this dream. And this idea that you are inspiring other people to follow their dreams to not censor themselves to go after big gnarly, complex goals is super exciting. It's also super humbling. And it's something that thunderbirds of all types take very seriously. Because I think it's a huge responsibility to live up to those bright-eyed little kids, you know, on the ground. I mean, what a privilege and what responsibility and the letters and the conversations I would have.

Were just so humbling. I remember my very first air show, and it was in Fort Smith, Arkansas, we landed, and I was just exhausted. I mean, I just I finally exhaled. Like I made it to my first air show, nothing bad happened, I'm safely back on the ground, and we did a good job. And we went over to the autograph line because we always interact with the audience afterward, take pictures, you know, answer questions. And I remember looking over at the five other pilots who I adore to this day, and these guys were having 1015 People lined up in front of them; they were having great conversations. And I had this very distinct aha moment like I looked up at my line. And it was easily a 100 PLUS loan. And the vast, vast majority of people standing in it were young women, between the ages of like eight and 18. And it was at that moment that it hit me. I think this is where I truly understood this. And I think you already knew this, but it took me a while to get there. But it means something. To see someone who looks like you succeed. It means something. Prior to that moment, I had done everything I could to not be different from the guys and to be one of the guys to lay low, including changing my personality, my actions censoring who I was to fit this kind of paradigm of the male fighter pilot. And at that moment, with the eyes of these 100 Girls, I realized; actually, I'm very proud to be a woman fighter pilot. And I'm very honored to be the first woman Thunderbird pilot. So just kind of those realizations in my own growth through that Thunderbird experience was awesome. So those are just some thoughts.


Shaesta Waiz 31:30

Yeah, my gosh, I can't even imagine. I'm just trying to think, had I gone to an air show as a young girl and would have seen you flying, I really think that would have changed my idea and perception of aviation and where women stand. You know, one thing I'll share, Nicole, is that it was probably the most frustrating thing to look at the history of aviation. And number one, not being able to find a lot of women's stories about who is a part of this industry and who helped shape it. But just the lack of diversity, I kept trying to find proof that a woman like me could succeed in aviation, and I just couldn't find anyone, you know, with a similar background of any kind. And then, you know, I started to put pieces together. And I thought, okay, of all the families that left Afghanistan during the Soviet war, you know, we were so lucky, and we barely made it out. And I need to take that as a sense of duty to give back to women, you know, just give some strength to the women in Afghanistan. And like, as I started to embrace my identity in aviation, I realized that the industry was so abrasive, and they were so welcoming and so supportive. And it wasn't that people like me didn't belong in aviation. It's just that there was never anyone like me. And as soon as I started to embrace myself and all that I was, I found my place. And so I guess like one thing that I want to share with people, the audience, whoever's listening, that if you don't find people like you, that's just an opportunity for you to pave the way so others like you can follow your footsteps. And so when you were talking about your story, and flying for the Thunderbirds, and realizing that representation matters, it matters to true women, and you're there. It made me think of that. And I love that you share that. That's so powerful.


Nicole Malachowski 33:34

Well, your story as well. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, of course.


Shaesta Waiz 33:40

I want to talk a little bit about family life balance because you are married to an Air Force pilot, correct. I'm sorry that I don't have it's exact.


Nicole Malachowski 33:51

No, that's okay. He's, he's actually a retired Lieutenant Colonel, and he was a WIZO. A backseater. In the F 15.


Shaesta Waiz 33:57

Oh, very cool. And you have two children? Twins, a boy and a girl? Yes, it's amazing. I want to hear from you. How did you do it? You have two very busy. Has husband and wife, two kids. At the same time, you're balancing the flying, you're balancing? Just everything, like how did you do it? Nicole?


