Bob Cardenas

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The Air Force pilots flying the B-2 bombers over Afghanistan weren't born when Bob Cardenas began flight tests on Jack Northrop's Flying Wing in December, 1947. Nor were they born two months earlier when Cardenas flew the B-29 that dropped Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier. General Cardenas retired from the Air Force in 1973, and someday those B-2 pilots will benefit from the work he is currently doing on Veterans' issues. In this month's Profile, he talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about gliders, bombers, flying wings and the wrong stuff in "The Right Stuff."

ProfileGen. Robert L. Cardenas was born March 10, 1920, in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. At age five, he moved to San Diego, Calif., with his parents. He built model airplanes and helped local glider pilots with dope-and-fabric projects. Being the top student in math and physics at his high school earned him a two-year pre-engineering scholarship to San Diego State University. His military career began in 1939 when he became a member of the California National Guard. He entered aviation cadet training in September 1940 and received his pilot wings and commission as second lieutenant in July 1941. Cardenas was sent to Twentynine Palms, Calif., where he established a U.S. Army Air Forces glider training school and began his career as a test pilot. He flew combat in B-24s for the 506th Bombardment Squadron. Shot down over Germany in March 1944, he escaped into Switzerland and then into France prior to D-Day. Returning to Wright Field, he was assigned to the Flight Test Division where he evaluated the Arado 234 — Germany's first jet bomber — and the XB-42A and the all-jet XB-43. In the summer of 1947 he was designated as officer-in-charge of operations for the X-1 test team at Muroc and principal project pilot for the YB-49 flying wing bomber.

On October 14th, 1947, he flew the B-29 carrying the X-1 in which Gen. Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound. Two months later he began flight test work with the YB-49 Flying Wing. In 1955 Gen. Cardenas completed his degree at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. He was assigned to Okinawa, Japan, where he served as commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Group and then as commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. Following tours as chief of the Aircraft and Guided Missiles Program Division at Headquarters U.S. Air Force and as chief of the Special Operations Division at U.S. Strike Command, in Tampa, Fla., he returned to Okinawa as commander of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing just before the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, and for the next two years he engaged in F-105 combat operations over Southeast Asia. After assignments as commander of the 835th Air Division, commander of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and vice commander of 16th Air Force, he served as the U.S. deputy to Live Oak under Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. As chief of the National Strategic Target List Division of the Joint Strategic Targeting Planning Staff at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., during his final active-duty assignment from 1971-73, he was involved in the development of the U.S. Nuclear War Plan. After retirement from the Air Force, he held a variety of executive positions with industry and was appointed to major advisory and policy groups by President Reagan. He has been active on Veterans' issues since the mid-'80s and just accepted an appointment to a committee on memorials and cemeteries serving under Veterans' Secretary Anthony Principi, a fellow San Diegan.


Tell us about your family and where you grew up.

The one serious regret I have is that I didn't ask my father more questions, so I don't know too much about my dad. He traveled quite a bit. I do know that he was born in Mexico and attended schools and universities in the U.S., and was one of the first to combine engineering with administration. My mother was also born in Mexico, and she died when I was a teenager. So I don't know as much about my relatives as I'd like to. I'm trying hard to pass on as much as I can, so my relatives will know more about me.

My parents brought me to the U.S. when I was five and I grew up in San Diego, in a neighborhood called Little Italy. The families were Italian, Hispanic, Portuguese, Irish, and everybody looked out for one another. There was no racial bias. We didn't even have to lock our doors and windows — the crooks knew better. I was a teenager during the glory days of the tuna fishing fleet, and my friends and I would go out as helpers on the boats. If you picked the right boat — these were the days before radar and fish-spotting airplanes so you needed a captain who knew where the fish were — you could come back with $800, which was a lot of money in the late '30s.

How did you get interested in aviation?

I went to San Diego High School, and each year Consolidated Vultee — who made the B-24 — took the top student in math and physics from each of four high schools and sent us to San Diego State college for two years of pre-engineering. At the end of two years they sent one of the four to Cal Tech on a full scholarship to finish the degree. That's what I was aiming for. Most of us guys at San Diego State belonged to the 251st Coast Artillery National Guard, and when Hitler overran Poland in 1939 they federalized the National Guard. I got sent to Hawaii, and my CO called me in one day and said "Cardenas, you're an embarrassment to me. You're a Corporal with two years of college, and I've got officers — other than the West Pointers — who outrank you but don't have your education. Sign these papers." I said "What are they, sir?" and he said "That's your application for Flying Cadets. You qualify because you have two years of college." I said "Well, sir, flying doesn't sound too safe. I'm not sure I want to do that." He said "I don't care what you want. Sign the papers so I can get you off my base." So I signed the papers and a month later I was at Allen Hancock School of Aeronautics in Santa Maria, Calif., as an Aviation Cadet.

