On October 25th, 2016 Bob Hoover slipped the mortal bounds of earth and embarked on his last, and greatest flight. He was 94 years old.
To simply call him one of the greatest airplane pilots who ever lived would be a colossal understatement. He was a bonafide legend - combat fighter pilot of World War II and Korea, renowned test pilot and famed aerobatic performer. Most important of all he was a true gentleman, and gentle soul.
On February 9, 1944 he was flying a British Spitfire when he was shot down by a pack of Luftwaffe fighters during a dogfight over the Mediterranean Sea. Captured by the Germans after four hours of treading water, he was taken as a prisoner of war (POW), with most of his time spent in solitary confinement due to repeated escape attempts. In the Spring of 1945 Bob successfully escaped from Stalag Luft I and stole a German Focke-Wulf 190 from a Luftwaffe airbase. He flew it to Allied front lines in Holland, and freedom.
In 1947 Bob was Chuck Yeager’s wingman when he flew the Bell X-1 into the history books, breaking the sound barrier for the first time. Yeager had requested Bob as his wingman, whom he described as “the greatest pilot I ever saw.” After several years as a civilian test pilot Bob was recalled to the Air Force during the Korean conflict. He flew combat missions in a F-86 Sabre fighter, and was so effective in dive-bombing ground targets that he began teaching other pilots his techniques.
The years following Korea were spent as one of the most renowned and sought-after test pilots in the world, flying for leading aerospace manufacturers such as North American Aviation, later North American Rockwell. After several decades of testing aircraft he began performing at airshows, seamlessly executing maneuvers that would make many seasoned aerobatic pilots reach for the airsickness bag. Those brave enough to fly with him during these performances were dubbed “Hoover’s Heavers” for obvious reasons. One of his trademark maneuvers was pouring himself a glass of iced tea and drinking it - while flying upside-down.
As time marched on Bob continued flying in the airshow circuit, not hanging up his headset until 1999 at the age of 77. However, it was anything but retirement. He would still get daily phone calls, letters and visitors from all over the world, seeking advice and blessings from the wise elder statesman of aviation.
In 2012, when Bob was 90 years old, a pilot flying a vintage North American Aviation P-51 Mustang could not get his main gear to lower and lock into place. The air traffic controller called Bob, who knew the iconic fighter better than anybody else alive. “Been there, done that!” was Bob's calm and cheerful response once patched through to the pilot. “Slip it, skid it, do everything you can to get airflow up into those gear wells.” His advice worked; the gear dropped and the pilot landed with no damage to the valuable aircraft.
In the last few years of his life age started catching up with him, but his indomitable spirit never wavered. In 2014 a documentary on his life, Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project premiered, receiving universal accolades. The film chronicles Bob’s life from a young boy growing up in Tennessee to the world’s greatest living pilot. Bob’s close friend and fellow pilot Harrison Ford narrates, along with a litany of aviation legends.
For airplane pilots, there is an insatiable quest to fly higher, and faster than they ever have before. It is not ego which drives this desire, but rather the conquest of their own perceptions and limitations. Bob Hoover exemplified this spirit in every way; perpetually pushing the envelope further than he ever had before to discover the rich treasure which lies beyond - the boundless frontiers of human achievement.
For more information on Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project please visit www.thebobhooverproject.com
Article by Lyon Air Museum Docent Dan Heller