Nicole Malachowski 34:25

I love this question. Because it took me a long time to figure it out. I did figure it out. And I'm about to share it. But if it's one of the things I wish I had figured out sooner. So I hope people are listening, especially young women and men who are wondering how to balance a career with family with, you know, just personal hobbies and interests so that you can give yourself this gift sooner than I was able to figure it out. So the word work work-life balance, or that phrase. It doesn't resonate with me. I haven't found it. I don't know what it is. If anyone figures out how it works, let me know. I like to talk about my life in terms of the phrase work-life harmony. And I think there's a distinct difference between balance and harmony. Because I'm never in perfect balance, I'm always shifting and changing my priorities on any given day, on what role I need to be that day, whether it's wife or mom, or fighter pilot, or whatever is going to change. And so, to me, it's more like an orchestra. You know, sometimes the piano leads, sometimes it's the violins, and we have to be willing to kind of let that ebb and flow. The hardest time in my career, hands down. The most stressful and most difficult was when I was the commander of the 3/33 fighter squadron. So here I am; I took command of an SF teeny fighter squadron, kind of a big deal. I'm a lieutenant colonel. I'm physically fit, mentally fit, and spiritually fit, and things are going well. A few weeks later, the twins turn one year old. And a few weeks after that, my husband left and deployed to Afghanistan for a year. So I'm an essentially single mom of one-year-old twins commanded by an FTD fighter squadron and the wife of an airman deployed to combat. Okay, so that's setting the scene. So I had all these hats to wear the hat of life, the hat of mom, the hat of the squadron commander, and the hat of a fighter pilot. And every single day, I was trying so hard to take 100% of my effort and divide it into 20% Mom, you know, 30% fighter pilot. And it was really frustrating because it's hard to do that. It's hard to divide between all these hats and all of these roles, and you only have 100% of yourself to give. And it was frustrating because, on any given day, I could never be 100% of something because I was trying so hard to be everything. And finally, I just had this moment where I realized this isn't gonna work anymore; I have to do something different. In my mind, here's what I did. I decided to set a schedule and set boundaries. Mind-blowing, right. I started saying no to things. I started communicating my needs to people that I worked with, that I worked for, to friends and family. Things I had never done before. Because I was afraid, I would be seen as weak. I was afraid I would be seen as not a team player; I was afraid I was going to be seen as not giving 100% to the cause, right. And this is how I did it. I set on my calendar on Mondays that I will always be a fighter pilot 100%. I will fly that day. Don't put meetings on my schedule; I got someone else watching the kids boom and the satisfaction of going out there and keeping that skill home. So having the credibility to lead other fighter pilots and wizards was vital. On Wednesdays, I was always 100% squadron commander, with nothing else on my calendar. I would do all my meetings, answer all the emails, right, all the performance reports and administrative junk I had to do, right. And I told people I would I'm not going to be home to put the kids in bed that night. I'm going to be late. That's just the way it is. That's Wednesdays and Fridays; I'm 100% wife, even if it meant just FaceTiming and eating ice cream with my husband in a different timezone and Afghanistan. He was my priority 100%, And then Saturdays and Sundays, it's my kids do not bother me, call me to ask for anything else because I am being 100% Mom. And when I gave structure and set boundaries and communicated those boundaries, it allowed me to at least one day a week be 100% Full in each and every one of those individual roles. Instead of trying to spread myself thinly across all of them. There became satisfaction. I was proud again of being good in each of those roles. And when that happened, my stress levels went down. And when you transmit your expectations and boundaries to other people, here's what happens. They respected them. Who knew? Right? Like how could I didn't do this sooner? And so that's how I came to this aha moment of work-life harmony. And that's how I still run my schedule between my different roles to this day. Wow,


Shaesta Waiz 38:55

I want to take that recording and just play it every Monday morning to remind myself that it's harmony. It's not balanced. But gosh, Nicole, I wish I would have known this sooner because there is a great sense of dissatisfaction when you can't be 100% pilot or mom or wife or whatever. So. And all of that you've shared. Where was the time for Nicole? I'm curious, how did you squeeze that in so that you had time to reset and reflect and just feel good for yourself?


