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The YB-49 flying wing on a ‘corner in Winslow, Arizona’

As I was checking into the La Posada hotel in Winslow, Ariz., little did I know that history of flight test in aviation was already there waiting for me. I now uncover the part it played at a small airfield, a steppingstone for many greats from the early years of aviation.

As my wife and I carried our bags to the room, I paused to see photos of all those who had stayed here many years ago and I commented on how many of them had connections to our Antelope Valley. As we settled in, we realized we were in the presence of the spirits that we constantly talk about while retelling Antelope Valley history.

A rare photo showing the YB-49 flying wing being towed at Winslow/Linberg airport. (Courtesy photograph)

But one story that these walls were keeping secret would soon come to life when a chance sighting of an old photo had me thinking about an old friend, the late Bob Cardenas, and the stories he shared about the early days of the YB-49 flying wing test program and his historic speed run to Washington, D.C., and a famous picture of him flying the wing down Pennsylvania Avenue.

There on the wall, in the hotel’s hall was a picture at the Lindenberg/Winslow Airport and a YB-49 sitting on the ramp with some people milling about. My mind started to reboot a bit and I remembered an aspect of that famous trip to Washington and back to Muroc, that had some drama to it, and here I was visiting the location where flyover country became center stage to the occurrences that took place on Feb.9, 1949. As luck would have it, the crew of that flight and Bob would end up spending some nights at this hotel until the plane was fixed and ready to depart.

The very first YB-49 flew from Muroc Air Force Base in California to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., in four hours, 25 minutes to establish a coast-to-coast speed record after which President Truman ordered a flyby over Pennsylvania Avenue at rooftop level to send a message showing the taxpayers what the government was thinking of spending its money on.

The return flight from Andrews was not to be without controversy when four of the eight engines had to be shut down due to oil starvation. It appeared that at its stop at Wright field on the return trip, the oil was never checked, or there was a more sinister act in play. Inspection after a successful emergency landing at Winslow Airport, Ariz., revealed no oil had been replaced in these engines at Wright after the Muroc-to-Andrew’s leg, raising a suspicion of industrial sabotage.

On their way home with a faltering aircraft, when they reached Durango, Colo., it was decided that the best location for an emergency landing would be at the Winslow Airport, as it had the longest and flattest approaches with a more than adequate runway for roll out. The small Winslow community, used to the traffic generated by their presence on the famous Route 66, was about to get a visit from a Cold War warrior that would have the highway playing second fiddle in the minds of many people in that region.

President Harry Truman came to inspect the YB-49 at Andrews Air Force Base in February 1949, after which he had Cardenas fly it down Pennsylvania Avenue and over the Capitol in a demonstration that the pilot described as “kind of hairy.” (Courtesy of Jim Busha)

With a successful landing, the crowds began to appear and with little or no military presence at the field it fell to the small local Civil Air detachment to deal with the security until the feds showed up! The wing drew crowds from all over the region and as the plane waited for replacement engines to arrive from California, it became a must-see event much to the dislike of the Department of Defense.

Funny that even the local newspaper, the Winslow Mail, detailed the arrival and installation of the new engines in detail and promoted the spectacle as a public attraction! Hundreds of people came to see the unique plane. Then the day came, on March 2, and hundreds came to the airport to watch the amazing site. Now, back in 1949 it was not a very common sight for the people of a remote town in Northern Arizona, and they eagerly watched as the futuristic flying wing took to the air on its way home.

During our stay, of course, we had to make a trip out to the famous old airstrip. After all, I’m Bob and that’s just what I do when in search of a cool story and a history walk in vanished footsteps from years ago.

Out at the field, as the wind whistled around that old 1930s hanger, I was thinking of the activity in this one lone structure, that for about a month was home for a bunch of Northrop folks and all the equipment that had to be flown in to change out four engines on a YB-49.

Sitting in the old La Posada hotel bar, I thought back and wondered what that crew ordered up to drink as Bob Cardenas and his band of misplaced airmen wondered how long they would be singing the blues at an airport in a town that years later would become famous for the line in an Eagles song. What did they think, as they stood “on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” waiting for four Allison J35-A-15 turbojet engines to show up, maybe even on a “flatbed Ford.”

Until next time Bob out …

The Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing flies a test mission. (Courtesy photograph)
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