It’s funny how life sends people on different paths, but fate has them on a collision course that will eventually have them both become an intricate part of each other’s life.
The late Gen. Robert Cardenas was not aware of a Bob Hoover when he was fighting to keep his crippled B-24 in the air during World War II, and Bob Hoover never knew Bob Cardenas when he was being shot down in a Spitfire in the same war. Both gentlemen, whose war came to an end with the demise of their aircraft, at the time, never realized that aircraft would be what would bring them together for the first time, not long after the end of World War II.
At the end of the war, the two legendary aviators found themselves at Wright Field in Ohio working on different projects, when Operation Paperclip came calling. Captured German Aircraft were going to be evaluated at Wright and Freeman fields, with the “wonder weapons” that Germany had devised during the war.
Captured German aircraft designer Dr. Alexander Lippisch was brought on for his technical expertise and the assignment of pilots consisted of test pilots Maj. Gustave Lundquist, Capt. Robert Hoover and Maj. Robert Cardenas.
Captured German aircraft were soon taking to the skies and pilots like Cardenas were piloting exotic aircraft like the Arado 234 and the Messerschmitt 163, to get a feel and understanding of the aircraft for American designers. As the program progressed, it was felt that two of the aircraft needed a safety margin in the sky and the areas around the Midwest were not considered the ideal location for secrecy and safety. So the rocket plane Messerschmitt Me 163 and the “Peoples Fighter” Heinkel He 162 were off to Muroc Army Airfield in California, along with the three pilots. Cardenas and Hoover arrived at Muroc and their long history together took its first steps at the base that would be a part of their lives and define their friendship for decades.
As the cards were dealt, it was Lundquist who drew the flying duties of the Me 163 and it was Cardenas who got the job of B-29 pilot to tow the plane as a glider for early evaluations. That left Bob Hoover to carry out testing of the He 162, and so the lineup of these aircraft became a part of the many varied programs at Muroc in 1946. Many times, we try to envision what it must have looked like on any given day, as the test programs at Muroc took to the air. Seeing captured German aircraft in the skies over the Antelope Valley must have been quite a sight.
The Me 163 Komet project was hampered by several technical problems. The landing gear formed a major obstacle, since no one knew how it worked exactly, and it wouldn’t function properly. Inspection by Lippisch revealed that the wing had delaminated, and they were replaced by those from another captured Komet. Interestingly, this was a much older Komet from the first batch of 70, which apparently had a better build quality. Another problem was play in the control system.
The details of the flight test program are a bit vague. The first attempt to test fly the Komet was made on May 3 or 4, 1946. Unfortunately, the tow cable was inadvertently released at approximately take-off speed, but the Komet was safely brought to a stop after a very long roll-out — estimated at ‘a couple of miles.’ Another flight was planned for the next day, but abandoned due to landing gear problems. A successful flight is reported to have taken place ‘later that month.’ The flights were harrowing because of the wake turbulence of the B-29 but several gliding flights were made. No powered flights were ever made, due to a lack of propellant for the rocket engine.
Unlike the two Majors, the young test pilot Bob Hoover found his aircraft to be less forgiving, as the airplane dubbed the nerve stealer “Nervenklau” was found to have major flaws. The most notable was the lack of hydraulically boosted flight controls. Hoover stated it required a heavy hand to fly at high speeds that the jets were flying. Made mostly of plywood, and a very early attempt at an ejection seat, the confidence was lacking and after the one and only flight it was parked, never to fly again. The design came too late in the war to ever make a difference and Bob was wondering what the German pilots that flew it felt about its airworthiness, as it was a handful to fly, not very well armed and would be considered an unsafe environment for the pilot.
Both these test aircraft from Muroc went on to survive and are now at museums around the country. Nor were their short careers reflective of the men who flew them off the lakebeds, for it would not be long until some of these players would reunite at Muroc for a date with destiny on Oct. 14, 1947, when the X-1 project broke the sound barrier.
The two Bobs lived very long and productive lives and were the legends many of us grew up and admired. They were so delightful and willing to share their exploits with those of us wanting to share in their experiences of life in the skies. The amazing aircraft they flew caught the attention of all of us that dreamed of flying in such exotic aircraft, in the early days of flight test.
Both these men have left us now, and we are grateful that many years ago on a dry lakebed here in the Mojave Desert, they came together for a very different-looking project and began the journey of friendship that we all benefited from as Americans. R.A. Bob Hoover and Gen. Robert “Bob” Cardenas are together again in some far-off place. I’m pretty sure they are glad it took a full lifetime to end up together again and to have enough stories to share that will last an eternity.
I wonder if they will joke about “Hey Bob, remember when the Germans were shooting us down and we were glad to have survived the war, only to have the chance in German aircraft to have them finish their job?” The life of a test pilot is full of twists and turns, providing entertainment and education for generations now, and in the future, who will look for inspiration from men and women who sat in the cockpit of a new or old idea.
Until next time, this Bob is out!