Fighter pilot, test pilot, aerobatic pilot: Bob Hoover is considered the greatest of all by airmen worldwide
It took Flight Officer Robert A. “Bob” Hoover more than two years to get into his first dogfight, and about five minutes to get shot down. On February 9, 1944, four Focke Wulf Fw-190As jumped his flight of four Spitfires off occupied Nice, France—a fair fight, except for a Spit lugging a drop tank. “To have a chance, I knew I had to get rid of the external fuel tank,” Hoover realized. “I quickly pulled the release handle. It came off in my hand.” One of his men went down in the sea, and the other two did their best to escape. Suddenly it was four against one. Hoover attacked one of the enemy fighters head-on. “I saw the billows of smoke as they streamed through the sky. I had hit the Fw-190’s engine. It was my first kill of the war.”
First and last. The remaining Germans attacked. “I heard the shells hitting the engine cowling from underneath. The Fw-190 pilot had hit me with a high-angle deflection shot that I had discounted as impossible.” (German ace Lieutenant Siegfried “Wumm” Lemke would score two more later that day, to raise his score to 19, on his way to at least 70 by war’s end.) Wounded, with his engine in flames and the hung tank ready to explode, Hoover had no choice but to hit the silk over the open sea.
It seemed an inglorious end to a promising aerial career. Like most 1930s American boys, Bob Hoover idolized air heroes such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker and especially Jimmy Doolittle. “He was my true idol,” he said. “I wanted to be just like him.” Flying lessons at Berry Field, in Nashville, made him airsick. When he finally overcame it as a solo pilot, he recalled: “I experienced another dimension of existence, no longer tied to the earth. I felt free, free of gravity, free of everything. Flying was everything I wanted it to be.”
By age 18, he was an aerobatic pilot and cross-country barnstormer. At the outset of war the Army Air Corps deemed the 6-foot-2 Hoover too tall for fighters, but he had a short friend who preferred bombers. Hoover gave a personnel sergeant a bottle of whiskey to switch their assignments. “This was a pivotal event in my career,” he would write. “That’s how I became a fighter pilot.”
As a 20-year-old staff sergeant in charge of 67 pilots of the 337th Fighter Group, Hoover mastered the P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Kittyhawk Stateside, the Spitfire in England and, when the unit shipped out to North Africa in January 1943, the twin-engine P-38 Lightning. The problem was, he was too good a pilot for fighters. On depot duty in North Africa, he checked out a dozen different aircraft a day: single engine, multi-engine—all freshly assembled or just back from battle-damage repair. “Flying so many airplanes gave me invaluable abilities,” he found. “I had every kind of emergency you could think of, and I learned to be quick in my thinking.”
For him, though, test-firing guns and dropping dud bombs on range targets was no way to fight a war. “I’m not letting you go,” his commanding officer said. “No one else has the experience you do. You’ll just get killed in combat, but…you might make a great test pilot after the war.” Learning that his transfer to the combat zone was approved but being sat on, in September 1943 Hoover packed his footlocker along on a check ride in a B-25 Mitchell. He landed in newly taken Palermo and told the crew: “Fellas, you’re checked out. So long!”
It turned out, though, his ex-CO was almost right. Having barely survived his one and only dogfight, Hoover spent four hours in the Mediterranean before being picked up by a German corvette and sent to Stalag Luft 1. With two-dozen failed escapes, he spent much of his time in solitary, but in April 1945 finally made it over the fence. Days later he reached an abandoned Luftwaffe base and stole an Fw-190. “If an Allied plane saw the swastika on the 190,” he knew, “they’d blast me out of the sky.” He hid beneath overcast until he reached liberated Holland, where he crash-landed in a field and avoided being pitchforked by Dutch farmers until British troops rescued him.
Such talent with unfamiliar aircraft got Hoover attention from high up in the Army Air Forces. By the end of 1945 he was a test pilot at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. “Flying experimental aircraft is addictive,” he learned. “Once it gets in the blood, there’s no way to describe the rush of excitement that keeps a pilot going up day after day.”
