03 September 2007

How It Came to Be Edwards, Part III


Bob Cardenas' one page report (see previous Production Journal entry) about the YB-49's stall problem should have sealed the YB-49�s fate, but Northrop and the Pentagon felt the issue could be fixed. The program continued. In 1949, at the behest of Northrop and President Truman, Cardenas was ordered to fly the plane from Muroc to Andrews AFB. "We parked it on a ramp by the B-36 (Peacekeeper), and Truman came into the cockpit," Cardenas says. "He looked around. He was a pretty crusty old guy. He said, 'Looks pretty f---ing good to me. I think I'm going to buy some of these.'"

Truman ordered Cardenas and his co-pilot to fly down Pennsylvania Avenue, so that Congress could see what they were going to be buying. "I was sure that they wouldn't make me do it," Cardenas recalls. "But (Cmdr. Al) Boyd got ahold of me and he said, 'Bob, you've got to do it. Slow it down a little bit.' So, I flew down Pennsylvania Avenue. And, I did slow it down, to about 300 miles an hour. But, I had never really realized how heavily forested the city of Washington is. I would lose it amongst the trees. Suddenly, I looked up and the Capitol dome was dead ahead! I had to pull up to go over it."

Photo: Snapped by a tourist, this is the one and only known photo of the YB-49 flying over the Capitol building. (That is, unless you see the 1953 movie "War of the Worlds" which features the bomber in combat against UFOs in the skies above Washington!)

On the way back from Washington, over the Rocky Mountains, a fire broke out in the number six engine, and then in number three. The nearest airport that could accommodate the plane was in Winslow, Arizona -- and just barely. The runway was 50 feet wide, and the YB-49 had a 42-foot wide landing gear arrangement. By the time he made his approach, only two of the massive bomber�s engines were functioning. Fortunately, he made a solid landing, and the fires were extinguished. (Turning the plane around so it could take off, after it was repaired, took quite a bit of work!)

The Winslow flight soured Cardenas on the YB-49 program, and convinced him that the time had come to leave and finish his aeronautical engineering degree at USC. His hand-picked replacement was a friend, Glen Edwards. "Glen was a combat pilot in North Africa," says Cardenas. "He was extremely intelligent. He helped Dr. Perkins at Princeton write the book on stability and control. He was a good test pilot."

But Glen Edwards' skills could not save him from disaster: on June 5, 1948, the Flying Wing crashed killing Edwards, Danny Forbes, and three other crewmen. "On the way down to San Diego," Cardenas remembers, his voice slightly shaky. "I heard on the radio it crashed. I did a 180, and went back." Col. Al Boyd assigned Cardenas to the accident investigation team. It didn't take long for Cardenas to realize that, at the time of the incident, Edwards was attempting a stall maneuver -- the very kind of maneuver Cardenas'd warned against.

"Glen Edwards knew that," says Cardenas, "I talked with him about it." Why had Edwards done it anyway? It's pure speculation, of course, but it's clear that the plane's instability issues made it susceptible to cancellation. Northrop's engineers had probably persuaded Edwards that, with proper testing, he could find a way around the aircraft's handling problems.

Five men were dead, and one of the two YB-49 prototypes was destroyed. A long investigation followed, and a Congressional hearing. In 1950, the entire program was canceled.

Cardenas paid a heavy price for his criticism of the failed aircraft, but he felt it was his duty as an Air Force officer to tell the facts as he saw them. While many in the aviation community point to a conspiracy surrounding the cancellation of the YB-49, and the advent of the B-2 Stealth bomber as proof of the concept, Cardenas is quick to point out that modern technology, such as computer stabilization, keep the B-2 airborne. Such things simply did not exist in the world of the 1950's.

In 1949, Muroc Air Force Base was renamed in honor of Glen Edwards. As part of our documentary interviews, Amanda Pope asked Bob Cardenas to share some memories of the man. "He could really cook," replied Cardenas, with a smile on his face. "As a dancer he could have matched Fred Astaire -- all the women wanted to dance with Glen. I sorely miss him. I think it's a good choice that they named the base after him. Because he was a consummate test pilot."

Photo: Bob Cardenas (left) with Glen Edwards, shortly before he was tragically killed in the crash of the YB-49.

Coming up next in the production journal: Bob Cardenas remembers Pancho Barnes, and Pancho's own memories of Glen Edwards.