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Cardenas, Robert L.



Robert L. Cardenas was born on March 10th, 1920, in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, to Robert L. and Maria Cardenas. At the age of five, he and his parents moved to San Diego, California.

After graduating from San Diego High School, Cardenas completed a pre-engineering degree at San Diego University.

In 1939, he enlisted in the California Coast Artillery.  Having learned Cardenas could fly gliders, he was ordered to the Allen Handcock School of Aeronautics in Santa Maria, California. There he earned his pilot’s wings in July of 1941 and became a flight instructor.

The following year, the Army Air Corps established a glider school at Twentynine Palms, California and named Cardenas the school’s instructor and commanding officer.

In May 1942, he was assigned to the Material Center at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio where he took part in developing and testing invasion gliders and tow planes.

Captain Cardenas joined the 44th Bomb Group in England as a B-24 Liberator pilot. On his 20th mission, March 18, 1944, his plane was heavily damaged by flak, and the injured crew bailed out near Switzerland.

Narrowly avoiding capture by the Germans, Cardenas was interned by the Swiss. In May, he escaped to France and returned to England in October.

By November 1944, Cardenas was stateside and back at Wright Field to attend Experimental Flight Test School.  Upon graduating, Major Cardenas’ roles included Chief of the Bomber Operations Section of the Flight Test Division.  He tested, evaluated and gathered data on U.S. and on captured German aircraft.

In 1947, Cardenas was stationed in Muroc, California, where he tested the Northrop N-9M Flying Wing as well as the X-42A, and the XB-45 & 46. That summer he was assigned as Operations Officer in charge of for the Bell X-1 project. He piloted the B-29 mothership for all of the X-1 flights, including its first supersonic flight on October 14th, 1947.

In January 1948, Cardenas was the officer-in-charge of the Flight Test Division at Muroc and Chief Air Force test pilot for the new eight-jet-engine Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing project.

While completing his aeronautical engineering degree in 1948, Cardenas married his fiancée, Gladys Gisewite.  They would have seven children-three boys and four girls.

Before his degree was completed, Cardenas was ordered back to Muroc. On June 5th, the YB-49 had crashed, killing all on board.  Cardenas was needed to complete the test program.

On February 9, 1949, Cardenas flew the YB-49 from Muroc to Andrews Air Force Base, setting a transcontinental non-stop flight record. Impressed, President Truman asked Cardenas to fly it down Pennsylvania Avenue. Ultimately, Cardenas’ evaluation of the YB-49’s problems supported the program’s cancellation.

After attending Air Command and Staff School, in 1950, Cardenas completed his engineering degree and was assigned to Naha Air Base, Japan as Commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing.

He followed this with tours as the Chief of Aircraft and Guided Missiles Program Division at Air Force headquarters and as Chief of the Special Operations Divisions at U.S. Strike Command in Tampa, Florida.

In July, 1964, Cardenas returned to Okinawa to commander the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing.  For the next two years, he engaged in F-105 combat operations over Southeast Asia.

He returned to the States in July, 1966 to command the 835th Air Division at McConnell Air Force Base, training pilots for Vietnam combat.

In March 1968, Cardenas was promoted to Brigadier General and in June became the first commander of the Air Force Special Operations Forces at Eglin and Hurlburt Air Force Bases, Florida.  The following July he became vice-commander of the 16th Air Force based at Torrejon Air Force Base, Spain.

By June 1970, Cardenas was in Belgium, as the Deputy Chief of Staff for LIVE OAK, a NATO group that maintained Allied access to the divided city of Berlin.

Cardenas’ final assignment was to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, in 1971 and in June, 1973, after 34 years of active service, he retired from the Air Force.

Cardenas spent 10 years in private industry before being serving leadership roles in a variety of economic development, justice and veterans affairs groups and commissions.

Brigadier General Robert L. Cardenas is a 2015 enshrinee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.