Brigadier General Robert L. “Bob” Cardenas was born in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico on March 10th, 1920. Young Robert moved to San Diego with his parents at the age of five. During his teenage years, Cardenas built model airplanes and helped local glider pilots with their dope-and-fabric construction often bumming rides with the pilots in the gliders he helped to repair. A bright student with excellent grades in Mathematics and Physics at high school, Cardenas was the top student in his high-school year and was selected to attend the San Diego State University along with the top student from three other local high schools. During 1939 Cardenas began a long and distinguished military career when he joined the California National Guard. In September of 1940, Cardenas entered into aviation cadet training, graduated and received his pilot wings & commission as a second lieutenant during July of 1941.
Cardenas was sent to Kelly Field, Texas to become a flight instructor, then onto Twentynine Palms, California to establish the U.S. Army Airforces glider training school and followed this by becoming a Flight Test Officer and then Director of Flight Test Unit, Experimental Engineering Laboratory, Wright Field Ohio.
Cardenas next assignment was to the 44th Bomb Group (known as the flying 8-balls) and arrived in England on January 4th, 1944. Based at Shipdam, Norfolk, Cardenas flew his first mission on January 21st in B-24H “Southern Comfort”. On March 18th, 1944 (on his twentieth mission) whilst 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 badly damaged after a shell had gone through setting both the right engines ablaze. Cardenas had been injured when a piece of flak pierced his helmet causing a head wound, yet still Cardenas pressed home the attack. The pilot, Lt. Lacombe turned and headed for Switzerland as it was clear to Cardenas and the crew of the B-24 that they would not make it back to base, and would have to bail out. After bail out, the aircraft exploded and the remains crashed into Fehraltdorf, Switzerland. Cardenas landed on the shore of Lake Constance (on the German side) and swam to the Swiss shore of the lakeside. After contacting the local resistance, Cardenas made his way into France prior to D-day and the French Resistance arranged for Cardenas to get back to England.
Upon his return to the United States, Cardenas was assigned to the Flight Test Division at Wright Field and became a test pilot after graduating from the Flight Performance School. Cardenas flew the Messerchmitt ME-262 and the Arado 234 bomber to test,evaluate and gather data on the captured German jets and tested the Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster and the jet powered version, the XB-43. Major Cardenas was assigned as the chief test pilot of the bomber division and would fly all the new prototypes over the next four years.
In the summer of 1947, Colonel 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, California 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 October 14th, 1947. Flying the B-29 was not without hazard. On one flight, the X-1 refused to release from the shackle mechanism and Cardenas had to land the B-29 with the X-1 still attached (which was not empty of propellants as Yeager was unable to jettison all of the fuels). The landing was almost 3-point, had Cardenas raised the nose by 16 inches or so in flare, the X-1 would have been damaged, likewise, if the landing had been too hard, the X-1 would have been destroyed. Read the transcript from the air to air and air to ground communications of the worlds first supersonic flight.
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. During May of 1948, the phase II performance tests were almost completed when Cardenas was given the opportunity to finish his engineering degree at the University of Southern California (USC). Al Boyd selected Captain Glen Edwards to replace Cardenas as the project pilot while Cardenas completed his engineering degree. Cardenas checked out Edwards in the YB-49 on May 20th and 21st 1948 and afterwards drove to Dayton, Ohio to pick up his sweetheart Gladys and got married. It was June 5th and Cardenas was taking his new bride to meet his parents when he heard on the radio that the Wing had crashed killing Capt. Glen Edwards, Maj. Danny Forbes, 1st Lt. Ed Swindell and civilians Mr. C. Lesser and Mr. C. H. LaFountain. Cardenas school orders had been cancelled by Boyd he was ordered to finish the testing and find out what had caused the crash of theYB-49.
On February 9th, 1949, Cardenas flew the YB-49 non-stop from Muroc to Andrews AFB in 4 hours 5 minutes setting a new transcontinental record. President Truman was at Andrews AFB that day and said to the chief of the Air Force (about the YB-49): “General, it looks pretty good to me. I think I’m going to buy some of these”. (Cardenas had already written a report, which said that the airplane was not suitable as an operational bomber, so had to bite his tongue!) Truman then said: “Let’s have this whippersnapper fly this thing down Pennsylvania Avenue”. Cardenas later recalled, 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 Whitehouse 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 (see photograph opposite).
Cardenas continued to test Fighters and Bombers at Edwards AFB and Wright Field until 1955 when he as assigned to the 51st Fighter Interceptor Group as a Wing Commander at Okinawa, Japan. This was followed by tours as Chief of the Aircraft and Guided Missiles Program Division at U.S. Strike Command, in Tampa, Florida. Cardenas returned to Okinawa as commander of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1964 and for the next two years, flew the Republic F-105 Thunderchief in combat operations over South-East Asia.
In July 1966, Cardenas was stationed at McConnell AFB, Kansas as Commander of the 835th Air Division. On March 15th, 1968, Colonel Cardenas was promoted to Brigadier General and in June of 1968 was assigned as Commander of the U.S.A.F. Special Operations Force at Eglin AFB, Florida. In July 1969, General Cardenas became Vice-Commander of the Sixteenth Air Force based at Torrejon AFB, Spain. It was here that General Cardenas had the dubious honor of negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces in Libya with Muhmar Quadafi.
General Cardenas was named U.S. Deputy Chief of Staff, LIVE OAK in June 1970. Prior to General Cardenas retirement from the U.S.A.F in June of 1973, he served as the Chief, National Strategic Target List Division, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at Offutti AFB, Nebraska.
Cardenas has been honored by the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Presidential Citation. Foreign decorations include the Spanish Grand Legion of Aeronautical Merit.
From 1973 until 1983, Cardenas worked as an Executive in private industry. In 1983, he was appointed to the White House as the California Coordinator for President Reagan’s Southwest Border Economic Action Group. He resigned in 1985 and accepted an appointment by Governor Dukemejian as Chairman of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention advisory Group as well as a member of the California Council of Criminal Justice. The Governor appointed General Cardenas to the California Veterans Board in 1987 where he was elected to be Chairman of the Board in March, 1990, a board that is the policymaking body for the California Department of Veterans affairs. He left in 1993 to serve as Chairman of the San Diego County United Veterans Council and as a Director on the Board of the Veterans Memorial Center and Museum.
On April 15th, 1993, the University of New Mexico, College of Engineering, honored him for his Outstanding Professional Contributions and Leadership. The U.S.A.F. Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB honored the General on December 10th, 1994 as a “Distinguished Alumnus” and in September 1995, he was inducted into the “Aerospace Walk of Honor” at Lancaster, California. The Sigma Chi Fraternity awarded the General the Sigma Chi “Significant Sig” medal during their June 1995 national convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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