by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – Dec 2016/Jan 2017
On October 25, 2016, the aviation community lost its mentor, Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, 94.
Bob knew he was loved, and appreciated our admiration as friends and fans, and the special events held each year in his honor, whether it was at Oshkosh, Chantilly, Dayton, Beverly Hills or elsewhere.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Bob learned to fly at Nashville’s Berry Field while working at a local grocery store to pay for flying lessons. We can just imagine the smile on his flight instructor’s face, once he realized he was practicing touch and goes and turns about a point with aviation’s finest!
During World War II, Bob enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and was sent to flight school with the U.S. Army. His first major assignment was flight-testing new aircraft in Casablanca. Later he was assigned to the Spitfire-equipped 52nd Fighter Group in Sicily.
It was on his 59th mission, on February 9, 1944, that his Mark V Spitfire malfunctioned and he was shot down and held captive in a Nazi prisoner of war camp for 16 months. When the opportunity presented itself, Bob managed to escape and steal a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and fly to safety in the Netherlands.
After the war, Bob was assigned to flight-test duty at Wright Field where he met fellow test pilot, Chuck Yeager. Yeager requested and got Bob to be his backup pilot on the Bell X-1. Bob flew chase in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star for that historic flight in which Yeager reached Mach 1, and again 50 years later in an F-16 Falcon for the 50th anniversary of that flight.
Bob left the Air Force in 1948 to work for the Allison Engine Company, and then as a test and demonstration pilot for North American Aviation, where one of his first assignments was to teach pilots to dive-bomb in the F-86 Sabre.
During the 1950s, Bob flew flight tests in the FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre, and the F-100 Super Sabre, and demonstrated the capabilities of each aircraft to military pilots.
Beginning in the 1960s, Bob began flying the North American P-51 Mustang at air shows, then later the twin-piston Shrike Aero Commander, and eventually the Jet Commander. The reason for demonstrating executive aircraft in air shows was to show their strength and maneuverability. Bob would demonstrate the usual loops and rolls like any other air show performer, then single-engine performance, and eventually the aircraft’s power-off capabilities, executing a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he headed back to the runway, touching down on one wheel, then the other, before landing and taxiing to show center where he would get out of the aircraft, remove his straw hat, and take his bows.
I remember a show I co-announced in Michigan, where Bob performed in both the Shrike Aero Commander and Jet Commander. Following Bob’s performance on Sunday, he took off in the Jet Commander and flew back to Los Angeles, while his personal announcer, Jimmie Driskell, followed behind in the Shrike Commander.
Bob set records for transcontinental and time-to-climb and speed, and personally knew such aviation greats as Orville Wright, Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Jacqueline Cochran, Neil Armstrong, and Yuri Gagarin. Bob Hoover was considered one of the founding fathers of modern aerobatics and was described by Jimmy Doolittle as “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”
It was Bob’s showmanship that earned him the “Bill Barber Award For Showmanship,” which I had the pleasure of presenting to him in 1995 at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Waiting back stage with us at EAA’s Theater in the Woods was U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady who was the featured speaker that evening. If you recall, Capt. O’Grady was shot down in the skies over Bosnia earlier that year, and evaded enemy capture for nearly a week until U.S. forces could pick him up. I asked Scott if he would like to meet Bob Hoover, and his eyes lit up. The two fighter pilots had much in common.
In addition to receiving the Barber Award, Hoover was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988, the Air Show Hall of Fame in 1995, and received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 2014. A life-size bronze statue of Hoover was installed at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, in April 2016, where Bob’s Shrike Commander is displayed. The new Bob Hoover Trophy will be awarded annually to the living aviator who exhibits airmanship, leadership, and passion for aviation and life demonstrated by Bob during his distinguished career as a pilot and aviation advocate, while also serving as a source of inspiration and encouragement for current and prospective aviators.
Bob Hoover flew his last aerobatic performance in 1999, but his last non-aerobatic show was in 2000 at Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Fla. To read more about Bob Hoover’s incredible life, purchase his autobiography “Forever Flying.”
Family and friends joined together for the Bob Hoover Celebration of Life, November 18, 2016, hosted by Clay Lacy at his facility in Van Nuys, Calif. Air show performer, Sean D. Tucker, and air show announcer, Danny Clisham, were the masters of ceremonies. Bob Hoover’s wife, Colleen, passed away in March 2016.