Nicole Malachowski 39:33

Right? I think it's important, you know that you do things for yourself. And I think it's important that those things are often by yourself. So people may disagree with that. But I think I think when you're comfortable by yourself, and you can have fun by yourself. I'm the type of person, and I told you earlier, I've been an introvert since I was born. And so maybe that's just part of my personality is finding those moments to be alone and not have to do anything. I used to kind of avoid it or not do those things because I felt guilty or because I felt like I was being lazy, right? Like, I could be doing so much more stuff. And I found that if you give yourself space to be alone, with your thoughts with your breath, right, you only need some days, five or 10 minutes. This isn't like it has to be some sort of giant vacation, you know, or party, you know, or hours to set aside for yourself. I mean, literally, it's taking time, an extra five minutes in the shower. It's taking time to read a book. And maybe it's only four pages that day, but it's something you want it to do. For me, honestly, it's about going outside; there's something about fresh air when I get stressed. I just go outside, and I feel the sun. And I try to feel the wind. And I breathe. And I am a huge believer in breathing exercises when you're feeling stressed and when you need kind of that time to be alone and to rejuvenate. So I do all the different breathing exercises. And they work for me. And I think when I let go of this idea that this alone, rejuvenating time always has to be a five-day vacation. And I realized you can take care of yourself in these small little increments. And it's about recognizing that moment, that time you get your shoulder, your shoulder starts to hunch, you know, you start to get a headache you get that night you have that constant night of anxiety in your stomach. That's your signal, right? That's your signal to go do you whether it's for five minutes or 25 minutes or five hours, whatever, ride that bike, go outside, read that book. Tell people, so tell your kids, look, mommy just needs 10 minutes, I'll be downstairs in 10 minutes, you know, go on your iPads. That's fine. I'll be back in 10 minutes, you know. So I think it was finally learning to recognize one of my physical signals that I needed a break and to the grace of giving myself the time to do it and realizing that that time doesn't have to be a huge deal. It can be little smatterings throughout the day. And this is just another plug for breathing exercises for everybody out there.


Shaesta Waiz 42:10

I'm gonna have to look into that. Okay, I want to shift things a little bit and talk about the present, in 2017. You retired from the Air Force as a colonel after 21 years of service. And upon retiring you, I think you found out that you had a tick-borne illness. Can you talk about that?


