Too Much, Too Soon
- By General Robert L. Cardenas, U.S. Air Force (Ret.) As told to James P. Busha
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
NASM (SI Neg. #93-11863~A)
(Page 2 of 3)
I leveled the YB-49 at 20,000 feet, pulled back on the throttles, and waited for it to stop flying. Because most of the shudder you get in a stall comes from the tail, not the wing, I knew I wouldn’t get a big shudder. Sure enough, when the tailless airplane quit flying, instead of the normal shudder just before the nose drops, I experienced a violent pitch forward into a negative-G tumble, which pulled my rear end out of the seat. In a microsecond, I realized that I had no aerodynamic flow over any control surface that would allow me to recover. It was as if you took a nice, crisp, clean dollar bill out and let it go; it would go spinning around its center. The engineers later called it a lateral roll and said I had encountered inertial coupling.
Fortunately, the throttles were mounted up above my head, not down on the console where they normally are. There were two handles, one for the four left engines and one for the four right, just an arm’s length away. I was able to grab the left throttle and apply full power, which caused the aircraft to cartwheel. I was thrown into an inverted spin—one thing I knew how to get out of. I recovered at about 800 feet. After I landed, I wrote a brief report: “This aircraft is never to be intentionally stalled.” Later that night, I went to Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club for a drink.
On June 5, 1948, Glenn Edwards and Danny Forbes were killed at Muroc while flying YB-49 no. 368. It hit the ground upside down, so flat it didn’t have much of a sideways motion. The wing areas outboard of the engines were found 15 miles downstream. Colonel Boyd told me to finish the tests in the other airplane.
In the fall of 1948, I flew no. 367 in a series of stability and control tests. The YB-49 was beautiful—it was just like flying a fighter. But it was not a bomber, and it had many deficiencies: The biggest problem was that it was way ahead of its time, well before the advent of computers. The sensory and response capabilities of a human were too slow to keep up with the Flying Wing’s ever-changing dynamics. I’ve been accused of saying the YB-49 was unstable, but what I actually said was that it was marginally stable about all three axes and could go unstable at aft-center-of-gravity loadings. That’s why I would not sign off on the airplane. The YB-49 would have to wait for technology to catch up.
In November 1948, I briefed Air Force generals about my concerns. In the audience was Jack Northrop. After I spoke, he stood and said, “I have the highest regard for Major Cardenas and his abilities as a test pilot. Obviously I have not been kept informed.” He looked at the people he brought with him. “It looks like Northrop has a lot of work to do,” he said. An engineer in the audience said, “You have an impossible task,” to which Mr. Northrop replied, “General, I’m surprised you have people in your employ who think the impossible really is impossible.” That sort of broke up the hearing.
On February 9, 1949, I was ordered to fly the YB-49 to Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C., for President Harry Truman’s air power demonstration. We flew nonstop to Andrews in four hours and 20 minutes, setting a transcontinental speed record. President Truman inspected the Flying Wing and even climbed up in the cockpit. While I was showing him the interior, he turned to me and said, “Looks pretty good to me, son. I think I’m going to buy some.” I bit my tongue and just smiled. The president asked the chief of the Air Force, “Why don’t you have this young whippersnapper fly this down Pennsylvania Avenue at treetop level? I want the people to see what I’m going to buy.” I knew my boss was never going to order me to fly a huge experimental aircraft at treetop level over the heart of the nation’s capital.
Well, he did.
As I dodged radio towers, I lost track of Pennsylvania Avenue along the way. I never realized how heavily forested Washington was. All the trees made it very hard to see straight ahead as I roared low over the city. Toward the end of my flight I thought I was in the clear—until the big white dome of the Capitol filled my canopy. I abruptly pulled up to avoid smashing into it.