28 August 2007

How it Came to Be Edwards

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Brig. Gen. Robert "Bob" Cardenas flew B-24 Liberators on combat missions over Germany during WWII, worked as a test pilot for the Air Force during the Cold War, flew F-105s over Northern Vietnam, and was so important to the shaping of the Special Forces that he was elected to the Air Commando Hall of Fame. If he wore a military uniform — he doesn't nowadays because he is blissfully retired and a Hawaiian shirt is more his style — the chest would be obscured by various medals, from the Purple Heart to the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, and more. All of these honors, for a guy born in Yucatan, Mexico, who didn't come to the United States until he was five, and who never dreamed he'd go to college, much less succeed like he did. He's the embodiment of what some would call the American Dream.

Photo: Bob Cardenas interviewed by Amanda Pope at the Allen Airways Flying Museum

Bob Cardenas' affiliation with flight test began right after WWII, when as part of a special assessment effort he flew the captured German Me-262 jet fighter and Arado 234 bomber. The place for all this flying was a remote facility located near the Rogers Dry Lake, called Muroc AFB. In 1947, Cardenas — by now well known for his skills flying a multi-engine bomber — was entrusted with the task of piloting the B-29 mothership for the X-1 supersonic rocket plane tests. His co-pilot was Jackie Ridley, the brilliant young engineer who receives a great deal of credit for his insights into the problems of compressibility.

Taking off with the X-1 strapped under the belly of a B-29 bomber might sound a bit hairy — after all the rocket plane was full of volatile fuel — but Cardenas recalled in our interview that take-offs were the least of his worries. "On takeoff," he recalled, "I would have 10 inches between the belly of the X1 and the concrete and it’s loaded with 600 gallons of liquid oxygen. I can’t raise the nose wheel too much or I’ll scrape it, but that was not a problem cause I had a long runway. My one nightmare," he continued, " was, what would happen if I said drop and the X-1 would not drop? I would have to land with that thing hanging on."

Photo: The X-1 team including l-r Ed Swindell (flight engineer), Bob Hoover (back-up and chase pilot), Chuck Yeager (pilot) and far right Jackie Ridley (B-29 co-pilot and project engineer).

A lot of worst case things that happen during a flight test program are predictable — Murphy's Law was in fact coined at Edwards AFB — and as it happened Cardenas' worst nightmare did come true. "This one particular flight," he remembers, "I said 'drop', and Jackie hit the lever — and it didn’t drop."

There followed some nervous minutes. Chuck Yeager, who was already strapped into the X-1 and ready to fly, decided to stay in position, in case it fell free. Meanwhile he offloaded fuel from the ship. Cardenas took the B-29 down to about 5000 feet. At that point Yeager climbed out of the rocket ship and back into the B-29. Now, Ridley and Cardenas made their final approach. Either they'd make a good landing, or they wouldn't have to pay for cremation much less burial!

"I went in and I made the landing," Cardenas remembers. "And it was probably the best landing I’ve ever made in any airplane. I did not even hear the rubber screech - the plane kind of rolled on in. So we made it."

After the sound barrier was broken, Cardenas flew the XB-46 jet bomber and a host of other experimental aircraft. A real challenge lay ahead, however, one that would not only change Cardenas' life, but the history of aviation, and Muroc itself. Stay tuned ... for the next journal.

Photo (left above): The underside of the B-29 shows how tricky a landing with the X-1 could be!