Brigadier General Robert "Bob" Cardenas was a WWII veteran who became a legendary Air Force test pilot. He also saw combat during the Vietnam War before he retired in 1973 after 30 years of distinguished military service. He remained active in California until his death on March 10, 2022, his 102nd birthday.
Cardenas was born in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico in 1920. His family moved to San Diego when he was five. During high school, Cardenas excelled in math and physics. He developed an interest in aviation by building models and learning about gliders at the Torrey Pines Glideport. In 1939, while attending San Diego State University, Cardenas enlisted in the California National Guard. The next September, he became an aviation cadet. In July 1941, Cardenas earned his wings and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.
During WWII, Cardenas established the Army's Glider School at Twentynine Palms, California. He was later assigned to Wright Field, Ohio where he became a flight test officer. He excelled in his duties and rose to the position of Director of the Flight Test Unit, Experimental Engineering Laboratory at Wright Field.
In 1944, Cardenas was assigned to the 506th Bombardment Squadron, 44th Bomb Group in England. He flew combat missions over Europe in the B-24 Liberator bomber. On March 18, his aircraft was hit by flak. Despite being wounded in the head, Cardenas made the bombing run before the crew bailed out. He was eventually captured in Switzerland and assigned to teach Swiss officers how to fly captured American bombers. On September 27, Swiss civilians and the French Resistance helped him escape into France.
After his escape, Cardenas was returned to Britain and then the United States to recover from his head wound. In November, he attended Central Instructors School for the B-24 in Smyrna, Tennessee. Following this, he became a test pilot and returned to Wright Field. There, he attended Experimental Flight Test School and became assistant chief of Bomber Section, and chief of Bomber Operations Section, Flight Test Division.
After the war, Cardenas began flying jet aircraft. He flew testing and evaluation flights on the captured German Me 262 jet fighter and Ar 234 jet bomber. Because of his skill and experience, Cardenas became chief test pilot for bomber aircraft and flew all prototypes of the class for the next four years.
In 1947, Cardenas became the Officer in Charge of Operations. Moreover, he was also the command pilot of the B-29 Superfortress that released Chuck Yeager and the X-1 rocket plane on the historical flight that broke the sound barrier. The next year, Cardenas became Officer in Charge of Flight Test Division at Muroc Air Force Base and served as Chief Air Force Test Pilot of the YB-49 flying wing.
During the Korean War, Cardenas served at Wright Field and Edwards Air Force Base where he continued to test new fighters and bombers. However, during the Vietnam War, he returned to combat and flew the F-105 Thunderchief in Southeast Asia. He earned the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross for combat operations there.
In 1968, Cardenas was promoted to Brigadier General and commanded the Air Force Special Operations Force at Eglin Air Force Base. Afterwards, he served as vice commander of the 16th Air Force in Spain where he negotiated the withdrawal of US forces from Wheelus Air Base, Libya with Muammar al-Gaddafi. Cardenas also served at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and on the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff before his retirement in 1973.
After he left the military, Cardenas continued to work. In 1983, President Reagan made him California coordinator for Southwest Border Economic Action Group. Two years later, California Governor George Deukmejian appointed him chairman of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Advisory Group. In 1987, Governor Deukmejian reassigned Cardenas to the California Veterans Board which he eventually became the chairman of. He resigned as chairman in 1993 to serve as the chairman of the San Diego United Veterans Council and as a director on the Board of Veterans Memorial Center & Museum in San Diego.
In addition to his Purple Heart and Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Cardenas earned the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal. He was also inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Fame, honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School, inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, and inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. His legacy serves to inspire aviators of all backgrounds to push the limits and break through them.