Oh, what an aviation life to have lived. Robert “Bob” Hoover left us on Tuesday at age 94, but his legacy will remain in fighter pilot lore for generations. When you have fighter pilot legends brag on you, you must have been something special.
Jimmy Doolittle, the World War II hero, aviation pioneer, and commander of the famous Dolittle Raid on Japan called Mr. Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived.” General Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of all time, described him as the “greatest pilot I ever saw.”
It is hard to believe one fighter pilot could garner such a reputation–but it was well earned through a life in aviation that spanned over 60 years.
Bob had the ability to elevate his flying to an art form. His graceful loops, vertical climbs, four-point rolls and half Cuban eights painted the sky like the smooth broad strokes of a painter’s brush. It was enough to captivate millions of people and influence thousands of others to fly professionally.
His favorite plane was nicknamed “Old Yeller,” a P-51 Mustang fighter painted bright yellow. Instead of performing in a flight suit, Mr. Hoover would sometimes perform airshows in a business suit and a Panama straw hat. He remarked once that is it was “less trouble for the undertaker in case of an accident”.
But Bob’s ability to handle a plane showed that his flying skills were just as impressive as his ability to paint the sky and the undertaker was going to have to wait a while. His signature move was a straight plunge to earth with both engines cut off. As his plane plummeted to the ground, Hoover would pull the plane up into a loop at the last possible moment, escaping death yet again. And who could forget the “pour a glass of ice tea during a barrel roll” stunt that would make him even more famous.
But to be clear, Hoover’s performance was well calculated and well practiced. It was not a made up stunt or a unplanned trick and Bob made it clear that his flying came with limits.
“A great many former friends of mine are no longer with us simply because they cut their margins too close,” he once said.
Hoover began flying as a teenager, earning money from working in a grocery store to pay for flight lessons. He enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and received orders to the Army Pilot Training School. With World War II in full swing, Hoover had a variety of duties in his early tours, including as an instructor for the Royal Air Force and as a ferry pilot. Later, he received orders to the 52nd Fighter Group, based in Corsica, where he finally saw combat.
Hoover flew 58 successful missions before his Spitfire fighter was shot down by the Luftwaffe in February 1944. He then spent 16 months in a Stalag Luft I as a German prisoner of war.
In one of the most famous Hoover aviation stories, the young lieutenant jumped a barbed wire fence while prison guards were distracted by a staged fight. He stole a lightly-damaged Focke-Wulf Fw 190, flying it east to freedom before ditching the plane in the Netherlands as he was afraid the allies might shoot him down in a German aircraft.
Bob talking about his escape. YouTube: John Rogers
Later in life, Hoover became a test pilot for General Motors and North American Aviation. His “runner up” status as the chase plane pilot to General Chuck Yeager while Yeager’s Bell Aircraft X-1 broke the sound barrier was Bob’s only sideline event. The rest of his record is simply remarkable.
Mr. Hoover was one of the most distinguished pilots in American history. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Soldier’s Medal of Valor, the Air Medal with Clusters, the Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. In 2007, he received the National Air and Space Museum Trophy, the museum’s highest honor.
If you haven’t had a chance to read his book ‘Forever Flying‘, you are missing something special. Bob Hoover is a member of “Greatest Generation” and there may never be another fighter pilot like him.
You can read more about Bob Hoover’s legacy in the New York Times obituary by Craig Mellow here.
Top Photo credit: Dan Penland, National Air and Space Museum