Bob Hoover Obituary: Unique Pilot
"The greatest pilot I ever saw." - Chuck Yeager, test pilot, first man to break the sound barrier
"The greatest stick and rudder pilot that ever lived." - Jimmy Doolittle 4 Star General USAAF
Bob Hoover passed away, aged 94 on October 25 2016.
He was one of the most naturally gifted pilots ever. Bob didn't so much as get into the pilot's seat, rather he strapped the plane to his back so it became at one with his body. To fly with Bob as pilot was to experience a person doing what they were born to do. He was at all times the complete master of the aircraft, smoothly guiding it around the sky like a perfectly trained stallion, both powerful and under control.
Hoover learned to fly at Nashville's Berry Field while working at a local grocery store to pay for the flight training. He enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and was sent for pilot training with the Army.
During World War II, Hoover was sent to Casablanca where his first major assignment was test flying the assembled aircraft ready for service. He quickly established a reputation for extraordinary skill by flying his P-40 under a low bridge on which fellow pilots were unwittingly gathered. Imagine the look on their faces when they first noticed a P-40 arcing in towards them at full throttle and at zero feet, heading straight for them! He was later assigned to the Spitfire-equipped 52d Fighter Group in Sicily. In 1944, on his 59th mission, his malfunctioning Mark V Spitfire was shot down by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 off the coast of Southern France and he was taken prisoner. He spent 16 months at the German prison camp Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany.
Hoover managed to escape from the prison camp. He and a friend came upon a field with hundreds of damaged German warplanes. Bob Hoover found one that had a full gas tank.
When a German mechanic approached, Hoover’s friend pulled a gun on him.
“We told him unless he could get us airborne fast, we were going to kill him,” Hoover recalled years later.
The German plane’s engine started, but Hoover’s buddy refused to get aboard, vowing never to fly in another airplane. Instead, he took his chances on foot — and years later was reunited with Hoover.
The stolen plane had a German cross painted on the side, and Hoover was fearful of being attacked by Allied forces as he flew along the coast of Germany toward the Netherlands.
“I didn’t have any maps or charts,” he said in a 2007 interview with the publication Airport Journals. “I knew that if I turned west and followed the shoreline, I would be safe when I saw windmills.”
He landed in a field and was quickly surrounded by Dutch farmers with pitchforks. Soon afterward, a British army truck rolled up, and Bob Hoover was taken to safety.
Characters like this are rare indeed!
He was assigned to flight test duty at Wright Field after the war. There he impressed and befriended Chuck Yeager. When Yeager was later asked who he wanted for flight crew for the supersonic Bell X-1 flight, he named Hoover. Hoover became Yeager's backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program and flew chase for Yeager in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star during the Mach 1 flight. He also flew chase for the 50th anniversary of the Mach 1 flight in a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Hoover became best known for his civil air show career, which started when he was hired to demonstrate the capabilities of Aero Commander's Shrike Commander, a twin piston-engined business aircraft that had developed a rather staid reputation due to its bulky shape. Wearing his famous panama hat (see picture above) Hoover showed the strength of the plane as he put the aircraft through rolls, loops and other maneuvers, which most people would not associate with executive aircraft. As a grand finale, he shut down both engines and executed a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he headed back to the runway without power. He touched down on one tyre, then the other, before landing. After pulling off the runway, he would start engines to taxi back to the parking area. On airfields with large enough parking ramps (such as the Reno Stead Airport where the Reno Air Races take place), Hoover would sometimes land directly on the ramp and coast all the way back to his parking spot in front of the grandstand without restarting the engines.
He once invited a TV crew to come fly with him: to their astonishment he proceeded to serve iced tea whilst performing a 360 degree roll with the other hand.
We will not see his like again. RIP, and fair winds aloft.
See New York Times Obituary
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