Video: Woman pilot breaks sound, gender barriers

By Kerry Sanders Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/9/2007 9:13:03 AM ET 2007-01-09T14:13:03

It is the most exclusive club in the Air Force. The Thunderbirds have had only 163 pilots since the team's creation in 1953 — each one accomplished, confident, the best of the best. And every one of them a man, until now.

Thirty-one-year-old Maj. Nicole Malachowski is at the controls of Thunderbird No. 3.

"It's not about Nicole Malachowski," she says. "It's our whole team."

But she is unique — the first woman Thunderbird pilot.

"That's a label to me," says Malachowski. "I am a fighter pilot, that's what I do. But what I am is an American."

Long before she thought about breaking gender barriers, Malachowski was all about breaking the sound barrier. At just 5 years old, she saw an F-4 overhead and innocently announced to her parents, one day that will be me up there.

"As a little girl, I have to say, her room wasn't a girl's room. It was a cockpit!" laughs her mother, Cathy Ellingwood.

Video: First female Thunderbird pilot Malachowski learned to fly before she learned to drive. Her single-mindedness took her to the Air Force Academy and flying F-15s in combat over Kosovo and Iraq.

Her husband, Paul, an F-15 weapons officer, encouraged her to try out for the Thunderbirds. The Air Force began letting women apply only six years ago.

How competitive is it to get into the cockpit of one of these planes? Just consider the statistics. There are more than 14,000 pilots in the U.S. Air Force — about 3,700 of those fighter jocks. But in that group, only 70 are women. About 100 or so people apply every year for just three slots.

To the children who flock to see her, especially little girls, she's a rock star in a flight suit.

"Oftentimes, when people come to the autograph line, they're like: 'Wow, I didn't know there there was a woman up there flying!'" says Malachowski. "And that's a compliment."

It's a first, and already, there are plans for more Thunderbird pilots just like her.

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