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Woman joins Air Force Thunderbirds

Naming of pilot comes amid debate over women in military

By Larry Shaughnessy
CNN Washington Bureau

Capt. Malachowski, seen here while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, begins Thunderbird training this fall.
Las Vegas (Nevada)
House of Representatives
Operation Iraqi Freedom

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Just weeks after a high-profile debate about the role of women in the military, the Air Force is putting a woman in one of its most prestigious and high-profile jobs. Capt. Nicole Malachowski has been named the first woman pilot in the Air Force's world-famous Thunderbirds demonstration squadron.

"Women have been an integral part of the Thunderbird team for decades," Malachowski said in an Air Force press release sent out Thursday. "The women of yesterday and today's Air Force maintain a tradition of excellence, and it is that heritage that has given me this exciting responsibility of being the first female Thunderbird pilot."

Every year millions of spectators visit air shows to see the Thunderbirds perform precision and formation flying routines. The unit is a major component of Air Force recruiting efforts.

Malachowski, a 1996 graduate of the Air Force Academy, will fly in the No. 3 right wing position when the Thunderbirds are in their famous flying diamond formation.

The Blue Angels, the Navy's precision jet demonstration team, has never had a female pilot.

The announcement comes just weeks after a contentious debate in the House of Representatives on a proposed amendment that would have further limited the roles of women in the military. The amendment was eventually defeated.

One congresswoman was pleased about the announcement. "From my position on the House Armed Services Committee, I continue to seek ways to expand opportunities for women serving in our military, the finest fighting force in the world," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, the Democrat from California. "I congratulate Capt. Malachowski on her accomplishment."

Rep. Heather Wilson, the Republican from New Mexico, herself a graduate of the Air Force Academy, told CNN, "The Thunderbirds have always represented America and the Air Force to the world. I'm glad Capt. Malachowski is joining the team. She'll be a great role model for young people who dream of a career flying and serving their country."

The process of earning a spot on the Thunderbirds takes months. Each candidate must have 1,000 hours flying in a fighter or trainer jet. Beginning in January, candidates submit letters of recommendation, a biography and a letter explaining why he or she would like to fly with the Thunderbirds.

After a series of interviews and a flight test at the Thunderbirds home base, five finalists are chosen. Three new members are selected from those finalists.

Malachowski recently served four months in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Las Vegas, Nevada, native flies F-15 Strike Eagle fighter jets and is assigned to an Air Force unit based in England.

As a member of the Thunderbirds, she will fly F-16 Fighting Falcons and spend more than 200 days on the road next year.

She'll begin training in the F-16 in November and will make her public debut with the Thunderbirds next March.

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