I tell that story to high school kids when they ask me how I got into flying. They're expecting to hear that I was a little kid dreaming about being an aviator. My outfit, the 251st, later went to the Philippines, and many of them wound up on the Battan Death March, and if I had not had two years of college, I might have been with them. Two years of college may not seem like a lot, but in my case it might have been the difference between life and death.

I read that someone asked if anyone in the room had any glider experience and yours was the only hand that went up.

That was at Kelly AFB, where I was a flight instructor. As a teenager in San Diego I used to help the glider pilots with dope and fabric and I'd get a ride now and then. I raised my hand because I thought maybe they had an old glider at San Antonio that they wanted to fly. That's the first lesson I learned: Don't raise your hand unless you know what's behind the question! They sent me to Twentynine Palms, California to open up the glider school there.

It's a vibrant Marine base now. What was there when you got there?

Nothing! A private contractor was hired to build the base, but before that the San Diego glider pilots would go out there to fly. You had great thermals and you could land on the dry lake beds. I was a Second Lieutenant and I was the only military person there. We had winches and a tow plane, but no gliders. I remembered reading that the president had appointed Richard DuPont to be the guru of gliders, because the Germans had used gliders.

I had met DuPont so I wrote him a letter. It wasn't good protocol for a lowly Second Lieutenant to write to a presidential appointee, but I didn't know any better. I told him that we had a great location, and winches and a tow plane, but no gliders, and that I had a class coming in a few months and I needed something for them to fly. I told him if I had $5,000 I could get gliders and instructors for my class.

About three weeks later a Gooney Bird landed at Twentynine Palms and out stepped a tall, stern-looking Colonel. He took me around to the back of the airplane and said "It's obvious to me you're not West Point. If you were, you'd know better than to write over the head of your military superiors to your civilian superiors. Did you write a letter to Richard DuPont?" I said "Yes, sir. I needed some gliders and I thought he could get me the money I needed." He said "I'm Col. Fred Dent, Jr. and I'm in charge of the glider program, and I brought my checkbook. Go get your gliders."

The first class of 25 officers were trained by Johnny Robinson, Lyle Maxie and some of the best glider pilots in the world.

How did you get from there to flight testing?

Dent went back to Wright Field, and when I made First Lieutenant that's where I went. When I get there we moved the glider base from Dayton to Clinton County airport in Wilmington, Ohio, and we had the airport to ourselves. Dent brought in Norm Rintoul and Lloyd Santmyer, who had flown mail planes out of Pittsburgh down the Ohio River for mail delivery to towns without and airport. Their Stinson Reliant is hanging in the Postal Museum in Washington. My job was to develop methods for towing and recovery, and Rintoul and Santmyer developed a system for snagging the big CG4A gliders with a C-47. There's a book — Rescue from ShangriLa — about a group of people injured in a plane crash that were lifted out of a remote valley in New Zealand using two CG4A gliders and they equipment that we developed there at Wilmington.

Was the C-47 a good towplane?

  P-38
  Double duty. Cardenas towed gliders using a cable attached to each boom of a P-38. A pulley attached to the cable gave the glider pilot the ability to maneuver like a water skier.
My favorite towplane was a P-38. It had two very powerful engines and the counter-rotating props meant no torque on takeoff. You could put a plug on each boom, and a cable between them, and the glider rope rode on a pulley. I towed a CG4A from the factory in Minnesota to Pine Castle, Fla., nonstop using a P-38. I had to convince the General that modifying the P-38 — adding the plugs — didn't change the combat ability of the airplane. The General said, "I agree that it's a better towplane, but we don't have a lot of them and they cost a lot. And we have thousands of C-47s and they don't cost a lot." That's why C-47s became the towplanes instead of P-38s.

Colonel Dent was being sent to Europe, but they wouldn't send the test pilots because we were "too valuable." Colonel Dent told me if I could get to Europe he'd find a place for me. I got a chance to get to England on a training tour, and I went to London and asked them to call Colonel Dent and tell him I was here. Dent got on the phone and asked me what I was trying to pull. I reminded him of our first conversation when he told me I obviously wasn't a West Pointer, and told him during all the all the years I had flown with him he taught me that an officer's word is his bond, and next thing I knew I was assigned to the 44th Bomb Group, flying B-24s. I wound up in the 506th Squadron until I got shot down.

