Famous test pilot and aviation legend Brig. General Robert “Bob” Cardenas died in San Diego, California on March 10, 2022 – his 102nd birthday.
Cardenas was born in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico on March 10, 1922. Moving to San Diego at the age of 5, he attended schools in San Diego and graduated from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1955 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanics. engineering.
His military career began in 1939 when he joined the California National Guard. He entered aviation cadet training in September 1940 and received his pilot’s wings and second lieutenant’s commission in July 1941.
From June 1947 to July 1949, Cardenas was an experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and was awarded the Air Force Medal with two sprues of oak leaves for experimental flight testing at Edwards AFB.
As a test pilot, he is well known for flying the B-29 launch plane which launched the experimental X-1 rocket plane – in which then – Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager became the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound. in 1947.
Cardenas also contributed to the development of pioneering jet aircraft by testing the P-59 Airacomet and the XB-45, the Air Force’s first jet fighter and bomber.
Cardenas was also the main test pilot for the Northrop YB-49 flying wing, taking his first flight in the aircraft in December 1947.
He was also the operations officer for the YB-49 flying wing tests. Cardenas was also the investigator after YB-49 crashed, killing Captain Glenn Edwards and Major Daniel Forbes on June 5, 1948.
Cardenas performed the evaluation tests that would inform the Air Force‘s decision whether or not to purchase the flying wing.
In May 1948, Phase II testing was nearing completion when Cardenas was given the opportunity to complete his engineering degree at the University of Southern California. Major General Al Boyd selected Captain Glen Edwards to replace Cardenas as pilot of the project.
Cardenas checked Edwards into the YB-49 on May 20 and 21, 1948, then traveled to Dayton, Ohio to pick up his fiancée, Gladys, and get married. On June 5, while Cardenas was taking his new wife to meet her parents, he heard on the radio that the YB-49 had crashed, killing Captain Glen Edwards, Major Danny Forbes, 1st Lt. Ed Swindell and civilians C Lesser and CH La Fontaine. Cardenas’ school orders had been canceled by Boyd, and he was ordered to complete the tests and find out what had caused the YB-49 to crash.
On February 9, 1949, Cardenas flew the YB-49 nonstop from Muroc to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland in 4 hours 5 minutes, setting a new transcontinental record.
President Truman was at Andrews AFB that day and told the Air Force Chief (of the YB-49): “General, that looks pretty good to me. I think I will buy a few.
However, Cardenas had already written a report stating that the aircraft was unsuitable as an operational bomber.
Truman then said, “Let that whippersnapper steal that thing off Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Cardenas later recalled, “My boss was like, ‘Bob, go fly that thing down Pennsylvania Avenue and don’t touch anything!’ and I did. Pennsylvania Avenue is lined with trees and there were tall radio towers that were hidden by trees. The White House is also hidden by trees. I slowed it down to about 350 miles at the hour and did a low pass on Pennsylvania Avenue looking carefully for the towers Next thing I knew I looked up and the Capitol Dome was straight ahead and I had to stop to miss it.
But before becoming a test pilot, he was a B-24 Liberator pilot in Europe during World War II. Serving with the 506th Bombardment Squadron based at RAF Shipdham in England, it flew its first B-24 mission over Europe in 1944.
On its 18th mission, then-Captain Cardenas’ aircraft was shot down over Germany when its right wing was badly damaged by a shell and both engines caught fire. He landed on the German side of Lake Constance and walked along the north side of the river at night to escape the Nazis.
“I went down and the Germans never got me,” he said. “I walked along the river at night and started swimming across, that’s when I made a fatal mental mistake.”
As a child, Cardenas swam miles in the ocean. However, three miles in the ocean is very different from traveling the same distance in fresh water.
“I think I had a near death experience,” he said. “First it was panic, then resignation, then a kind of calm. Then a Swiss man in his boat hit me on the head.
Rescued and taken to Switzerland, Cardenas was eventually flown back to the United States to recover from a head injury.
“As an only child, my mother was very protective and worried that I would hurt myself,” Cardenas said. “My parents were devastated when I came down, and [they] assumed I was KIA, or killed in action.
After recovering from his injury, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart, Cardenas attended instructor school for the B-24 bomber and became a test pilot. In 1945 he began to fly experimental aircraft.
After returning to the United States, Cardenas was assigned to Wright Field, Ohio as a test pilot, where he attended the Experimental Flight Test School.
Cardenas’ last Air Force assignment was as Chief of the National Strategic Target List Division, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, at Offutt AFB, Neb. Its mission was to develop and compile a list of targets to be struck in all-out nuclear war by the United States. retaliatory forces and develop estimates of enemy defenses and offensive capabilities.
On April 15, 1993, the University of New Mexico, College of Engineering honored him for his outstanding professional contributions and leadership.
The USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB honored the general on December 10, 1994 as a “Distinguished Alumnus” and in September 1995 he was inducted into the “Aerospace Walk of Honor” at Lancaster , in California.
Cardenas was one of five test pilots honored on the Walk of Honor in 1995, along with Captain Glen W. Edwards; Fred W. Haise; William C. Park and Brig. Gen. Guy M. Townsend.
The Walk of Honor website at https://www.lancastermoah.org/walk-of-honor lists a veritable “who’s who” of aerospace history.
Aerotech contributor Cathy Hansen recalled meeting Cardenas at the Walk of Honor event in 1995.
“My husband Al and I had the honor of meeting him in 2005, at the Aerospace Walk of Honor in Lancaster,” she said. “We displayed our UH-1H helicopter during the event and also attended the formal banquet held that evening. We felt an instant connection with the general. This often happens to me when I meet people from the aviation community.
“We were visiting a group of people and we struck up a conversation with this really nice guy that we had never met before,” she continued. “It was General Cardenas.
“Immediately we found ourselves reminiscing about mutual friends at Edwards AFB and historic aircraft and lost ourselves in time. His wife tapped him on the shoulder and reminded us it was time to sit down for dinner. I think we could have talked all through dinner and not even missed eating that night!
“Brick. General Robert and Mrs. Cardenas were delightful and a giant aviation legend who flew at Muroc and Edwards AFB. He is one of a handful of iconic living test pilots that we have the pleasure to know,” Hansen said.
Cardenas was one of the founders of the Flight Test Museum Foundation, the organization responsible for raising funds for the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, and previously served as the foundation’s president.
Brig. General Robert “Bob” Cardenas was an aerospace legend and will be missed.