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Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, The Greatest Stick and Rudder Man, is Honored in Hollywood

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On the evening of Friday, February 21, friends of legendary pilot Bob Hoover will gather with him at Paramount Studios Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate his “Lifetime of Achievement.”  We doubt this Red Carpet event will make Access Hollywood but of course that is not the point.  Instead, these friends will gather to honor an exceptional man with extraordinary flying skills and, hopefully, to hear Bob tell a few more of his incredible stories.

Bob Hoover

Bob Hoover always travels in style with a straw hat – this one is now displayed in a nearby case with his air show flight suit.

It was an earlier legendary pilot, General James “Jimmy” Doolittle, leader of the Doolittle Raid into China in World War II and of 1930s air racing fame, who anointed Bob Hoover as the greatest stick and rudder man who ever lived. It means he really knew how to handle an airplane and an acknowledgment such as this only happens when a real gift is discovered, honed, and played out over a lifetime. You can read about Bob’s career in his own book, Forever Flying, and in countless other chapters, essays and online links, including the National Air and Space Museum, and numerous Halls of Fame and military and honorary medal citations: self-taught aerobatic pilot who overcame air sickness; World War II fighter pilot and POW; military and civilian test pilot charged with flying propeller and first line jet aircraft beyond their limits; aerobatic, air racing, and air show pilot. These are the nuts and bolts of Bob’s career. The Distinguished Flying Cross is perhaps his highest military honor but that was only the start.  His career is the stuff of Hollywood legend and indeed there are at least two documentaries ready to spread the word.

Bob Hoover

As an 18-year-old Tennessee Air National Guardsman, Hoover trained as a tail gunner in Douglas O-38 observation craft.

Admittedly, many other skilled pilots have had remarkable careers so why is Bob Hoover so respected by his peers and beloved by the aviation community?  It is the combination of his extraordinary flying skills, a diverse and enduring aviation career, and his interest in and commitment to people of the aviation community.  Beyond the instructional and flight test efforts, beyond his practical knowledge of the art of flying and his intuitive aeronautical problem solving, is his genuine enthusiasm for his craft, his life, and people.

Bob loves to share his experiences with readers and live audiences as much as they love hearing him.  You are with him as he repeatedly attempts escape from a German prison camp, finally commandeers a Luftwaffe FW-190, and then realizes he must be the “dumbest Army Air Force pilot ever to be flying an enemy plane into Allied airspace.”  You are with him at the infamous test pilot watering hole, the Happy Bottom Riding Club near Muroc (later Edwards)Air Force Base, California. You are with him as he loses the chance of a lifetime — to become the first to fly the speed of sound. You are with him for “forty minutes of stark terror” in the cockpit of an out-of-control F-86 that he miraculously brings safely to ground. You are with him when his airmanship outshines the Soviets in Moscow and only the divine intervention of cosmonaut hero Yuri Gagarin saves him from Siberia. And you are with him when he gently convinces the notoriously crowd-adverse Charles Lindbergh to relax and enjoy himself with the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

The respect that oozes from the public is palpable because he is telling stories about incredible success and tragedy, and he is telling stories on himself and his acquaintances.  He’s advising us all to do whatever it takes to accomplish our goals, including swapping paperwork or going around authority, but to do so in a purposeful manner.  He is not a saint.  He will give you an honest account of a person or situation; he does not have an agenda. Fighter pilots are known to be an arrogant bunch, but you won’t find that with Bob.  What you will find are determination, courage, self-inflicted wounds, compassion, and humor. Most of all, day after day, Bob Hoover is a true gentleman.

Shrike Commander

Flown by R.A. “Bob” Hoover for 20 years, N500RA is the most recognized Shrike Commander in the world. Hoover used his extensive test pilot and fighter pilot skills to become a legendary airshow pilot and brought a simple business aircraft to international attention.

The Museum is proud to display Bob’s last airshow aircraft, a stock North American Rockwell Shrike Commander 500S, in which he flew the final iteration of his trademark energy management routine, accomplished with two-, one-, and no-engine maneuvers.  You can look it up on You Tube where you will also find footage of him perfectly rolling his plane around its axis while pouring a glass of ice tea and not spilling a drop. Bob’s final flare of air-showmanship occurred in the fall of 2003 when he and his ferry pilot delivered the Shrike to the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Center in Virginia.  After his approved fly-by of the Hazy Center’s Donald Engen Tower, he taxied the aircraft up and, much to everyone’s surprise, directly into the north entrance of the Center.  Then Hoover, always the gentleman, calmly walked away after a distinguished career of test flights, crashes, performances, and perfect landings to airshow center. Bob, we join all your friends in saluting you!

Shrike Commander

After landing at Dulles Airport, Bob Hoover makes the final taxi in his Shrike Commander to the Udvar-Hazy Center, October 2003.