Tell us about that.

It was March 18th, 1944. I wasn't with my regular group that day. I was command pilot so I flew in the lead plane and sat between the pilot and co-pilot with charts and radio frequencies and alternates. We were over Germany and got shot up pretty bad, and the pilot said, "Let's head for Switzerland and hope we make it." I packed up my papers, headed for the bomb bay and started shredding the classified papers. When the bomb bay door opened I jumped and I landed right on the shores of Lake Constance — between Germany and Switzerland. I was a pretty good swimmer so I swam for the Swiss side. A Swiss family took me in and eventually I was interned by the Swiss police. I listened to Lord Haw Haw on the radio and what he said convinced me to try and get out of Switzerland.

There were three kinds of Swiss prisoner. If you landed your airplane in Switzerland you were interned, and the Swiss police were bound to shoot you to keep you from escaping. If you landed in Germany and escaped from the Stalagluft into Switzerland, you were an escapee, and they still interned you and the Germans still had the right to shoot you. I was the third type — an evadee. I had landed in Germany but had evaded the Germans. The Swiss would try to keep me, but they couldn't object if I left. At the Geneva train station there were two sets of tracks — one for trains inside Switzerland and the other for trains leaving Switzerland. There was a cafe between the two sets of tracks, and with the help of the underground I posed as a waiter, hopped a train and escaped into Grenoble, France, in a boxcar filled with Indian Sikhs.

Pretty soon D-Day came and the local underground arranged for me to get to England. Then they sent me back to the States, then back to Wright Field. This time I was in Flight Test Division, Bomber Section.

What were we trying to achieve that the B-24 couldn't do?

  The Flying Wing in DC
  "Finale of low level flight down Pennsylvania Ave. on February 19, 1949."
Early in the war we knew that if England fell, we wouldn't have air support in the field, and we could lose the war. So we wanted a bomber that could fly 10,000 miles carrying 10,000 pounds of bombs. That's what the B-36 was designed for. I never flew the B-36, and I thought it was odd to put a whirling propeller on the trailing edge of a wing. I thought because there are two different air masses there you might have blade flutter, and gear and engine problems, and that's what happened.

Then Jack Northrop came up with the flying wing. It was a beautiful concept, because by getting rid of the fuselage and the tail you got rid of a third of the drag, so you could go farther on the same amount of fuel. Max Stanley, the Northrop test pilot, did fly a flight pattern of 10,000 miles carrying 10,000 pounds. By that time, WWII had ended and the push for 10 and 10 had stopped.

How did you get from Wright Field in Ohio to Muroc in California?

In 1947 Colonel Al Boyd put me in charge of the X-1 project at Muroc. They called me various things — Administrative Officer, Operations Officer, Officer in Charge — but my instructions were on one piece of paper. The first paragraph said "The project will be progressive and will be brief." The second paragraph said, "Safety of flight is paramount but is not to impede success of the project." So from July '47 to October — when Chuck broke the sound barrier — I was busy with that, and flew my first flight in the YB-49 in December of '47. Their vision was born from the fear of England falling, but the flying wing was a visionary concept, as we're seeing with the B-2 taking off in Missouri and flying about 10,000 miles to bomb Afghanistan.

It was fun to fly. Your turns rotated about a wingtip, not the centerline of the aircraft. Landing the airplane was difficult, because in ground effect you were surfing on air, but you could use both rudders at the same time and get pretty good at spot landings. It was not unstable, but it had demonstrated marginal stability about all three axes. The first time I took off, I blew the gear doors off. So after that I had two choices, either steepen the climb or reduce power. You hate to reduce power on takeoff, so I steepened the climb. Then, when you leveled off, you sat and rocked back and forth in unison with the fuel sloshing in the tanks.

It's a bomber, so when you rolled out on the bomb run, it developed a phugoid oscillation — which would eventually dampen out — but in the process would lengthen your bomb run which decreased your degree of survivability. I'm not blaming Mr. Northrop or his engineers. They didn't have much experience with jets.

Tell us about how you recovered from a stall.

Paul Bickell, who was a brilliant engineer in charge of flight test engineering, wanted to get a full-wing stall, instead of having it just fall off on a wing. So instead of just using the wheel to control the elevons, Bickell told me to trim the airplane as I got slower, because as you trimmed the rudders moved on a hinge and acted like a trim tab. I trimmed as it got slower, and I waited for the burble, but instead of burbling it went over backwards and started tumbling over backwards. The engineers don't like to use the word "tumble." They called it a lateral roll.

