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Red Flag strengthens F-35A maintainers

F-35A at Red Flag 19-1

Airman 1st Class Monique Fajardo, 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, launches an F-35A Lightning II at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Pilots and maintainers from the 388th Fighter Wing's 4th Fighter Squadron and 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit are participating in Red Flag 19-1 at Nellis AFB, Nevada. This is wing's second Red Flag with the F-35A, America's most advanced multi-role fighter, which brings game-changing stealth, lethality and interoperability to the modern battlefield. Red Flag is the Air Force's premier combat exercise and includes units from across the Air Force and allied nations. The 388th is the lead wing for Red Flag 19-1.  (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. – After more than two weeks launching F-35A sorties at Red Flag 19-1 here, maintainers with the 388th Fighter Wing are impressed with the jet and the young airmen who help maintain it.

The 4th Fighter Squadron and 4th Aircraft maintenance unit brought 12 jets and more than 200 Airmen from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Red Flag for the three week exercise. Red Flag is the Air Force’s premier combat exercise and pits a friendly “blue” force against an enemy “red” force in challenging combat scenarios.

“This is about as close as you’re going to get to a deployed environment. We’ve been able to sustain a very aggressive schedule and keep the mission-capable rate high,” said Master Sgt. Paul DeGrechie, production superintendent with the 4th AMU. “The F-35 was designed to be maintenance friendly, and that’s been the case here.”

Working around the clock, the Airmen have launched more than a dozen sorties a day, and so far, have maintained a higher than 90 percent mission capable rate. They have been able to fine-tune their operations and build off of lessons-learned to be more proactive with “pre-maintenance,” said Capt. Dayna Grant, officer in charge of the 4th AMU.    

“We’ve been able to use this to gain a lot of experience for our young Airmen across the board,” Grant said. “This is preparing them for the kind of ops tempo and working environment we’d experience if we were called upon to deploy.”

Working in a simulated combat environment helps not only train the Airmen, but exposes them to working life away from their home station, alongside other units,  which allows them to see how the contribute to the mission of a much larger force.

“In this environment they don’t feel like they’re feeding the 'sortie monster.’ They are part of something bigger. They are learning and growing, gaining the trust of their supervisors and each other,” DeGreiche said. “There is a real sense of pride to see the unity that forms. They are all working together, stepping outside of their comfort zones to pitch in.”

Being at Red Flag allows the Airmen to focus entirely on the mission and they have more time to broaden their skills. Airman 1st Class Monique Fajardo, who joined the Air Force two years ago, has been able to learn and practice things that are not part of her normal job as an avionics technician. 

“They’ve been showing me how to do things that crew chiefs do, prepping the jet, interacting with the pilots, marshaling a jet,” Fajardo said. “It’s been really fun.”