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Youngest maintainer at Red Flag launches America’s youngest jet

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- The future belongs to the young. Airman 1st Class Nathan Kosters, the youngest F-35A Lightning II crew chief in the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, was born in 1996. “The Macerana” 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.

Kosters, a 20-year-old native of Byron Center, Michigan, and his fellow F-35A maintainers, are generating combat sorties with America’s youngest jet at exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base.

This iteration of Air Force’s premier air combat exercise started Jan. 23 and runs through Feb. 10, 2017. Participants include U.S. and allied nations' combat air forces. The exercise provides 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.”

Growing up, he learned hard work from his father who was a carpenter. He learned how to get up early and work until the job was done. The two worked side by side, even through his father’s cancer treatments. Kosters’ dad survived and taught him how to “work with his hands.”

“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 high school and working construction for a while. He wanted to leave the Midwest, get an education and see the world. High scores on his entrance test and the F-35 maintenance world hungry for new talent, put him in the pipeline.

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

“It’s cool working with the latest technology,” Kosters said. “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.”

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 Senior Master Sgt. Robert Soto, the 34th AMU lead production superintendent.

“It’s not glorious. 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,” Kosters said. “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.”

Music has come a long way since “The Macarena,” and 20 years passed before a studio tried to make an “Independence Day” without Will Smith. The F-16 is still flying, but its successor is here.