Bob Hoover, called the greatest stick and rudder pilot of all time by Gen. Jimmy Doolitte, died Oct. 25 at his home in Southern California. He was 94.
Born Jan. 24, 1922 in Nashville, Hoover learned to fly at Berry Field while working at a grocery store to pay for lessons. At 18, he enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and was sent for pilot training with the Army.
During World War II, his first major assignment was test flying aircraft in Casablanca to ensure they were ready for service. He then was assigned to the 52nd Fighter Group in Sicily, flying Spitfires.
In 1944, on his 59th mission, he was shot down off the coast of Southern France and taken prisoner. He spent 16 months at the German prison camp Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. Hoover managed to escape from the prison camp by stealing a Fw 190, and flew to safety in the Netherlands.
After the war, he was assigned to flight test duty at Wright Field. There he befriended Chuck Yeager. When Yeager was later asked who he wanted for flight crew for the supersonic Bell X-1 flight, he said Hoover. Hoover 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 Mach 1 flight.
Hoover left the Air Force for civilian jobs in 1948. This included a brief stint with Allison Engine Company, followed by work as a test pilot for North American Aviation, where he went to Korea to teach pilots in the Korean war how to dive-bomb with the F-86 Sabre.
During the 1950s, Hoover visited many active-duty, reserve and air national guard units to demonstrate the plane’s capabilities to pilots. Hoover flew flight tests on the FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre, and the F-100 Super Sabre.
In the early 1960s, Hoover began flying a North American P-51 Mustang at airshows around the country. After his first Mustang was destroyed in an ground accident when an oxygen bottle exploded, he then flew “Ole Yeller,” which is now at the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg, Idaho.
Hoover is best known for flying the Aero Commander Shrike Commander in airshows, demonstrating the strength of the plane as he put it through rolls, loops, and other maneuvers, which most people would not associate with business aircraft.
As a grand finale, he shut down both engines and executed a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he headed back to the runway. He touched down on one tire, then the other, before landing. After pulling off the runway, he would start engines to taxi back to the parking area.
His airshow aerobatics career ended over medical concerns, when Hoover’s medical certificate was revoked by the FAA in the early 1990s.
After a well-known battle to get his medical back, he finally had it restored, and continued performing until 1999.
He retired at age 77, having passed an FAA medical, but unable to obtain insurance for airshows.
Following his retirement, his Shrike Commander was placed on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, Virginia.
While no longer performing, Hoover was a fixture at airshows, receiving honors and speaking to crowds about his storied career.
Hoover was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988 and became the inaugural member of the Air Show Hall of Fame in 1995.
A bronze life-size statue of Hoover was installed earlier this year at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and a trophy to be awarded annually by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association to the living aviator who exhibits Hoover’s airmanship, leadership, and passion for aviation was inaugurated.
Immediately following his death, accolades poured in from a number of aviation officials.
“We lost a true, one-of-a-kind aviation hero today,” said Jack Pelton, chairman and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association. “We all knew of Bob’s incredible aviation career and witnessed his unmatched flying skills. It was Bob Hoover as a person that also made him legendary. He was a true gentleman and unfailingly gracious and generous, as well as a true friend of EAA through the years. We can only hope to use his lifelong example as a pilot and a person as a standard for all of us to achieve.”
“The death of Bob Hoover is a tremendous loss to the entire aviation community,” General Aviation Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pete Bunce said. “Bob was a great friend and mentor to countless aviators in the military, manufacturing, test pilot, and airshow segments of our profession. No one else in history has had his ‘hands’ and knowledge of how to maximize the performance of an aircraft in all corners of the envelope. Bob inspired multiple generations to reach for the sky and the stars, and those of us who had the privilege of knowing him will never forget what a kind gentleman Bob was to all.
“Even as Bob’s health declined in recent years, he rallied to attend every aviation event he could and spent numerous hours sharing his experiences and his aviation prowess with aspiring pilots, passing along his love and passion for aviation to future generations. As the United States prepares to remember the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December, Bob will particularly be in our hearts and thoughts as the embodiment of our nation’s ‘greatest generation.’”
“Bob Hoover brought great richness to the aviation experience, and he leaves behind a legacy of heroic caring and sharing with the general aviation community,” said Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “He will be deeply missed. The first time I met Bob, I was seated next to him at an aviation event, my 8-year-old son by my side. Bob both spoke and listened to his aviation dreams. He offered encouragement and some great stories. And though my son is long since grown, neither he nor I have ever forgotten that an aviation legend gave a child who dreamed of flying his full attention and encouraged him to dream even bigger. Bob Hoover was so much more than a great pilot. He was a great man and a model for what our community can and should be. We are honored to be able to perpetuate his legacy through the Bob Hoover Trophy.”
The Bob Hoover Trophy was first presented by AOPA and other aviation industry groups and leaders to Hoover in April and will be awarded annually by AOPA to “a living aviator who exhibits the airmanship, leadership, and passion for aviation and life demonstrated by R. A. ‘Bob’ Hoover 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.”