By Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert L. Cardenas just celebrated his 100th birthday on March 10. He was born at Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, on March 10, 1920.
He attended schools in San Diego, Calif., and graduated from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque in 1955 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. 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.
My husband Al and I had the honor of meeting him in 2005, at the Aerospace Walk of Honor in Lancaster. We displayed our UH-1H helicopter during the event and also attended the black-tie banquet held that evening. We had the feeling of an instant bond with the general. That often happens to me in when meeting folks from the aviation community.
We were just visiting with a group of people and we struck up a conversation with this really neat guy that we had not met before. It was General Cardenas. Immediately we found ourselves reminiscing about mutual friends from Edwards AFB, historic aircraft, and became lost in time. His wife tapped him on his shoulder and reminded us that it was time to sit down for dinner. I think we could have talked right through dinner and not even missed eating that night! Brig. Gen. Robert and Mrs. Cardenas were delightful and he is a giant aviation legend who flew at Muroc and Edwards AFB. He is one of a handful of living icon test pilots that we have the distinct pleasure of knowing.
Five test pilots are honored each year and the 2005 honorees included: Air Force Maj. Gen. Wilbert D. Pearson; NASA Research Test Pilot Edward T. Schneider; F-5F Chief Project Test Pilot, Richard G. Thomas; World War II Army Air Force Test Pilot who flew the first flights of the Bell YP-59A, Wallace A. “Wally” Lien; and Air Force Lt. Col. John “Jack” E. Allavie, B-52 launch pilot during X-15 flights.
Cardenas was one of five test pilots honored on the Walk of Honor in 1995, along with Capt. Glen W. Edwards; Fred W. Haise; William C. Park and Brig. Gen. Guy M. Townsend. Check the Aerospace Walk of Honor website at www.awoh.org to see all the test pilots honored from 1990 to 2005. The list is a “Who’s Who” in aerospace history.
During World War II, Cardenas served as a B-24 aircraft pilot in the European Theater of Operations with the 506th Bombardment Squadron. He arrived in England on Jan. 4, 1944 and was based at Shipdam, Norfolk. Cardenas flew his first mission on Jan. 21 in B-24H “Southern Comfort”.
On March 18, 1944 (on his 20th mission), while flying as command pilot aboard B-24J “Sack Artists” the aircraft in which Cardenas was flying was badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. The target was the Manzell Air Armaments plant at Freidrichshafen, Germany. The right wing of the aircraft had been severely damaged after a shell had gone through it, setting both the right engines on fire. Cardenas had been injured when a piece of flak pierced his helmet which caused a head wound.
The crew had to bail out as the crippled B-24 headed for the safety of Switzerland. After Cardenas and the crew bailed out, the aircraft exploded and the remnants fell to the ground in Switzerland. Cardenas landed on the shore of Lake Constance on the German side and had to swim across the lake to the Swiss shore.
He was interred in Switzerland for six months, but after making contact with the local resistance he escaped into France where the French Resistance helped him get back to England to rejoin the U.S. forces.
General Cardenas aided in pioneering jet aircraft development at the Flight Test Division at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio and at Muroc, California test flying the P-59 and XB-45, the Air Force’s first jet fighter and bomber.
In the summer of 1947, Col. Albert Boyd had selected Capt. Chuck Yeager as pilot, Lt. Bob Hoover as back-up pilot and Capt. Jackie Ridley as Project Engineer. Boyd selected Cardenas as Officer in Charge of the X-1 project at Muroc, Calif., and as pilot of the B-29 launch aircraft. Cardenas was the B-29 pilot on all of Yeager’s flights up to and including the first supersonic flight on Oct. 14, 1947.
In December of 1947, Cardenas made his first flight in the Northrop YB-49 “flying Wing.” Cardenas was designated Principal Project Pilot for the YB-49 test program and flew the evaluation tests from which a decision to purchase the YB-49 would be made. He was given an opportunity to complete his engineering degree at USC and Capt. Glen Edwards was chosen to complete the YB-49 flight tests.
During this time, Cardenas checked Edwards out in the YB-49 and then went back to Dayton, Ohio, to marry his fiancée Gladys. It was June 5, 1948, on the way to his parent’s home that the young newlyweds heard the tragic news of the crash of the YB-49.
Cardenas was selected to continue the flight test work on the YB-49 and set a record in February 1949 when he flew the “wing” from Muroc to Andrews AFB in 4 hours 5 minutes, setting a new transcontinental record.
Cardenas continued to test Fighters and Bombers at Edwards AFB and Wright Field until 1955 when he as assigned to the famous 51st Fighter Interceptor Group (F-86’s) as a Wing Commander at Okinawa, Japan. He told Al that he envied him having an F-86E; it was his favorite fighter aircraft. He flew Republic F-105’s in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War as commander of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1964.
He served as a trustee with the Flight Test Historical Foundation at Edwards AFB and served as a member of the San Diego Mayor’s Veteran Advisory Board and as a Director on the Board of the Veterans Memorial Center & Museum.
What a great U.S. Air Force veteran who is still serving America by helping to preserve the history and the aircraft that has served this country for the past 80 years! God bless General Cardenas on his 100th trip around the sun!