By Alex Quade
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WICHITA, Kansas (CNN) -- Air Force Maj. Nicole Malachowski says she always has wanted to fly -- and fly fast. She got her private pilot's certificate before she got her driver's license, and she's been soaring ever since.
When Congress changed the rules in the early 1990s, allowing women to fly combat missions, her future was sealed. Now at 31, Malachowski is the newest member of the Air Force's Thunderbird demonstration squadron -- the first woman on any U.S. military high performance jet team.
"People talk about glass ceilings or breaking barriers," she said. "I don't even understand those concepts. Those words have actually never existed in my life." (Watch Malachowski fly with the Thunderbirds -- 4:00 )
She pointed to her name on the side of her F-16. "I'm so glad I live in a country where at 5 years old I can say, 'Hey I'm going to grow up and be a fighter pilot,' and here it is."
Even before she flew the No. 3 jet on the right wing of the Thunderbirds' diamond formation, Malachowski had an impressive career as a pilot.
After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996, she excelled in the U.S. Air Force. She eventually served as an F-15E instructor pilot and a flight commander for a squadron of fighter jets based in the United Kingdom. Over her decade-long military career, she has amassed more than 1,600 flight hours. Nearly 200 of those hours are in combat zones -- Iraq and Kosovo, where she provided close-air support for U.S. ground troops.
"When you go into combat, you kind of get into the zone like a professional athlete," she said. "You're thinking about the facts; you're thinking about the execution of the mission; you go out there and you do it. You deal with contingencies airborne, which could be getting fired at by some ground forces."
It is this take-charge attitude and her competence as a pilot that earned her the respect of her peers, despite being an overwhelming minority in her field. There are only 85 female fighter pilots in the Air Force, compared with 4,400 male fighter pilots.
"She's proven herself, and that's why she's here. And it really has nothing to do with her being female or not," her Thunderbird team leader, Lt. Col. Kevin Robbins, said.
Another of her teammates, Maj. Steve Horton, agreed.
"To us, it's not she's the best female officer out there. She's the best officer out there for this job."
Like her teammates, Malachowski doesn't think being a woman sets her apart.
"To me it's just me doing my job," she said. "There is no way that any one person can do this job alone. It is an absolute team effort. You're here to look at the man and the woman to the left and to the right to applaud their strengths to work together to get a single mission done."
"There are a lot of fantastic women, female fighter pilots who are fighting the global war on terror right now," she added.
Malachowski said being the first female pilot with the Thunderbirds isn't even her greatest achievement. She's proudest of leading the first fighter-jet team to provide security for Iraq's democratic elections.
"I was able to witness with my very own eyes, a very historic day. We're talking about thousands of Iraqi people, literally risking their own lives to stand in line to get the opportunity to vote, to get the opportunity that we as Americans sometimes take for granted," she said.
Despite her nonchalance, she's paved the way for future elite female fighter pilots. Young girls clamor for her autograph at testosterone-packed air shows across the nation. They want an closer look at their airborne heroine. And another woman, Capt. Samantha Weeks, is in training for the next Thunderbirds pilot spot.
But for Malachowski, this is just the execution of another mission, her life's dream.
"It's when you land and you take off that G-suit and you look at your buddies, you have that 'ah-ha' moment where you relax and go, 'Phew!'" Malachowski said.
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