Robert Cardenas made history as one of America's premiere test pilots, a combat leader in both bombers and fighters, and as the first Commander of the Air Force Special Operations Force. Born in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico in 1920, he started his aviation career by learning to fly gliders, at the young age of 17. This flying experience served him well during his training at the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet School. Upon receiving his pilot's wings, he became an instructor at Kelly Field, Texas. Due to Cardenas' past experience in gliders, he subsequently helped open an Army Air Corps Glider School at 29 Palms, California and later served at a glider test base near Wright Field as the director of a flight test unit charged with designing and testing invasion gliders and their tow planes. In 1944, he joined the 44th Bombardment Group in England as a B-24 Command Pilot. During his 20th bombing mission, enemy anti-aircraft artillery struck his aircraft, blowing him out of the fuselage. Cardenas safely landed in Germany and evaded to Switzerland. He then successfully returned to Allied hands via the French Underground.
Returning from the war in 1944, he graduated from Experimental Flight Test School serving as an experimental test pilot at Edwards AFB, California, and Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Cardenas test flew the German jet ME-262 fighter, the German Arado 234 bomber, and later the Air Force's first jet bomber the XB-45. He was the Chief Air Force test pilot on the YB-49 Flying Wing project, and the Command Pilot of the B-29 that launched Captain Charles Yeager's X-1 into the realm of supersonic flight. In 1949, Cardenas graduated from the first Air Command Staff College class at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. After school he commanded the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing at Naha AB, Okinawa flying F-86D jets. Following this deployment, Cardenas held a series of staff positions and then returned to Okinawa from July 1964 to June 1966 to command the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kadena AB. This tour earned him both the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross for F-105 operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In June 1968, Cardenas was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of the Air Force Special Operations Force, at Eglin AFB and Hurlburt Field, Florida. He later completed a distinguished career as the Vice Commander of the Sixteenth Air Force, Spain, Deputy to LIVE OAK at headquarters, SACEUR, responsible for maintaining access corridors to Berlin, and Chief, National Strategic Target List Division at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. On October 12, 2002 his contributions to the development of Special Forces were recognized by his induction into the Air Commando Hall of Fame. Today Robert Cardenas is extremely active and retired in San Diego with his wife Gladys, their children, and grandchildren.
On February 4, 1949, the 33rd President of the United States climbed into the cockpit of the YB-49 at Andrews AFB, Maryland. Upon surveying the cockpit, President Harry S. Truman turned to Cardenas and said, "It looks pretty ... good Major. I think I'm going to buy some." Hours later Cardenas fulfilled the President's other request by flying down Pennsylvania Avenue at tree top level.