Nicole Malachowski 42:37

Yeah, you bet. I like to remind people that I was medically retired against my will. I went out drinking and screaming and completely unexpected. It was very unwelcome in my life. And it was very unceremonious because I had fallen ill with late-stage tick-borne illness or what they call neurological tick-borne illness. While I was in the military, I mean, my career was going great, right? I was a full bird, Colonel. I was basically Michelle Obama's military aide serving in the White House. And one day, I woke up, and I was locked in. I couldn't move or speak. I had to wait for my husband to find me at home people were wondering why I wasn't at work. I mean, it was a scary moment. Imagine going from a physically and mentally spiritually fit fighter pilot to completely broken in an instant and completely dependent on other people. For all of my activities of daily living overnight, my husband became my caregiver. Overnight, he became a single dad to then five-year-old twins. I mean, this was crazy, right? And I spent nine months well; first of all, it took medicine way too long to figure out what was wrong with me. This is why it ended up that I was at the late stage, which meant the infection had reached my central nervous system. More specifically, for me, it had reached and damaged my brainstem. And so, when we finally got the diagnosis and started treatment at that point, I wasn't talking. I was in a wheelchair, and my husband was talking for me, you know, II said what I was thinking, which was Alright, great. What's the treatment? How fast will it be? And how long can she get back in the jet? Because he knew that's what I wanted, right? That's who I am. Right? How much till she can put her uniform back on and go lead airman. That's my, that's my love, right? And they said I was never sitting there. And I remember the doctor saying because I could hear everything. It's never going to happen. You know, her treatments are going to take at least two years minimum. And we think we might be able to return her to some level of function, but she'll never be 100%, And she's never going to fly planes again. And to hear that moment and not be able to react because you can't speak. Oh, man, right. You know, it's I don't even have words to describe how I felt at that moment. And I spent the next nine months bedridden; I couldn't walk, talk, read or write. I spent another year in rehab, learning how to do all of these things again. And in that nearly two-year period of being bedridden and housebound, I lost my job overnight, right? I lost my identity as an Air Force officer. I've been wearing my nation's uniform since I was 17. I lost my profession. As a pilot, I lost my means of providing for my family. And this was devastating. And in the meantime, the Air Force moved on. And to be honest, in the meantime, many of my friends and family moved on. It's very hard when you have a complex chronic illness. People don't normally understand it, especially if it's an invisible illness. There's a stigma still that comes with that. And I remember the day of my retirement, 29 December 2017, there was no ceremony. Nobody came by; nobody from the Air Force called. They mailed me my retirement paperwork; thank you for your service. And I laid on that couch feeling sorry for myself, I laid on my couch upset, and I cried. And I go back to her saying, cry it out, man, let it go, I had every right to be sad. At that moment, I had every right to be upset. And I did. And I had a pity party, a well-deserved pity party with the love of my kids and my husband there, you know, and the very few friends that stuck around. And I had that for a few days. And it was low, it was dark, it was dark. And then I was lying on the couch I laid on one day; I remember just sitting there thinking, who am I? You know, what is my contribution to society anymore. Um, it hit me these words, Inc, say it came from God or the universe or Mother Nature, whatever your belief is, that's fine by me. It came to me these words, yield to overcome. Those are the three words yield to overcome. And what that meant to me at the moment was not about quitting, surrendering, or giving up. It was about accepting the facts, the truth of the moment. It wasn't about me sitting there anymore and talking about all the things I've lost and all the things I can't do anymore because I still struggled to read and write; I still have a balanced deficit. To this day, I cannot control my heart rate, temperature, or blood pressure; as I said, I read and write at about a third-grade level. It was about accepting all that that this is me. I didn't ask to get sick. I didn't ask to be misdiagnosed for too long. I didn't ask to be disabled. I didn't ask to lose my job. But this is where I'm at. So Nicole, stop asking yourself the wrong questions. Start asking yourself the right questions. What is it that you have at your disposal? Where are your strengths now? What is it you can do today to move forward and yield to overcome mantras, something I've used for many of the different hardships I've faced since then? Maybe those words will help those you know who are listening now. It's about controlling what you can control. It's about choosing to be efficient with your limited time, talent, and treasure. I like to tell people I am now at a point where I reminisce about the past. But I will never ruminate on the past. Because, as you know, Shaesta is right; the runway behind you is always unusable. All you ever have is the runway that's in front of you. And that's what yield to overcome means to me. And that's how it got me through that moment.


Shaesta Waiz 48:29

Wow, Nicole, oh my goodness, I'm just processing everything you shared and


Nicole Malachowski 48:35

how it's a lot. I know.


Shaesta Waiz 48:37

I know. It's a lot. But I'm, I'm just in awe at your mindset and your ability to be positive, and your strength to keep going because I feel like you've witnessed so much loss as you shared. You lost your identity, your career, and you're close to your friends. And then you know you're my gosh, so much strain. I mean, I know you had this moment where everything turned around. But where did that strength come from? I mean, I'm just trying to think about, well, how's


