The first time I saw Bob hoover fly I was a new show pilot standing next to the great Curtis Pitts and hoping for words of wisdom. It was March 1972, and Pitts and I were watching the airplane he created perform at Miami’s Tamiami Airport. The sky was a frenzy of tiny Pitts Specials panting through snap rolls
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and outside loops. It was noisy, and Pitts said nothing during the performance. Even after the airplanes landed and Hoover taxied out, Pitts was quiet—until Hoover, on takeoff, rolled the twin-engine Shrike Commander. It was as graceful and fluid as a cat stretching its back. The show tempo shifted from salsa to whipped cream. Pitts turned and grinned at me. “Have you ever seen anything so smooth?” he asked.
For the next 20 minutes, we watched North American Rockwell’s big, beautiful cross-country transport flow through giant loops and vertical climbs, four-point rolls and half Cuban eights. Two engines roared, then only one, but the airplane kept dancing. When the second engine stopped, the roar became a glider’s whoosh. The airplane swept past in a deadstick loop, followed by an eight-point roll, then waltzed down to the landing: LEFT two-three, RIGHT two-three, LEFT two-three—the wings banked steeply as one tire kissed the runway, skated, rolled, then lifted as the wings banked the other way, and that wheel skated, rolled…. “Now that’s flying,” Pitts said to me as Hoover, still without power, maneuvered up the runway and onto the taxiway, stopped precisely at show center, then climbed out in his business suit and waved his straw hat at the cheering crowd.
That Shrike and a bright yellow North American P-51 Mustang he called “Ole Yeller” were Hoover’s signature showplanes, and he flew them all over the world. But they represent only two of the more than 300 types of aircraft he flew, many of those in aerobatic demonstrations. In 1938, when he was 16, he flew his first show, entertaining his family with a Piper J-3 Cub. By the end of his career, 62 years later, he had flown more shows for more people than anyone else in history.
“He was the one that everyone wanted,” veteran airshow announcer Danny Clisham says. “He was able to take four distinctly different airplanes in one day and make them all dance in a different way from any other airplane.”
At 88, he is still in demand. Through a speaker’s bureau, he entertains audiences with stories revealing a skill so uncanny that it enabled him to perform low-level aerobatic demonstrations in dozens of types of airplanes the first time he flew them. Once, in Moscow, he was arrested for doing that because he upstaged the Soviet pilots in their own Yak-18s. During World War II, as a military test pilot evaluating aircraft delivered to bases in North Africa, Hoover entertained his fellow airmen by improvising an aerobatic routine in a newly arrived Lockheed P-38. Perhaps his most famous first-flight story takes place at the end of the war: After spending almost 16 months in a German prisoner-of-war camp, Hoover escaped, found a Fw 190, hopped in, and flew it to Holland.
After graduating from Army flight training in 1941, Hoover flew everything he could get his hands on. “Hell, I would fly an old Dodge truck if they put wings on the side,” he wrote in his autobiography, Forever Flying. He had such confidence and curiosity that he learned things about airplanes other pilots hadn’t figured out, such as why the Bell P-39 Airacobra tumbled—and how to recover when it did. In the 1950s, while he was working as an experimental test pilot for North American Aviation, he developed a dive- bombing technique for the F-86 Sabre and traveled to Korea to demonstrate the maneuver for pilots flying combat missions. He also taught them how to take off with heavy loads and from short runways. There had been several fatal crashes in the Sabrejet, and Hoover’s demonstrations, by several accounts, saved many lives.
Still at North American when the company sold the Air Force the supersonic F-100, Hoover flew a demo for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that convinced the team that the Super Sabre would be the perfect airplane for them.
Even with so many aircraft in his logbook, Hoover says he still regrets the one that got away: The Bell X-1S, and the 1947 flight that broke the sound barrier. He and Chuck Yeager were test pilots together at the Air Technical Service Command at Ohio’s Wright Field when Yeager was chosen for the flight. Hoover was picked as his backup. He has always said that what cost him the spot was getting caught that year making two inverted passes in a Lockheed P-80 at an Ohio airport.
He and Yeager were good friends, dogfighting over Wright Field every chance they got. Yeager recalled the period in his 1985 autobiography: “In January 1946, the skies over Wright Field were finally quiet. That’s because Bob Hoover and I were sitting in class at the test pilot school on base, taking a six-month course.”