Flying a P-38, he met another hotshot in a new Bell P-59 jet: Captain Chuck Yeager. They “fought” to a draw. Hoover claimed, “Yeager was the only person I had ever encountered that I couldn’t get in my gunsights.” Testing captured Japanese and German aircraft and flying jet-powered barnstorming shows across the country, they became fast friends and aerial rivals. Both were selected for the Bell X-1 rocket plane program, with Hoover designated as primary pilot for the attempt to break the sound barrier.
However, their CO learned that a few months earlier a P-80 Shooting Star—the only one in the country airborne that day—had been spied doing inverted passes over an Ohio airfield. When Hoover owned up to the stunt, his job went to Yeager. “I can still remember the incredible disappointment I felt when I left the colonel’s office,” Hoover wrote of the lost mission. But in Yeager, he added, “I knew the colonel could not have made a better choice.”
So on October 14, 1947, Hoover was flying chase in a P-80 when Yeager blew past him on the first supersonic flight. “I took the very first photographs of the diamond-shaped shock waves from the exhaust plume behind the X-1,” Hoover remembered. “Those pictures were on President Harry Truman’s desk the next day.”
In May 1950, Hoover joined North American Aviation, then testing the new F-86 Sabre. Over Korea it would become America’s first great jet fighter; over California it was just another risky prototype. Once a recessed belly pod for 2.75-inch rockets misfired all 24 projectiles right out through the nose of Hoover’s jet, and another time a primitive fly-by-wire system locked pitch in midair, causing the Sabre to climb straight up until it ran out of airspeed, then fall straight down. For 40 minutes Hoover, with just rudder and roll, fought it out over the desert and coasted down onto Muroc Dry Lake. “People have asked me over the years what’s the most terrifying ride I’ve ever had,” he wrote. “There have been many, but none scarier than the one in the F-86.”
Hoover proved the seagoing version, the FJ-2 Fury, in hard carrier landings and catapult launches, and when the Korean War broke out, crossed the Pacific to demonstrate dive-bombing technique to Air Force pilots. “I had been given strict orders to stay out of combat [but] I wanted a chance to fight in MiG Alley,” he said. Because of his knowledge of the top-secret F-100 Super Sabre, fellow pilots were instructed to gun down Hoover in his chute if he ejected over enemy territory. He nevertheless bombed a North Korean runway and a bridge, but noted, “My biggest disappointment during my brief tour of duty was that I did not have an opportunity to fly the F-86 in air-to-air combat.”
The F-100 was the first Air Force fighter to go supersonic in level flight, but the prototype, with a too-small vertical fin, was one of the toughest for Hoover to master. Crash-landing one left him in a body cast for six weeks. Yet when the USAF Thunderbirds had misgivings about trading in their F-84 Thunderjets for F-100s, it was Hoover who visited them at Nellis Air Force Base: “I talked up the F-100 and then performed an aerobatic show so they could witness its capability firsthand.” The Thunderbirds would fly Super Sabres for 13 years.
The airshow idea lit a light bulb in the minds of North American’s upper management. By the mid-1950s Hoover began flying the company’s flagship model, the P-51D Mustang. “That plane and I were made for each other,” he commented. “…I flew the P-51 at nearly every Air Force and Navy base across the country and in North America.” At the inaugural Reno National Championship Air Races in 1964, he flew a Mustang as the official starter and safety plane, like the pace car at the Indy 500, a role he would fill for three decades: “Somebody would have a problem almost every other race, and over the years I must have talked down 30 or 40 airplanes that were in real trouble.”
