Robert Hoover (1922-2016)

In 115 years of pow­ered flight, there have been many great avi­a­tors, but Robert Hoover was con­sid­ered to be one of the most ac­com­plished of them all


It was Fe­bru­ary 9, 1944 when Robert Hoover was fly­ing off the coast of South­ern France on a com­bat mis­sion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War when his Spit­fire Mk V mal­func­tioned. As the United States Army Air Corps pi­lot strug­gled to re­gain con­trol of his air­craft, he was shot down by a Fock­eWulf Fw-190. He soon found him­self in a Ger­man prison camp. He tried thrice to es­cape; but each time, his ef­fort came to naught and he was se­verely pun­ished. Fi­nally af­ter spend­ing 16 months as a POW, the other pris­on­ers staged a fight to di­vert the at­ten­tion of the guards, while Hoover scaled a barbed-wire fence and made good his es­cape. He started walk­ing to­wards Al­lied ter­ri­tory. But when he came across an aban­doned Fw-190 and found it still air­wor­thy, he com­man­deered it and flew to­wards Hol­land, run­ning the gaunt­let of both Ger­man and Al­lied fighter air­craft. He some­how made it safely to Hol­land and landed in a field, only to be at­tacked with pitch­forks by some fierce farm­ers who as­sumed him to be Ger­man. Thank­fully a Bri­tish Army truck hap­pened to pass that way and Hoover was whisked away to safety.

Robert “Bob” Hoover was born on Jan­uary 24, 1922 in Nashville, Ten­nes­see. He learned to fly as a teenager while work­ing at a gro­cery store, pay­ing $2 from his wages for a 15-minute les­son. His first aerial dis­play was in a Piper J-3 Cub when he was just 16. He yearned to be a fighter pi­lot, but to his hor­ror he found that fly­ing made him ter­ri­bly air­sick. So he set him­self to throw the plane vi­o­lently around in loops, rolls and spins to ac­cus­tom his stom­ach to the ma­noeu­vres. By the time he com­menced fighter train­ing, he was not only com­fort­able, but had be­come the best aer­o­batic pi­lot for miles around. When the US en­tered World War II, Hoover’s dream of com­bat fly­ing was re­alised and he was sent to Casablanca. He flew a to­tal of 58 mis­sions dur­ing the War.

Af­ter the War, Hoover turned to test fly­ing. His first as­sign­ment was in a top se­cret project to fly an air­craft su­per­sonic for the very first time. Many pilots had died in the at­tempt, but the engi­neers had grad­u­ally solved most of the prob­lems and chose close friends Chuck Yea­ger and Bob Hoover for the fi­nal at­tempt. Hoover was the backup and chase pi­lot for Chuck Yea­ger who broke the sound bar­rier on Oc­to­ber 14, 1947, tak­ing his rocket-pow­ered Bell X-1 to a speed of ap­prox­i­mately Mach 1.06 (1,300 kmph). In 1950, Bob Hoover joined North Avi­a­tion and Rock­well In­ter­na­tional where he re­mained a test pi­lot for an­other 36 years.

Dur­ing his long and il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer, Bob Hoover flew over 300 types of air­craft and tested nearly ev­ery type of Amer­i­can fighter air­craft. But it was for his civil air show dis­plays that he gained the great­est fame. In 62 years of demon­stra­tion fly­ing, he re­port­edly flew more air shows for more peo­ple than any­one else in his­tory. Most of these shows were in “Old Yeller”, a P-51 Mus­tang fighter air­craft painted bright yel­low. When he was first asked to demon­strate the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Aero Com­man­der’s Shrike Com­man­der, he per­formed rolls, loops and other aer­o­batic ma­noeu­vres on this staid twin-en­gine busi­ness air­craft. Fi­nally, he shut down both en­gines and went into a ter­ri­fy­ing dive to­wards the ground be­fore pulling up at the last pos­si­ble in­stant. He then ex­e­cuted an un­pow­ered loop and an eight-point hes­i­ta­tion roll prior to touch­ing down on one tyre fol­lowed grad­u­ally by the other. This be­came his trade­mark stunt. He could also demon­strate how to pour iced tea while rolling his air­craft, with­out spilling a drop. But he was not need­lessly reck­less, em­ploy­ing painstak­ing prepa­ra­tion and risk anal­y­sis be­fore per­form­ing any ma­noeu­vre.

In 115 years of pow­ered hu­man flight there have been many great avi­a­tors, but Robert Hoover was con­sid­ered by many to be one of the most ac­com­plished of them all. Gen­eral Jimmy Doolit­tle called him “the great­est stick-and-rud­der man who ever lived.” And the Cen­ten­nial of Flight edi­tion of Air & Space/Smith­so­nian magazine named him as the third great­est avi­a­tor in his­tory. Part of the rea­son for Hoover’s re­mark­able life­long pop­u­lar­ity was that un­like the stereo­typ­i­cal brash and ar­ro­gant fighter pi­lot, he was mod­est, gra­cious and generous. He was a true gen­tle­man who never tried to project him­self, but pre­ferred to let his plane do the talk­ing. He once said, “I don’t think I pos­sess any skill that any­one else does not have. I have just had per­haps more of an op­por­tu­nity, more of an ex­po­sure and have been for­tu­nate to sur­vive a lot of sit­u­a­tions that many other were not so lucky to make it.” Bob Hoover died in Los An­ge­les on Oc­to­ber 25, 2016 at the ripe old age of 94.

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