The G forces put my rear end in the air, my feet off the rudders, and my hands in the air. There was no seat ejection — you got out the same way you climbed in, through a door in the belly. Instead of putting the throttles by your knees — where they belong — the designers put them in the ceiling — like a PBY. My hands were locked in the air, and I was able to reach over and apply full throttle to the four engines on the left side, and that broke the tumble. It put me into an inverted spin, which I knew how to get out of. I recovered about 800 feet above the ground. I wrote a one-page report saying that the airplane should be placarded against any voluntary stalls.

  Tres Amigos
  Dick Schmidt and Los Tres Amigos: Bob Cardenas, Glen Edwards and Danny Forbes
There were two factions at work during all of this. Max and I were on the same page, and on the other side was the company who wanted to sell airplanes. The company would not accept the fact that it had tumbled. They asked Max Stanley to do a stall series and he declined. They got Charlie Tucker to do stalls, but since he didn't trim it like I did, he got a wingtip stall and didn't go over backwards. In May I was just about finished with the performance phase of the testing, and I got a chance to go USC and finish my engineering degree. So Boyd got Glen Edwards — who had helped Dr. Perkins write the book on stability and control — to take my place. I checked Glen out on May 20th and 21st ['48], and I drove to Dayton, picked up my sweetheart, and got married.

On the 5th of June, I was taking my bride to meet my parents and I heard on the radio that the wing had crashed. So I did a 180 and went to Muroc. Boyd told me that he had cancelled my school orders and told me to finish the testing and find out what happened to Glen.

What's your theory?

The airplane was designed for 210,000 pound gross weight, but we had never flown it above 170,000 pounds. I think that Glen got into a high-speed stall, and as inertial coupling took over it left him with no control and no method of escaping.

The last gasp was February 9th, '49, when I flew the airplane nonstop from Muroc to Andrews AFB for what they called "President Truman's Airshow." From takeoff to over the field was 4:05, but by the time I made a couple of passes it was 4:20. They wanted to beat the record of the B-47. We had an airplane designed for .78 mach, and the B-47 was designed for .82 mach and even then it was close, the B-47 got there in 3:47.

We had it parked on the ramp, and Truman came up in the cockpit and said to the Chief of the Air Force "General, it looks pretty good to me. I think I'm going to buy some of these."

I had already written a report — which they deep-sixed — and said that the airplane was not a suitable operational bomber, so I had to bite my tongue. Then Truman said "Let's have this whippersnapper fly this thing down Pennsylvania Avenue." So my boss told me "Bob, go fly this thing down Pennsylvania Avenue, and don't hit anything!" and I did. Pennsylvania Avenue is lined with trees, and there were some tall radio towers that were hidden by the trees. The White House is also hidden by trees. I slowed it to about 350 miles per hour and flew a low pass down Pennsylvania Avenue looking carefully for towers. Next thing I knew I looked up and the Capitol dome was straight ahead and I had to pull up to miss it.

On the way home we had an engine fire crossing the Rockies. My navigator said Winslow, Ariz., was the closest airport we could get to, and by the time we landed at Winslow six engines were on fire and we were down to two engines. We landed there, and they came out with new engines and we flew it back to Muroc.

And still they wouldn't quit. Boyd told me that he had to schedule one more test pilot to double-check my report and Glen's report. He sent Russ Schlee out, the nosewheel collapsed, Pete Sellers practically lifted Russ out through the hole. The airplane caught fire and burned and that was the last one. Some writers tried to sensationalize it by saying that Schlee had been deliberately sent out to destroy the last airplane. There are a lot of books about the B-49, and Gary Pape's book is the only one that doesn't give the Northrop company line.

Have you flown or ridden in the B-2?

  The X-1 Team
  The X-1 Team: Lt. Edward Swindell (B-29 flight Engineer); Lt. Bob Hoover (X-1 backup pilot and chase pilot); Maj. Bob Cardenas (officer-in-charge and B-29 drop pilot); Capt. Chuck Yeager; Dick Frost (Bell X-1 project engineer and chase pilot) and Capt. Jackie Ridley (Air Force X-1 project engineer),
I haven't flown it. I've been to Palmdale and sat in it. They say the airplane's expensive, but you have to look not just at the airplane but at the system. The B-2, with a crew of two, can carry — it's classified, but let's say 40,000 pounds of bombs — halfway around the world in less than 10 hours. I'm not a Navy person, so I don't know what a fighter/bomber can carry, but it takes a whole aircraft carrier to support that fighter/bomber. So once you start comparing systems, you get a different picture.

