Simply the Best

Is there an airshow fan alive who doesn't know the legend riding beneath that hat?

“Ole Yeller” waltzes to a landing, with Hoover touching one wheel to the runway, then the other — his signature finale to an aerobatic performance. (Ted Koston)
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As a test pilot, already famous for flying, Hoover became doubly famous for surviving: Engines exploding, ejection seats failing, wings buckling, control rods burning through, and rockets firing through the nose of an F-86 he was flying—all could have been fatal. In many of the incidents, the airplanes should have crashed, but thanks to Hoover’s luck and exceptional talent, he almost always got the aircraft back on the ground. In November 1950, assigned to test a new kind of F-86 control system, Hoover took off from Los Angeles, and the system immediately failed. The F-86 nose pitched straight up, and the airplane stalled and spun toward the runway. Thinking back on the incident today, Hoover says he thought to himself, “Oh boy, this is really going to hurt.” The controls were stiff as concrete, but he began to work with what he could move: the rudder, throttle, speed brakes, and flaps. “I kept trying to find the sweet spot where the forces are exactly the same on the top and bottom of the horizontal stabilizer,” he says.

For the next 40 minutes, he struggled to keep the airplane in that sweet spot. A number of times he almost crashed. But he was able to wrestle the F-86 inland to an 11-mile-long dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

In 1994, when he was 72, Hoover fought another kind of threat. Federal Air Surgeon Jon L. Jordan revoked his medical certificate, an action that suspended his solo flying privileges. Friends, fans, doctors, lawyers, and show pilots all over the world rallied to protest. Later, Jordan wrote, “Possibly in the entire history of the conduct of the airman medical certification program, no one decision has created more controversy.” On October 19, 1995, the Federal Aviation Administration reinstated Hoover’s medical.

In the interim, he passed the medical and flying tests for an airline transport rating in Australia and flew the Shrike Commander in shows there, but for several years “Ole Yeller” sat without him. The P-51 Mustang is famous for the torque of its 1,425-horsepower engine. When the pilot pushes the throttle forward on takeoff, or banks the airplane steeply for a knife-edge, or gives the fighter full power while its speed drops, it takes strong legs and lots of rudder to hold the nose straight. During his siege with the FAA, Hoover’s leg muscles took a holiday from the 40 years they had been fighting the P-51’s torque. After the hiatus, he flew “Ole Yeller” at Nevada’s Reno Air Races in 1996, a year after he got his medical back. “When I landed, everybody said, ‘That was the best flight you ever made,’ ’’ Hoover recalls. “Colleen, my wife said, ‘I bet you’ll never sell that airplane now.’ “I said, ‘On the contrary. That was my last flight in the Mustang.’ My knees were hurting so bad that I knew the time had come where I couldn’t handle the torque. I broke both legs during an accident in my test flying career and they had gotten much worse with age, so I had been taking lots of exercise to get my knees more strength. The torque with the Mustang is really enormous, and when you’re doing a knife edge, flying close to the ground, you boot the rudder even harder. It got my knees hurting so bad that when I landed, I couldn’t get out of the cockpit.”

Hoover sold the Mustang to John Bagley, founder of the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg, Idaho, who still flies it at airshows. In 2000, Hoover donated his Shrike to the National Air and Space Museum.

Hoover had flown the P-51 as the official pace plane of the National Championship Air Races from the very first race, in 1964, until 1990, and race fans loved him.

“At the Reno Air Races,” says Danny Clisham, “he performed in four different airplanes, flew the pace plane, warmed up the crowd before the race, and entertained them [after the last race] when the Unlimiteds were landing. In four days, he would make 28 different flights.”

That stamina had been Hoover’s trademark from the beginning. His boyhood dream was to be a fighter pilot, but when he paid $2 for his first 15-minute lesson, he discovered something horrible: Flying made him airsick. For almost a year, every flight nauseated him. When he finally got to fly solo, he chose an unusual course and it has defined his life. He decided to loop, roll, and spin the Piper Cub until his stomach was conditioned. It worked. By the time he got to Army Air Corps training, he was the best aerobatic pilot anyone had seen, and it set the course for his one-of-kind flying career.

When Debbie Gary is not flying, she writes from her home in a Texas airpark.

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