In 1965 the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, to star at the Paris Air Show. America answered with its own premier aviators, astronauts Ed White and James McDivitt (just back from space in Gemini 4) and Bob Hoover. He found common ground with fellow fighter and test pilot Lt. Gen. Stepan Mikoyan, whose uncle Artyom was the “Mi” in MiG. U.S. government agents pressed Hoover to learn everything he could about the Russians’ newest secret jet prototype. At the 1966 Moscow International Aerobatic Competition, they hoped he could talk his way into a flight in the MiG, or even encourage Mikoyan to defect. Hoover, though, was a better pilot than spy.
With home-field advantage, the Soviets ruled that all entrants flew private planes, but in the USSR nothing was privately owned. Russian pilots—government workers flying the Yak-18PM, a military trainer specifically revamped for aerobatics—trounced all opposition, including the American team. Trumpeting the victory of communism over capitalism, the Soviets magnanimously granted Hoover a turn in the Yak. Looking out from the cockpit at the dignitaries gathered on the ramp, reporters from around the world, and more than a million Russian citizens on Tushino Airfield, he thought to himself, “I’ve got a little surprise for you, Ivan.”
The moment he took off, Hoover rolled the Yak over and roared down the runway upside down, straight for a 30-foot dike surrounding the airport. “It looked as if I were going to blast right through it, but an instant before reaching the dike, I raised the nose of the Yak, leapfrogged the dike, and flew out of sight still upside down.”
Rolling right-side up, he followed the Moscow River around Tushino and, while everyone was still looking for a fireball rising from his crash site, came streaking back down the runway, inverted, from the other direction. The Yak “was a delight to fly,” he remembered. “No wonder our pilots never had a chance….Its power-to-weight ratio provided outstanding maneuverability.”
Hoover put it through his standard airshow routine. Cuban Eight. Four-, eight- and 16-point rolls. One perfect loop after another. “I was performing at near ground level,” he recalled, “even though I was aware that Soviet pilots were not permitted to fly aerobatic maneuvers below three hundred feet.”
On final approach he touched down one wheel, aileron-rolled to touch the other, finally put down and rolled right up to the grandstand. “I’d proven my point,” he said. “Now everyone would know the American pilots were just as capable as the Russians and that the plane had made the difference.” The minute he climbed out of the Yak, though, Hoover’s interpreter informed him, “You must consider yourself to be under arrest.”
That evening, Gagarin himself interrupted the post-competition banquet to intervene on Hoover’s behalf: “What in the world are the guards doing? Mr. Hoover is a great aviator.” The Hero of the Soviet Union took Hoover under his wing and, in front of the crowd, gave him a Russian bear hug. “He wouldn’t let the guards take me away,” Hoover recalled. “…I have no doubt that Yuri Gagarin saved me from a Soviet prison camp.” Kremlin officials could only save face by putting Hoover on a plane to freedom.
In 1968 North American merged with Rockwell, an auto parts maker that dabbled in aviation. Hoover visited the company’s Oklahoma City plant to evaluate their workhorse, the twin-engine Shrike Commander. “I was surprised to find dozens of unsold airplanes sitting on the ramps outside the hangars,” he said. “They were building one a month and losing $13 million a year.”
To promote sales, Hoover came up with an aerobatic routine for the Shrike. On his first airshow in Reading, Pa., he scraped its belly on the ground, but for a business aircraft the Shrike proved both agile and tough: “We used white spray paint to cover the damage, and I was back in the air.”
With Hoover flying demonstrations around the country, the company not only sold its backlog of planes but raised production to eight a month. New success was reflected in its 1973 name change to Rockwell International. Hoover became a star attraction at airshows, taking Shrike Commanders and twin-jet Sabreliners through maneuvers they were never meant to perform, especially with passengers aboard. (Search YouTube for “Bob Hoover pouring tea” to see him fill a glass with one hand as he flies a barrel roll—at one point pouring up—without spilling a drop.) His finale in the Shrike was a full loop, eight-point roll, and 180-degree turn to a one-wheel-at-a-time touchdown, all with engines off and props feathered.