Dorothy Cochrane is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

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14 thoughts on “Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, The Greatest Stick and Rudder Man, is Honored in Hollywood

  1. I was only blessed to witness the consumate skills of R.A. “Bob” Hoover on one occasion. On that occasion I got to see him at the controls of two very different aircraft. One of those was a P-51D Mustang; the other was that Shrike Commander. The demonstration Bob gave was the most memorable aerobatic exhibition of raw airmanship I have ever witnessed. What Bob Hoover did routinely, not only exploited the features of those two remarkable aircraft but also displayed that “trademark energy management routine”, mentioned in this article. I often wondered why I had not encountered Bob, either before or since, and I think it’s because I was intended to regard that experience as something special and unique among my memories. Thanks you, Bob, for sharing his aviation knowledge and skills with so many of us.

  2. Bob was the very best air show performer in the business. What a great pilot and American. Thanks Bob for all you continue to do for Aviation. Bernie Christenson

  3. Thank you for this lovely tribute!

    Earlier this year, Bob Hoover recounted exciting adventures in an interview with Sean Tucker for a Living Legends of Aviation reception right before plans were unveiled for a statue to the “Pilot’s Pilot.”

    We can’t wait to see his Shrike Commander and straw hat at the NASM!

  4. What is most remarkable to me, having met him once, is the incredible skill and experience, longevity and diversity and a very proud but humble man. I have witnessed many of his air show performances in both the P-51 and the Shrike and it saddens me that those who have not witnessed his skill in person no longer can. Thank you Bob

  5. My first introduction to an Aero Commander was in 1967, when I was asked to accompany a school friend and his Father on an overnight flight from Durban South Africa to Queenstown in the Cape Province. I already had my PPL at that stage, and this was a flight I will never forget. In 1973 Bob Hoover was invited to South Africa where he attended numerous Air Pageants around the country. I was fortunate to see him perform all of his aerobatics three times on that particular day. Later I gained my Commercial License and my one ambition was to fly the Shrike Commander. I eventually through hard work managed to end up owning a Shrike for many years and it was my saddest day when I had to retire from full time commercial aviation. I attended Bob`s lectures and he was such a humble and generous man, nothing was ever to much trouble when you asked Bob a question. One hell of a remarkable man !!

  6. I went to a air show in Florida some 25 yrs ago. As they introduced Mr. Hoover and we seen his plane well it didn’t look very impressive. As we watched him fly and do many things that planes are really not meant to do,we realized how wrong we were. On his last pass he went into a dive and did a barrel role,then a nose to tail role??,then he circled the airport and as he landed he touched the left main gear then he lifted. Then he touched the right mains,and lifted again for a perfect three point landing. Then he went to his original parking spot. Now here is the best part as he did all this on his last pass he had shut off both engines and did all this with No power. When he came out of his aircraft he was a tall thin guy wearing tan jumpsuit that looked like most everyone’s grandpa. I will never forget Mr. Hovers show as it was the best I have or will ever see. All these tricks he did in the green plain that looks like a duck. Thank you sir, Vern

  7. I was fortunate, many years ago, to see Bob Hoover fly his Commander at Martin State Airport in Maryland. It was a fantastic demo of flying skill which I often think of as being one of the high points of my days in aviation.

  8. I had the Good Fortune to meet Bob Hoover several times at the Reno Air Races one of my most prized possessions is the picture of myself my dad and Bob Hoover in front of Old Yeller

  9. My Dad, Mack H. Rowe, who along with Bob is a member of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, gave Bob his first airplane ride when they were in high school at Isaac Litton High in Nashville, TN. Bob confirmed this to myself and my brother Bradley (retired United Captain) at an airshow in Smyrna, TN in 1981.

  10. I had the supreme honour of passenger inn Bob in his airshow routine at Abottsford in 1978. I was the Vulcan display pilot that week and thought I was ok. Flying with Bob taught me how wrong I was. His display from the inside was perfection and not in the slightest bit worrying. I was made to sit one row back as he told me a previous passenger had tried to grab the controls in fear. He was kind and generous to me that day and I will never forget it. Thank you Bob. Jon Tye. UK

  11. In 1971, I was a “freshly” checked-out controller at LAX tower when I got a radio transmission from N500RA that he was passing “Lima” (outer marker for runway 25L). What was curious is that the pilot asked me if anyone was close behind him. I responded that there was following traffic five miles behind and that he was cleared to land on runway 25L. Without any warning, when the aircraft got to about 1/2 mile from the end of the runway it pulled up and made a loop and landed on 25L without the engines running. Another controller standing next to me noticed my surprise and just said “Oh, that’s just Hoover”…

  12. The first time I saw Bob Hoover was at the Reno Air Races in September 1964. I was in Reno taking pictures for the Confederate Air Force and I had the privilege of riding out to the field with Bob Hoover and Lefty Gardner in the red Cadillac convertible Bob was driving that day.

    It was a real thrill to meet someone famous and I was impressed by his likable character and candor. I had never seen him fly before and we were all impressed with his routine in the P-51 Mustang. I had watched Lefty fly his P-38 and his P-51 many times as well as Lloyd Nolen in his F8F Bearcat down at Rebel Field in Mercedes, Texas, and I couldn’t believe the things Bob got away with in his P-51.

    I hadn’t heard anything about Bob Hoover in many years and I was astounded to hear he is 94 and still alive.

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