Nicole Malachowski 49:13

Yeah, the strength came from a few places. Let's talk about I think the most important thing is my husband, right? Boy, I'll tell you what you learned pretty quickly when you definitely married the right person. And continues to far exceed his wedding vows, um, you know, someone who sticks by you even in your lowest lows and even when you change, you know, my personality has changed. I have PTSD now. It does impact who I am, how I interact, how I think of the world, you know, and he has willingly changed with me. You know, this is a guy who became a stay-at-home dad and a single dad over, you know, night. I couldn't interact and play with my kids for almost two years. You know, and I look at the positives of that, right people say that really must have been horrible for your kids and your husband. Yeah. Right, these kinds of illnesses and these kinds of unexpected headwinds that we all encounter. Like they impact entire families, they impact networks. But I think about the positives, right? My children learned about resilience. They learned about resurgence and reinvention. They learned that life isn't always going to go your way and that you're going to be thrown curveballs; they learned about what a good marriage in love really is by watching what happens. So there are so many like, I guess, positives in a way that came from it. So straight from my family is one, my love it my husband; I always knew my kids were watching, even though I couldn't talk and interact and be there at their activities. They were watching me, and they were learning from me. And the other thing, you know, is I used to think my legacy was always going to be like, that I was this fighter pilot, one of the first women that I, you know, people would remember me for being a Thunderbird, or that I was a full bird colonel, or maybe even someday that I became a general, right, that that was my legacy. And I now know that that was never supposed to be my legacy. I did all those things, the fighter pilot thing, the leadership things to garner and home, the characteristics, the skills, and the traits that I needed to survive my illness, to reinvent myself afterward, to give voice to the voiceless now as a patient advocate, and in fact, I impact more people more positively now doing what I do today because of my illness. Then if I had ever stayed in the United States Air Force, in a lot of ways, I would be completely comfortable and at peace with the idea that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be.


Shaesta Waiz 51:46

And through all of this, you are very active in promoting awareness around the illness that you have as well as Lyme disease. Can you talk about some of the organizations you're a part of that you're advocating for?


Nicole Malachowski 52:04

Absolutely, thank you for the opportunity to do that. You know, so indeed, I'm sitting here staring; I always carry my discharge paperwork right here, and the audience can't see it. Still, you can see my discharge paperwork, right? This is what it says 100% unfit for duty due to chronic systemic tick-borne illness, including relapsing fever, impaired cognition, impaired executive function, malaise, joint pain, muscle pain, and sensory disorder; that's what I live with. So let's just like you know, you know, I guess, you know, put that out there, a tick-borne illness. My point is that it is a big deal. When not accurately diagnosed in a timely fashion and thoroughly treated, it can lead to lifelong disability for upwards of 20 to 30% of people who get bit. Why most of America doesn't understand or know about that is unacceptable. What happens to me is preventable. All right. So through education and awareness, I am driven to this new purpose of educating public awareness, so they don't end up like me, making sure medical doctors and Frontline medical providers understand how to recognize and accurately diagnose and treat these illnesses. And then, I work with policymakers to ensure that we're advancing federal funding for improved diagnostics, therapeutics, and understanding and policies surrounding the tick-borne illness. So, for example, I have sat several times on the Department of Health and Human Services tick-borne diseases working for the group; they've now written three Reports to Congress; if you would like to know the current state of affairs, The Good, the Bad, and the ugly of tick-borne illness in our nation. Look at those Reports to Congress; I was proud to contribute to those. I'm also a member of the congressionally directed medical research program tick-borne diseases panel, which means that I'm one of the very few patients or caregivers who get to read, assess and score scientific grants federal grant money that Congress allows for tick-borne illness. I love that job is the only place in the whole government where patients are allowed an equal seat at the table. And it's where I learned the science. So often, people look at me and go, Well, you're not a Ph.D. You're not a doctor. I'll tell you what, I go on Jeopardy any day with your primary care physician on tick-borne illness, and I will win. My Ph.D. stands for the patient has disease. All right. I'm on the board of the Dean Center for tick-borne illness at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which is part of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School program. Those are all the people who saved my life, and I am grateful to them. I am also on the board of the live line Foundation, which provides funding for research and grants to treat children who are enduring late stages and persistent symptoms like me of tick-borne illnesses. And I'm also on the board of invisible International, which is working to reduce the stigma around invisible illnesses, including late-stage tick-borne illness. So that's a long answer to your very short question. But let me tell you this, it's my purpose these days; I hope you can tell that what happened to me is preventable. I hope that the people listening will do whatever they can on any given day to prevent the bike. Hike in the center of trails. Tuck your pants into your socks when you're outdoors. Treat your clothing and gear with permethrin, treat your skin with DEET or Picard or some other tick repellent, and do daily tick checks on yourself, your children, and your animals. And in the event, you find a tick, remove it safely. The only way to do it is with fine tip tweezers; please don't pull it off. Don't use Vaseline or oils or a match. When you do those things, you agitate the tick, and it actually will throw up its gut microbiome into you, thereby increasing your risk of infection. To find trip tweezers only. And never, ever get rid of your tick. Always put it in a Ziploc bag and put it in the freezer. Should symptoms develop, You can test that tick, and it'll help you and your doctors better target your treatment. Because ticks carry a heck of a lot more than Lyme disease. So there's my advocacy work for the day, Shaesta,


