I had the opportunity to meet General Bob Cardenas while producing our documentary “The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans.” He is one of several good souls who appear in the show, talking about the topic of homeless veterans.
Bob, at 89, is still very sharp and remembers minute details about his flights from the past. He told me about his most memorable adventure as a “fly boy” during World War II. While flying as command pilot on his 20th mission, his B-24 “Sack Artists” was shot down over Switzerland. Cardenas, suffering a head injury, landed on the shore of Lake Constance, on the German side, and immediately swam to the Swiss shore. He mentioned that it was nearly as dangerous in Switzerland for American soldiers as it was in Germany, and that a woman he met helped him sneak into France. Shortly thereafter, he was flown to England.
After the war ended, he continued to serve in the Air Force. His prowess as a commander got him designated as Principal Project Pilot for the YB-49 “Flying Wing” test program. He was to fly evaluation tests and make a report as to whether this aircraft should be built en masse. He said that he wanted to see how she handled when he put her into a controlled spin. As soon as he tried it, the wing started tumbling backwards. Here is how Bob explained it to Joe Godfrey, a writer who profiled Bob on AVweb (an Independent Aviation News Resource) in 2001:
“The G forces put my rear end in the air, my feet off the rudders, and my hands in the air. There was no seat ejection – you got out the same way you climbed in, through a door in the belly. Instead of putting the throttles by your knees – where they belong – the designers put them in the ceiling – like a PBY. My hands were locked in the air, and I was able to reach over and apply full throttle to the four engines on the left side, and that broke the tumble. It put me into an inverted spin, which I knew how to get out of. I recovered about 800 feet above the ground. I wrote a one-page report saying that the airplane should be placarded against any voluntary stalls.”
Bob happened to be on a road trip with his new bride, Gladys, to meet his parents, when he heard on the radio that the Wing had crashed, killing five men. He was livid that his report had been disregarded. He was ordered to continue testing the Wing as the Air Force did not want to shelf the project.
On February 9, 1949, Cardenas set a new transcontinental record when he flew the YB-49 nonstop from Muroc to Andrews AFB in four hours and five minutes. President Truman happened to be on the tarmac that day, and stuck his head in the cockpit where Bob was. The President turned to Bob’s boss and said, “General, it looks pretty good to me. I think I’m going to buy me some of these.” Bob was thinking it was not a good idea at all, but kept his mouth shut about it. Then the President added, “I want this whippersnapper to fly this thing over the White House.” Bob thought, “Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen!”
And sure enough it did. As Bob put it, “The boss told me, ‘Bob, go fly this thing down Pennsylvania Avenue and don’t hit anything!’ Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with tall radio towers that were hidden by trees. And the White House was also hidden by trees. I slowed it to about 350 miles an hour and flew a low pass down Pennsylvania Avenue with a careful lookout 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.” Bob pointed to a photograph in his office with a photo of the Wing over the White House signed by President Truman.
Soon enough, however, the Air Force canceled their contract with Northrop to produce 30 Flying Wings, and ordered all those on the assembly line to be scrapped.
Even though Bob is no longer a pilot, he is still active in working on veterans’ issues. His pet project is securing a new satellite burial site near Miramar to bury our vets, as the Fort Rosecrans Cemetery is nearing full capacity.
Patty Mooney has been writing since the age of 16. Her favorite topics include women’s issues, homelessness, homeless veterans, the arts, cinema, biographies, nature and video production. Her work has appeared in many publications around the world, including the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Reader, Create Magazine, Post Magazine, Women’s Sports & Fitness, Yoga Journal and others. You can read her blog, “A Diary Left Open” at http://www.sandiegovideoproduction.blogspot.com Her business site is http://www.crystalpyramid.com