The B-2 is proving itself in this current war, and it's proving the vision that started 50 years ago.

Let's go back to the fall of '47. How much wrong stuff was in "The Right Stuff?"

It was Hollywoodized. Chuck never turned to Jackie and said "Let's go break the speed of sound today."

We did do it in a hurry — from July to October. We had been told "Progressive and brief."

My job was to keep things running and to keep the NACA off our backs. They were very jealous of that project having been militarized, and they called us a bunch of cowboys. But we needed them out there because they had the telemetering equipment.

Bob Hoover usually flew high chase. Dick Frost was a Bell engineer who was also a pilot, and he usually flew low chase and he would pass his technical knowledge to Jackie Ridley. It was Dick's idea to put the 3g load on horizontally instead of vertically.

The other things that made NACA's blood boil was when we rolled the airplane into the hangar at night and made a modification. Since the airplane operated using 5,000 PSI gas pressure — it didn't have hydraulic or electrical systems — we put an air motor at the top and an air motor at the bottom so we could move the whole stabilizer with a worm gear. That was unheard of in NACA circles.

Jackie was the brains of the outfit, who would pass it to Chuck. Jackie could talk to Chuck. These days you hear Chuck speak and he sounds articulate. Back then, fresh from the hills of West Virginia, I couldn't understand him. He and Jackie, who was from Oklahoma, could understand one another.

One night I got an anonymous phone call from a guy who told me he knew Yeager had an important flight the next morning and he would rest easier if I knew that he had just taped his ribs.

You still don't know who that was?

Nope. He never has fessed up.

Bob Hoover was the alternate pilot. I knew I had the responsibility and the authority to move Bob in and Chuck out. Hoover was equally as good a pilot as far as stick-and-rudder goes. But sometimes Hoover would do everything right and the result wasn't what you wanted. And I had watched Chuck, and when Chuck got into that airplane he was no longer a human being. He became part of that airplane, or the airplane became part of him.

The next morning the NACA guy asked me "How's Chuck feeling?" and I said "Fine, I guess. Why?" He said "I heard he got hurt." and I shrugged and said "I haven't heard anything." I knew right then that if he knew about it, he had run right back to Washington and told them about it, and they no doubt had gone to Boyd and told him about it, so one of two things was going to happen. Either the phone was going to ring and Boyd was going to ask me about it, or the phone wasn't going to ring because maybe Boyd didn't want to talk to me. So then I decided that if I didn't hear from Boyd, the only reason I'd change anything is if Chuck couldn't do it, or didn't want to do it. I figured that Chuck had talked it over with Jackie, and when I saw Jackie cutting off a piece of a broom handle, I knew why.

Read the transcript of Cardenas, Hoover, Yeager, Frost, Swindell, Muroc Tower and NACA as the sound barrier is broken on October 14, 1947.

Many, many years later I was commanding Special Operations forces at Eglin, and Boyd came through. We had a nice chat — by then I had one star — and I said "You never called me that night, but you sent your deputy — Colonel Paul — to ride co-pilot on the B-29. At that time I thought maybe you didn't trust me, but then when I tied it together with what you knew about Chuck, it made sense."

Boyd said, "I had a choice. I could call you and tell you to scrub things, or I could wait for you to call me. If you called me I'd have to make the choice, and when you didn't call me I figured you had decided to take the risk. So I sent my deputy out there to be on that flight." When I saw Colonel Paul that morning, I knew that I had done the right thing. In fact, my hand is in the famous picture, but the hand that pulled the lever wasn't Jackie Ridley's, it was Colonel Paul's.

What's keeping you busy now?

I've been working on Veterans' issues since 1988. I recently accepted an appointment to a Veterans' committee and I have a good boss named Robin Higgins. She's a Marine Lt. Colonel who was married to Colonel Higgins, who was captured, butchered and hanged by the terrorists in Lebanon. She's the undersecretary for Veterans' Memorials and Cemeteries under Anthony Principi. Many of our Veterans' cemeteries are full — Fort Rosecrans here in San Diego, for instance. Until recently a widow in San Diego had to choose between cremation here or a burial in Riverside, about 90 miles north of here. That means a four-hour round-trip funeral procession and a four-hour round-trip for every visit. So the Veterans' Memorial Center is working with private cemeteries so we can put the cemeteries where the Veterans are.

Are you still flying?

Nope. I've had open heart surgery and I'm a diabetic. I could stretch it, but why? Any kind of flying I would do today would be anticlimactic to what I've already done.


If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.