Shaesta Waiz 56:18

know that that's really helpful. If anybody wants to donate to the research or any foundations, is there a place that you know of where they can go to support this effort?


Nicole Malachowski 56:31

Absolutely. So some of the ones I've already mentioned, you can look up the live line Foundation; we're always looking for donations to help children. We also are looking for one of my favorites, invisible international accepts donations. One of the things that they're very focused on is increasing the education, awareness, and knowledge of our frontline medical providers, which is where of course, this is going to start. So we've talked about helping children; we talked about helping medical providers. I think one of the best places, a nonstop one-stop shop for all things tick-borne illness for patients, for people like you and me, would be Lyme, disease.org. They do a great job of educating the public, connecting them with knowledgeable doctors, keeping up with the latest in policy, and moving this conversation forward. So those would be the three that come to mind the live line Foundation, invisible International, and Lyme disease.org. Thank you for that.


Shaesta Waiz 57:24

Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that information. So we're going to wrap up our conversation, Nicole. It's been a pleasure. I've learned so much from you. I really hope a book is in your future. I know if not, you have a lot of content on LinkedIn on your website, where you're sharing all the lessons you've learned, and you do such an amazing way of sharing those lessons and making them relatable to people. As we kind of walk out the door. I have just two very quick questions for you to wrap up. Number one, have you seen the new Top Gun movie? Am I curious? I don't know.


Nicole Malachowski 58:02

I haven't seen it yet. Okay, waiting for kind of the lines to die down. I am very excited to see it. And I am going to absolutely go see it. I saw the trailer. And the flying scenes look amazing compared to the first Top Gun. I'll let you know how realistic they are. I'm just very excited to see women fighter pilots represented. So I'm very excited about tucked into


Shaesta Waiz 58:26

okay. Oh, me too. I haven't seen it yet. But I cannot wait. And this is the question that I ask all of our guests. What is the one piece of advice that you have received as a woman in aviation that has been very effective or powerful that you would like to share with our audience? This


Nicole Malachowski 58:45

may seem simple, but I also apply it to other parts of my life right, personally and professionally; what I do now, but when I was 12 years old, I went on my very first flight. And the guy let me do a takeoff, the pilot, you know, and he put my hand on the throttle, and I had my hand on the stick, and I started slowly moving the throttle forward very meekly. I'll never forget; he grabbed my hand and chanted the throttle for January all the way to the wall like, dude, flight. You remember to hit that to me at that moment. He said, Just fly the plane. Don't ever let the plane fly you. And I think that applies to life, right? Fly your aircraft. Don't ever let everything else fly; you define what you want to do. You go execute it, and you define that success for yourself. So just fly the plane. Don't ever let the aircraft fly you.


Shaesta Waiz 59:35

I love it. I love it. All right. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your time. Thank you for opening up. Your stories have been amazing. This interview is by far one of my favorites. Thank you for your contributions. Just thank you.


Nicole Malachowski 59:52

Well, thank you so much for having me. And thank you for being an inspiration to so many people, including me. It's a joy to have Becky.


Shaesta Waiz 59:59

Thank you, Nicole.