Some lives are like movies and Bob Hoover’s life is clearly one of them. Born on January 24, 1922 in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 15 Bob learned to fly at Berry Field while working at a local grocery store to earn the money needed to pay for his flight instructions. Even as a young pilot he taught himself aerobatics and tried his hand at rolls and loops. After enlisting in the Tennessee National Guard, Bob was sent for pilot training with the United States Army. Because of his extraordinary flying skills, he soon became a test pilot, and was assigned with flying military aircraft to the edge of their performance capabilities.
During World War II, Bob flew Spitfires with the United States Army Air Force. In 1944, after flying 58 missions in his Spitfire, he was shot down off the coast of France and plucked from the sea by a German patrol boat and was held captive for 16 months at a German POW camp. He Repeatedly, Bob tried to escape. Each time he was caught, beaten and placed in solitary confinement. After almost 500 days spent in horrid conditions, he staged a fight in the camp to distract the guards and amazingly escaped amid the chaos he had created. Once away from the camp, Bob found safety at a farm where a woman was kind enough to offer his first real meal in months. As he left, she gave him a pistol and a cartridge and said in broken English, “This will do you more good than it will to me, and I want you to have it”. As he was leaving, he wrote a note for her to give to the American army in the coming weeks stating that she had assisted him.
Bob soon managed to reach an enemy airfield in Germany where he stole a heavily-damaged aircraft that was nearly out of fuel. It was an FW-190, a type of aircraft he had never flown before. Not having enough time to make it to the runway, Bob managed to take-off right across the grass of the airfield – a lucky escape! Hoover did not have a parachute and was in an enemy aircraft flying towards Allied lines. After flying across The Netherlands to Zuider Zee he spotted windmills and landed in a field. There, he was surrounded by angry Dutch farmers armed with pitchforks who though that they had just captured a German as the aircraft had a German cross painted on the side. Eventually, a British supply truck came by at which point he was able to explain he as an American fighter pilot.
After the war, Bob returned to the United States and became a civilian test pilot, flying and testing up to 300 types of airplanes. During this period he was assigned to flight-test duty at Wilbur Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio where he befriended Chuck Yeager. When Yeager was later asked whom he wanted for flight crew for the supersonic Bell X-1 flight, the first flight to break the sound barrier, he named Hoover. Bob 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 Mach1 flight.
In the 1950s, he worked with North American Aviation and Rockwell International where he performed experimental flight test work on the Navy FJ-2 jet fighter and then the F-86D and the F-100. In the early 1960s, he began flying a North American P-51 Mustang at air shows around the country. Painted bright yellow, he called the aircraft “Old Yeller”. It was his favorite plane.
Bob appeared at air shows around the world and in Moscow in 1966, he was briefly detained because he outshone Soviet pilots while flying a Russian-built plane – which was obviously not very appreciated. Bob Hoover achieved worldwide fame when in order to demonstrate the capabilities of a twin piston-engine business aircraft (Shrike Commander), he created the stunt of successfully pouring a cup of tea while performing a 1G barrel roll, all without spilling a single drop! On the same display, he shut down both engines in flight to fly over the field, execute a roll, then a looping, and eventually came back for a landing. You can see his amazing performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2-9BL7sllk&t=295s
In his later flying years, federal officials threatened to ground Bob for failing medical tests. But the outpouring from his fans was so great that he was re-examined, and his pilot’s license was reinstated. Bob retired from aerobatics in his late 70s and piloted his last plane when he was 85.
His final air show was on November 13, 1999, at Luke Air Force Base. His last flight in his famous Shrike Commander was on October 10, 2003 from Lakeland, Florida, to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2007, he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum
Known as the ""pilot's pilot"", Bob has been described in many aviation circles as the greatest pilots of all time. He set transcontinental, time-to-climb, and speed records and personally knew such great aviators as Orville Wright, Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Jacqueline Cochran, Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. During his career, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldiers Medal, Air Medal and Purple Heart. He is the recipient of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lindbergh Medal, Living Legends of Aviation Award, the 2007 National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, and the 2014 National Aeronautic Association Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy. He was the only person to serve two terms as president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He was also made an honorary member of the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, and American Fighter Aces Association.
Bob Hoover left us in 2016, at age 94, and since then surely reunited with other significant figures of the history of aviation.
Article “Bob Hoover, Aviator Whose Aerobatic Stunts Are Legend, Dies at 94” on www.nytimes.com
Article “Bob Hoover, WWII Fighter Pilot & Air Show Ace, Dies at 94” on www.history.com
Article “Hoover; Robert “Bob” on www.nationalaviation.org
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