The Best of the Best
On Saturday 27 March EAA members were invited to watch the film, Flying the Feathered Edge, Bob Hoover’s story that was projected onto a large blow-up screen and an excellent sound system. I thought that I knew all about Bob Hoovers life as a pilot, but how wrong could I be.
Robert Anderson ‘Bob’Hoover (24 January 1922 – 25 October 2016) was an American fighter pilot, test pilot, flight instructor and record-setting airshow aviator. Hoover flew Spitfires in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II and was shot down in 1944 off the coast of France. He was held for more than a year in a German POW camp before eventually escaping and flying to safety in a stolen enemy aircraft. He then worked as a United States Air Force and civilian test pilot after the war, flying chase for the Bell X-1 supersonic flight and as a flight instructor for North American Aviation during the Korean War. He is best known as an airshow display pilot, who flew for nearly 50 years until his retirement in 1999. Known as the ‘pilot’s pilot’, Hoover revolutionised modern aerobatic flying and has been described in many aviation circles as one of the greatest pilots of all time.
Hoover learned to fly at Berry Field in Nashville,Tennessee while working at a local grocery store to pay for the flight training. He enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and was sent for pilot training with the United States Army.
During World War II, Hoover was sent to Casablanca, where his first major assignment was flight testing the assembled aircraft ready for service. Later he was assigned to the Supermarine Spitfire-equipped 52d Fighter Group in Sicily. On 9 February 1944, on his 59th mission, his malfunctioning Mark V Spitfire was shot down by Siegfried Lemke, a pilot of Jagdgeschwader 2 in a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 off the coast of Southern France and taken prisoner. He spent 16 months at Stalag Luft 1, a German prisoner-of-war camp in Barth, Germany.
One night due to the conditions in the camp there was a riot and fight involving several thousand inmates and Hoover used this opportunity to scale the fence and escape, despite the fact that Dwight Eisenhower had issued the order for prisoners to no longer attempt to escape due to the rapid advance of the Allies. He was joined by two other POWs and together they made their way down a dirt road to a German farmhouse where a lone woman made the starving men some food. As they were leaving Hoover wrote a note for her to give to the American army in the coming weeks stating that she had assisted the three of them and to treat her kindly.The woman also gave the trio a handgun with several extra magazines. The men then obtained bicycles and rode for several miles before they came across a seemingly abandoned airfield. Hoover began inspecting the planes but they all seemed damaged and unworthy of flight. He eventually found a reconnaissance plane, a Focke-Wulf Fw-190, with some damage, but a full tank of fuel. A German mechanic stunned the trio sneaking up on them demanding they halt but almost immediately had a gun pointed at him as Hoover demanded he start the engine of the plane that he was investigating. With the engine started Hoover made the deal that since the aircraft only had room for one occupant that the other two POWs would keep the gun to aid in their escape. He did not even taxi towards the runway he simply hit the throttle heading straight out across a field to take-off.
Hoover did not have a parachute and was in an enemy aircraft flying towards Allied lines knowing he would be an easy target for an American or British fighter pilot. He did not even have a way to tell once he had safely reached Allied territory, he simply knew to look for the windmills of Holland and land when he saw them. After flying all the way across The Netherlands to Zuider Zee he finally spotted windmills and landed in a field, at which point he was surrounded by angry Dutch farmers armed with pitchforks who were under the impression they had just captured a German. Eventually a British supply truck came by at which point Hoover was able to explain who he was.
After the war, he was assigned to flight-test duty at Wilbur Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio. There he impressed and befriended Chuck Yeager. When Yeager was later asked whom he wanted for flight crew for the supersonic Bell X-1 flight, the first flight to break the sound barrier, he named Hoover.
Hoover became Yeager’s backup pilot in the Bell X-1 programme and flew chase for Yeager in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star during flight on 1 March. He also flew chase for the 50th anniversary of the Mach 1 flight in a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Hoover left the USAF for civilian jobs in 1948. After a brief time with the Allison Engine Company, he worked as a test / demonstration pilot with North American Aviation, in which capacity he went to Korea to teach pilots flying combat missions in the Korean War how to dive-bomb with the North American F-86 Sabre. During his six weeks in Korea, Hoover flew many combat bombing missions over enemy territory, but was denied permission to engage in air-to-air combat flights.
During the 1950s, Hoover visited many active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard units to demonstrate the capabilities of various aircraft to their pilots. Hoover flew flight tests on the North American FJ-2 Fury, F-86 Sabre and the North American F-100 Super Sabre.
