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