R.A. ‘Bob’ Hoover’s astounding aviationcareer has been a series of hair-raising aerialadventures.
By C.V. Glines
Jimmy Doolittle called R.A. “Bob” Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder pilot who ever lived.” That is high praise coming from the famous pilot who won air races, set speed records and received the Medal of Honor. But anyone who has seen Bob Hoover perform his low-altitude aerobatics and velvet-smooth four-, eight- and 16-point rolls would have to agree that they have never witnessed a better performance and never will. Hoover has proved at more than 2,000 airshows that precision is the name of his flying game.
As could be expected, the 74-year-old Hoover’s autobiography, Forever Flying (Pocket Books, New York, 1996, $24), written with Mark Shaw, is a recital of hair-raising aerial adventures. Like many from his generation, Hoover was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic feat, took up model-making and read everything available on flying. He says that from the time he met Roscoe Turner, who let him sit in the cockpit of his Laird, “the only thing I ever wanted to do was fly airplanes.”
Hoover soloed in a Taylor E-2 at age 16. He joined the Tennessee National Guard as a tail-gunner trainee in September 1940 and passed the test for Army Air Corps flight training. At 6 feet 2 inches, he should have been destined to fly bombers or transports, because shorter pilots were assigned to fighters in those days. Not Hoover. He completed the twin-engine advanced course as a flying sergeant and was sent to a fighter unit flying Curtiss P-40s without ever having flown an advanced single-engine trainer. He had one goal in mind: to become the “greatest fighter pilot who ever lived.”
Hoover’s first brush with danger came when his Bell P-39 caught on fire and he managed a dead-stick landing. During his next close call, he ditched a P-40 in Mullet Key Bay near St. Petersburg, Fla. His near-misses continued when he became a test pilot in North Africa. In one notable adventure, he rescued a fellow pilot who had crash-landed. Hoover crammed the other flier and himself into a single-seat P-40 and flew the two of them back to their base. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for Valor for that daring rescue. He also won the Distinguished Flying Cross for the difficult rescue of a Martin B-26 that had made a forced landing on a short, sandy beach in the Messina Straits.
Anxious to get into combat, Hoover convinced a general that he could hit ground targets “coming out of four consecutive loops, both right side up and upside down,” which he had done, and he finally got his chance to fight in a Supermarine Spitfire. Hoover was shot down just after getting his first kill while on patrol over the Mediterranean Sea. He was picked up by a German corvette and sent to a POW camp in northern Germany. En route, he made three unsuccessful attempts to escape. After 16 months in prison, he escaped successfully, stole a German Focke-Wulf Fw-190 and flew out of Germany. He then crash-landed in a plowed field in France.
After the war, Hoover became a U.S. Air Force test pilot before joining North American Aviation to test-fly and demonstrate its latest jets. He eventually flew more than 300 types of American and foreign planes. The descriptions of his accidents and mishaps are enough to shake up even veteran test pilots.
Bob retired from the industry in 1986, but continued airshow flying on his own. In 1992, at age 70, Hoover was grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which claimed that his “cognitive abilities” had deteriorated. He fought back by taking and passing neurological, psychological and physical tests that were reviewed by independent consultants. Thousands of supporting letters and testimonials from all over the industry poured into the FAA. After months of waiting, Hoover learned that his medical clearance had been reinstated.
The Hoover biography deserves a spot in every aviator’s library. It is marred only by occasional errors–probably due to the co-author’s lack of flying experience. One example is this description of a Link Trainer: “We would sit in a room that was set on an axis. It couldn’t go up or down, just left or right. The same instruments we had in the cockpit were on a board before us. A controller/instructor sat in the back of the room to observe and put us through our simulated flight.” This was a far different Link Trainer than other pilots “flew” during World War II.