The Ride of My Life—on a Flying Wing

Test-flying the YB-49 in the late 1940s

The YB-49 demonstrated that putting jet engines on an airframe designed for piston engines made the aircraft faster but not better. (SI Neg. #93-11863~A)
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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.

General Boyd sent Major Russ Schleeh out to spot-check some of the flight data that Glenn and I had collected. After Russ made three flights in the Wing, he confirmed our data points and concurred with our thoughts on the YB-49. On a later flight attempt, the nose gear collapsed out on a Muroc lakebed, destroying the last of the test aircraft and almost killing Russ. That ended the program.

Robert Cardenas retired from the U.S. Air Force after 34 years of service.

A police detective lieutenant by day and an aviation writer by night, Jim Busha takes frequent breaks in his 1943 Aeronca L-3.


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