Maj. Richard Rusnok was one of four test pilots hand-selected to demonstrate the Marines’ amphibious air power with the first short takeoffs and vertical landings of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.
In February 2012, the John H. Glenn squadron of the Marine Corps Aviation Association selected Rusnok as test pilot of the year for his role in the successful embarkation and deployment of more than 250 people and 140,000 pounds of supplies and equipment.
Why did you join the Marine Corps?
I was extremely impressed with the caliber of the Marine Officers and SNCOs that I interacted with as a midshipman at the Naval Academy. I also believed that as an institution the Marine Corps had it right from the MAGTF concept to the warfighting ethos and I wanted to be a part of that group.
How long have you been flying?
Since August 1999 – approaching 13 years.
How does flying the F-35B Lightning II compare to other jets flown?
F-35 is incredibly easy to fly which is a testament to the personnel who conceived and built the flight control system. The F-35B in STOVL mode is unmatched in stability and raw power. There are two primary benefits to this level of stability. The obvious one is safety. The aircraft does everything it can to protect the pilot and itself from exceeding an aerodynamic or structural limit. The second benefit is that the less a pilot needs to concentrate on basic stick and rudder skills, the more he/she can devote to fighting the aircraft and fulfilling the MAGTF commander’s intent.
How did you become the test pilot?
I attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River in 2009. All military developmental test pilots must attend either that school, the USAF Test Pilot School, or an accredited foreign military test pilot school. One of the primary reasons that I became a test pilot was that I wanted to ensure that the next generation of Marines have the best TACAIR platform that this nation could develop.
Why do you think the F-35B is better for the Marine Corps than other models like the F-35A?
The F-35B offers incredible basing flexibility to the Marine Corps – from ships at sea, to small forward operating bases, to main air bases. Most importantly, the three variants of the F-35 share the same mission systems components and software. In conventional flight, the three variants have essentially the same flight characteristics with some minor exceptions. The cockpits are virtually identical and there are only a few things that would clue you off that you are in one variant or the other if you did not already know. The transition between different variants is pretty seamless. Because of this similarity, the three services flying this jet are already working to develop common tactics which will only benefit the MAGTF and the joint commander in the long run.
Did you have any doubts on the success of the project?
No. That is not to say that we have not had stumbles along the way. Our aircraft are continually being upgraded with new hardware and software to test the fixes to the problems that are uncovered during testing. This is what developmental test is all about. That being said, our sortie and reliability rates continue to improve and there are now production aircraft at Eglin AFB. Those are huge measures of success.
Do you have any success stories in the Marine Corps?
Well, I think that what we have collectively done over the past two years here at the Patuxent River F-35 Integrated Test Force is probably the best example. After only completing 10 vertical landings in 2010, we completed 268 vertical landings in 2011 and put the aircraft into a representative operational environment for the first time aboard USS Wasp.
How is the F-35B going to change future MAGTF operations?
The biggest change will be putting a 5th Generation stealthy fighter on the flight decks of the LHA/LHD class amphibious assault ships. That makes those ships and the accompanying MEU(SOC)s an even more potent and relevant strategic asset for the nation. Across all size MAGTFs, F-35s will allow the Marine Corps to gain access to increasingly hostile airspace in which current generation aircraft would be unable to fight. At the same time F-35s can also operate on the lower end of the spectrum across the six functions of Marine Corps aviation.
What’s your favorite aircraft to fly?
I have been fortunate to fly many different aircraft in my career. I grew up in the Harrier community and currently fly F-35B/C as well as F/A-18. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the AV-8B. It’s certainly a pilot’s airplane and requires you to be in the loop from takeoff to landing. Testing the F-35, however, has allowed me to take an airplane to areas that it has never been before and, at times, to areas beyond where the fleet will ever go to. That is really exciting to do and it’s an amazing to see the aircraft mature every day.
Do you ever take snacks with you on the really long flights?
Most of the time we are too busy on our test flights to even consider snacking. I always have a water bottle with me, however, since it is very easy to get dehydrated while pulling G’s and while breathing oxygen. Even then I only drink when I have an extended break in the action or we are refueling on the ground.