We mourn the passing of Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, “The Greatest Stick and Rudder Man Who Ever Lived.”
(Photo: Smithsonian/National Air & Space Museum)
One of the greatest pilots in aviation history passed into the eternal Wild Blue Yonder on October 25, 2016, R. A. “Bob” Hoover. The ninety-four year old Hoover passed away at his Los Angeles home according to sources.
Hoover was born January 24, 1922 in Nashville, Tennessee, and began flying at age fifteen. In his early years, Hoover taught himself aerobatic flying and vanquished recurring air sickness through the force of repetition, according to a 2010 Smithsonian interview.
Known as the “Pilots Pilot”, General Chuck Yeager – one of the most famous test pilots in history – once described him as “the greatest pilot I ever saw.” Another famous WWII aviator, the great Jimmy Doolittle, described him as “the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived.”
During his service in WWII he was shot down during his fifty-ninth mission over Nice, France. He spent 16 months as a Prisoner of War; most of his time was spent in solitary confinement, as punishment for 12 escape attempts from the German Camps. Hoover finally did escape the Germans by stealing a swastika-emblazoned Focke-Wulf 190 fighter and flew it to Allied lines. Hoover described his actions that day as one of the stupidest things he had ever done. As he hugged a cloud ceiling around four thousand feet, he figuring that he’d duck up into it if he was spotted by any Allied aircraft. He planned on flying west until he saw signs of Allied territory. “I wanted to see windmills to be sure,” he explained. That would signal friendly Holland.
By the time he reached Holland, Hoover said, “My gas tank was registering close to zero.” He chose to land while he still had full control of the fighter, and selected an open field. Hoover dropped the fighter’s landing gear and settled in. A ditch suddenly loomed ahead, and Hoover said he did not want to end up trapped in a German fighter on its back, where the Allies might not realize an American was inside. He said he “just reached down and sucked up the gear” to get the fighter to stop before tipping into the ditch. Hoover said he wondered, “What the heck are you going to do now?” He didn’t have to wait long. “All of a sudden pitchforks came at me from every direction,” Hoover said. Dutch farmers who spoke no English were understandably angry with the man who emerged from the German fighter.
Providence intervened in the form of a British Army truck approaching. Hoover queried the truck’s occupants: “I hope you can help me. I’m a Yank; they think I’m a Kraut!” With perfect British aplomb, the soldiers whisked Hoover to safety. Considered by many a hero for escaping, Hoover once said, “I was no hero. I didn’t do anything but be stupid. ” Hoover said, “It’s a stupid story. For about a year and a half I wouldn’t tell anyone that story.” Word got out and the rest was history.
Hoover went on to become one of the great test pilots in history, even flying chase for Chuck Yeager as he made his record-breaking initial supersonic flight In October 1947. He spent the most the Cold War testing fighters at North American Aviation. Hoover went on to be a legendary air show performer thrilling crowds all over the world for many years with stunts like a death-defying plunge with both engines cut off; he would use the hurtling momentum to pull the plane up into a loop at the last possible moment. Hoover very carefully calculated the risk involved and understood the aircraft and its limitations, this was evident by his long – respected safety record. He once said. “A great many former friends of mine are no longer with us simply because they cut their margins too close…”.
Hoover served as captain of the 1966 U.S. Acrobatic Team in Moscow. Bob was also heavily involved in the National champion ship air races, and served as the first official starter, in a P-51 Mustang – a role that he continued to perform for more than three decades. And, for more than 50 years, Bob Hoover in his trademark business suit and Panama hat, performed aerobatics in more airplane types, in more events, in more countries and before more people, than anyone in the history of aviation.
Bob flew more than 300 types of aircraft in his career. He was the first to fly the XFJ-2 Fury Jet and the T-28 trainer. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Soldier’s Medal, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. Hoover set records for transcontinental and “time to climb” speed… Accordingly, in 1988 Bob was named to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
I met Mr. Hoover at numerous airshows, marveled at his skillful aerobatic performances… and got to hear some inside stories too. Most recently, we met last month at the 2016 Reno Championship Air Races. I got the opportunity to sit and chat with him for a while as he had a booth set up in front of his private coach, parked alongside another legend and former Reno racer, Clay Lacey. We spoke of some of his memorable times in the air and it was a true honor to sit and talk candidly with him. Godspeed “BOB”, “Blue Skies and Tailwinds”……………………………………….