At Reno his bright-yellow Mustang, Ole Yeller, became a fixture; his announcement as he peeled up off the starting formation, “Gentlemen, you have a race,” was soon an aviation catchphrase; and his signature flying gear—moustache, business suit and Panama hat—was famous. (Though after the Mustang caught fire during a 1985 show, he bought a flameproof flying suit.)
Over the years Hoover flew everything from helicopters to hot-air balloons and even the Goodyear blimp. He holds many records, including the prop-plane cross-country speed record, flown at age 63 in Ole Yeller: Los Angeles to Daytona Beach in five hours and 20 minutes on March 29, 1985, an average of 409.83 mph.
Hoover survived more close calls than any pilot has a right to. In the early 1970s, at Reading, his P-51 hit a 40,000-volt power line that hadn’t been there the year before. Even with the Mustang’s left wingtip folded up, he brought it back safely, having blacked out a large section of the city for the night. Another year, at Reno, he was flying Ole Yeller inverted at 100 feet when his seat belt broke, dropping him into the canopy. Unable to reach the pedals, with just the stick he nosed the plane up and over until he fell back into his seat. (“From that day on,” he confided, “I’ve had two safety belts in the Mustang.”)
And in 1989 at San Diego, Hoover and two passengers were taking off in a Shrike Commander when it lost power in both engines. “I was down in a V-shaped ravine,” he said. “I flew right to the bottom to maintain the best glide speed, then pulled up and landed into the side of the ravine.” Pancaking at the precise moment the plane ran out of lift, Hoover saved his passengers. It turned out a young airfield hand had filled its tanks with jet fuel instead of avgas. The Federal Aviation Administration now requires that all piston Commanders’ fuel filler openings be fitted with a “Hoover Ring,” which prevents a jet-fuel nozzle from being inserted in a gasoline tank.
The nearest Hoover came to being knocked out of the sky, however, was at the hands of the FAA itself. In 1992, at age 70, he was flying a routine in Oklahoma City when two agency observers judged his flight skills as “sub-par.” His medical certificate was revoked; he could no longer fly solo.
Australia granted him a commercial pilot’s license, enabling him to fly anywhere in the world except over the U.S. Meanwhile the “Friends of Bob Hoover,” headed by Experimental Aircraft Association founder Paul Poberezny, deluged the FAA with letters and plastered airshows with flyers urging authorities to “Let Bob Fly!” Federal Air Surgeon Jon L. Jordan admitted, “Possibly in the entire history of the conduct of the airman medical certification program, no one decision has created more controversy.” Hoover fought it right up to the Supreme Court. “Following conclusion of the legal proceedings,” Jordan wrote, “Mr. Hoover requested reconsideration.” His flight status was reinstated.
Hoover didn’t need the FAA to tell him when to quit. He flew Ole Yeller for the last time at Reno in 1996. “The torque with the Mustang is really enormous, and when you’re doing a knife edge, flying [perpendicular] with your wing close to the ground, you boot the rudder even harder. My knees, once injured in a 500 mph bailout, hurt so bad that when I landed, I couldn’t get out of the cockpit.” The P-51 went to the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg, Idaho, and is still being flown. In 2000 Hoover’s Shrike was retired to the National Air and Space Museum, and today can be seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.
Hoover’s childhood hero, Jimmy Doolittle, once called him “the greatest stick and rudder man who ever lived.” Among his many credits are the 1986 Lindbergh Medal for lifetime aviation achievement, 1988 entry into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and 1995 entry in the International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame. In 2014 the National Aeronautic Association presented him with the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in recognition of his more than five decades in aviation. He not only knew Orville Wright personally, but also the first man to fly the Atlantic solo, the first man to fly faster than sound, the first men in space and the first men on the moon. Before his death at age 94 on October 25, 2016, he was the most famous exception to the adage “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”
Frequent contributor Don Hollway recommends Forever Flying, by R.A. “Bob” Hoover, and the documentary Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project, available on DVD and Blu-ray at thebobhooverproject.com.