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Youngest maintainer launches youngest jet at Red Flag

Air Force Airman 1st Class Nathan Kosters, the youngest F-35 crew chief in the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, was born in 1996. "The Macarena" somehow was No. 1 on the charts, "Independence Day" topped the box office, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon had already been flying for 22 years.


Air Force Airman 1st Class Nathan Kosters, a crew chief with the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, prepares to launch an F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter during Red Flag 17-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb. 7, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

The 20-year-old native of Byron Center, Michigan, and his fellow F-35A Lightning II maintainers generated combat sorties with America's youngest jet at Red Flag.

The Jan. 23-to-Feb. 10 iteration of Air Force's premier air combat exercise included both U.S. and allied nations' combat air forces, providing aircrews the experience of multiple, intensive air combat sorties in the safety of a training environment.

"It's pretty amazing. It's like a family atmosphere," Kosters said. "We're extremely busy, working long hours, but everyone pulls together and makes sure the mission is successful."

Inspired by His Father

Growing up, he learned hard work from his father, a carpenter. He learned how to get up early and work until the job was done. The two worked side by side, he said, even throughout his father's cancer treatments. "He is an inspiration to me -- never giving up," Kosters said. "Working was a great opportunity to be close to him."

Kosters joined the Air Force a little over a year ago after graduating from high school and working in construction for awhile, because he wanted to leave the Midwest, get an education and see the world, he said. He got high scores on his entrance test, and the F-35 maintenance world, hungry for new talent, put him in the pipeline.

The F-35's first flight was in December 2006, when Kosters was just ten years old. (Photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen. (Cropped))

"I didn't really know anything about the F-35," Kosters said. "I knew it was the newest jet, and I heard all the negative press about it. My dad and I started reading up on it. He probably knew more about it than I did."

After technical training and hands-on experience, Kosters said, he is happy he is where he is.

"It's cool, working with the latest technology, he added. "I don't want to make it sound like maintenance is easy. It's just advanced. It's great to be able to plug in a laptop and talk to the aircraft."

Valuable Experience

Based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the 34th Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit are the first combat-coded F-35A units in the Air Force. They were created by bringing together a team of experienced pilots and maintainers from across the Air Force's F-35 test and training units. Kosters was one of the first pipeline maintainers to join the 34th AMU straight from basic training and tech school, and Red Flag is valuable experience for that greener group.

"At home, our young maintenance airmen are practicing and learning every day. Here, we're able to put that training into a realistic scenario and watch them succeed and learn how to overcome challenges," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Robert Soto, lead production superintendent for the 34th AMU.

"It's not glorious," Kosters said. "You're not working 9 to 5. Your uniform is not going to stay nice and clean. But, next to being a pilot, I feel like I have the best job there is. It's gratifying to see those jets take off."

Kosters said he and his fellow maintainers take pride as they hear from pilots how their aircraft are performing in the fight.

"It's had its doubters in the world, but it's nice to prove people wrong with all eyes on us, especially here," Kosters said. "The first couple missions, it was the F-35 versus everyone else, and our guys were showing them that the F-35 is a superior plane. We're like varsity."

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