By MATT FERRARI
This summer at Oshkosh, I was walking along with my daughter Kate, listening to her explain the layout of the AirVenture grounds along with the “have to dos” and the “must sees” to her cousin Nate, who was a first-timer at Oshkosh. The heat that day was almost overwhelming and I was feeling the tops of my ears, flying a loose formation just outside my ball cap, searing in the mid-day sun. I was having visions of a Bob Hoover style big-brimmed straw hat and the shaded relief that it would provide when I noticed a golf cart coming our way.
Next thing I know, I’m eyeball to eyeball with Bob Hoover himself! As he approached, I waved and yelled “Hi ya, Mr. Hoover!” Either out of shock or just curiosity, he decided to stop and say hello. I asked him if I could get a picture of the kids with him. He smiled that Bob Hoover smile and said, “Why sure, I’d be glad to.”
He shook Kate’s hand and said he liked the firm grip, “A sign of a confident young lady,” he said. Shaking Nate’s hand, he was equally satisfied that Nate had “The handshake of a scout.” He said a few words to the kids and then they set up for the picture.
As I was fumbling with my smartphone to turn on the camera function, Mr. Hoover said to Nate, who had a sucker jammed in his cheek, “Take that thing out of your mouth son, you’re about to have your picture taken!” His voice wasn’t mean or scolding, just a firm instruction, laying out a proper expectation from an attentive adult. It reminded me of the tone elders would take with me sometimes when I was a kid — you just don’t hear that enough anymore.
Nate’s reaction was equally satisfying. Not put off, not snotty, he just paused, pulled the sucker out of his mouth, and said “Oh?” He held it out in front of himself, looked at it for a split second, realized it was the right thing to do, lowered it to his side, and said “Yes sir,” and smiled for the camera.
In the few minutes he spent with us, snapshots of his life flashed through my mind, things I’ve read and heard, airshow performances that I’ve seen: As a young man learning to fly he had the challenge of economics to afford lessons. To earn money to fly, he worked at a grocery store where he made $2 a week, enough for 15 minutes in the air. With his parents not knowing about his flying lessons, he secreted away on his bicycle and rode several miles to and from the airport.
Amazingly he found that flying made him nauseous (can you believe that — Bob Hoover air sick!) He would repeat the maneuvers that made him sick over and over again until he overcame it. When he became interested in aerobatics and was unable to find anyone who knew about aerobatics or who could teach him, he taught himself. He served our country in the Army Air Corps during World War II where, at the age of 20, he found himself in charge of 67 fighter pilots. After flying 59 combat missions, he was shot down, captured and held prisoner. In true Bob Hoover fashion, he faced his situation head on and after several unsuccessful attempts, escaped his captives in a most unique fashion — absconding with an enemy airplane. Nicely done!
After returning from the war he remained in the service and worked as a test pilot. He was assigned, with Chuck Yeager, to the X-1 program in search of answers to high-speed flight and the mystery of the sound barrier. Later, back in civilian life, he worked as a test pilot and demonstration pilot for several aircraft manufacturers.
One of my favorite “Hoover” stories is about the 1966 International Aerobatic Competition in Moscow where he served as the non-flying captain of the U.S. team. During the closing ceremonies while the Russians were celebrating their win, he provided the Soviets with an eye-opening demonstration. The Americans had competed as private citizens with privately owned airplanes, whereas the Russians worked for the government, their only task being to fly aerobatics in aircraft that had been supplied by the government. In a borrowed Soviet airplane, he proved that the Americans were just as capable as the Russians, more so maybe.
For many years he served as the start pilot at the Reno Air Races with his P-51 “Ole Yeller” and, of course, the magic he performed with the Shrike Commander will live on forever in our hearts.
This chance encounter with Bob Hoover was the highlight of my AirVenture 2012 experience. To shake his hand and just say thanks for the aviation example he has set was a really big deal for me. I was lucky enough to see him fly back in the day and have watched the videos of his performances many times since. I never tire of watching his precision flying — his abilities give me something to strive for, or at least to dream of…There is no equal, never will be anyone better, there is only one Bob Hoover.
Walking away Kate said to me, “Jeez dad, you’re like a Bob Hoover groupie and the paparazzi all wrapped up in one. You probably scared the poor old guy! You’re really embarrassing sometimes.”
If I ever grow up, I want to be like to be like Bob Hoover!
Matt Ferrari, who flies a 747 around the world for a living, is a CFI, CFII, MEI, and an A&P with IA.