In the early 1960s, Hoover began flying a North American P-51 Mustang at airshows around the United States. The Hoover Mustang (registration N2251D) was purchased by North American Aviation from Dave Lindsay’s Cavalier Aircraft Corp. in 1962. A second Mustang (N51RH), later named ‘Ole Yeller’, was purchased by North American Rockwell from Cavalier in 1971 to replace the earlier aircraft, which had been destroyed in a ground accident when an oxygen bottle exploded after being overfilled. Hoover demonstrated the Mustang and later an Aero Commander at hundreds of air shows until his retirement in the 1990s. In 1997, Hoover sold ‘Ole Yeller’ to his good friend John Bagley of Rexburg, Idaho. Hoover set transcontinental, time-to-climb, and speed records and personally knew such great aviators as Orville Wright, Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Jacqueline Cochran, Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin.
Hoover was best known for his civil airshow career, which started when he was hired to demonstrate the capabilities of Aero Commander’s Shrike Commander, a twin pistonengine business aircraft that had developed a staid reputation due to its bulky shape. Hoover showed the strength of the aircraft as he put it through rolls, loops and other manoeuvres, which most people would not associate with executive aircraft. As a grand finale, he would shut down both engines and execute a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he headed back to the runway. Upon landing he would touch down on one wheel followed gradually by the other. After pulling off the runway, he would restart the engines to taxi back to the parking area. On airfields with large enough parking ramps, such as the Reno Stead Airport, where the Reno Air Races take place, Hoover would sometimes land directly on the ramp and coast all the way back to his parking spot in front of the grandstand without restarting the engines. He was also known for creating the stunt of successfully pouring a cup of tea while performing a 1G barrel roll.
End of career
His airshow aerobatics career ended in 1999 but was marked by issues with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over his medical certification that began when Hoover’s medical certificate was revoked by the FAA in the early 1990s. Shortly before his revocation, Hoover experienced serious engine problems in a North American T-28 Trojan off the coast of California. During his return to Torrance, California, he was able to keep the engine running intermittently by constantly manipulating the throttle, mixture and propeller controls. The engine seized at the moment of touchdown. Hoover believed his successful management of this difficult emergency should have convinced the FAA that he had not lost any ability. Meanwhile, Hoover was granted a pilot license and medical certificate by Australia’s aviation authority. Hoover’s United States medical certificate was restored shortly afterward and he returned to the American airshow circuit for several years before retiring in 1999. At 77 years old Hoover still felt capable of performing and passed a rigorous FAA physical post-retirement, but he was unable to obtain insurance for airshows. Although he had had free insurance for several years as part of airshow sponsorship deals, in 1999 he was forced to pay for it out of his own pocket and could not get coverage under $2 million. His final airshow was on 13 November 1999 at Luke Air Force Base. His last flight in his famous Shrike Commander was on 10 October 2003 from Lakeland, Florida, to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. with long-time friend Steve Clegg.
Following Hoover’s retirement, his Shrike Commander was placed on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, in Dulles, Virginia.
In 2007, Hoover was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Hoover died on 25 October 2016 near his home in Los Angeles at the age of 94. A memorial service and celebration of life honouring Bob Hoover was held on 18 November 2016, hosted by aerobatic legend Sean D. Tucker and world-renowned pilot Clay Lacy at the Van Nuys Airport in California. The event culminated with a United States Air Force Honour Guard presenting an American flag to the family, coincident with a three-element fly-over. The lead element featured a Rockwell Sabreliner, similar to another aircraft that Hoover flew during airshows, along with two F-16 Fighting Falcons from the United States Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team and a Canadair CT-114 Tutor from the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds aerobatic team. The second element featured the USAF Heritage Flight with a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and two F-86 Sabres, whilst the third and final instalment featured a four-ship World War II warbird flight, with the P-51 ‘Ole Yeller’ pulling up in the missing man formation on the final note of ‘Taps’.
Flying the Feathered Edge was a three-year project and tells Hoover’s story from his first flying lessons before World War II to his combat and post-war careers as a test pilot and airshow legend. The official film premiere was held in August 2014 at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, Rhode Island during the Rhode Island International Film Festival, winning the Grand Prize ‘Soldiers and Sacrifice Award’. The film received the Combs Gates Award from the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2015 for ‘excellence in preserving aerospace history’. If you can obtain this movie on Netflix, I seriously recommend you watch this masterpiece narrated by Harrison Ford, Sean D. Tucker and Bob Hoover himself. Neil Bowden came up with this idea from our EAA AirVenture experiences where most evenings EAA presents an outdoor famous aviation movie under the stars.
Hoover was considered one of the founding fathers of modern aerobatics and was described by General Jimmy Doolittle as ‘the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived’ In the 2003 Centennial of Flight edition of Air & Space / Smithsonian, he was named the third greatest aviator in history.