In the Centennial of Flight edition of the Air and Space Smithsonian, he was named the third greatest aviator in history.
He should be enjoying a quiet semi-retirement after a life well-lived in service to his country and his fellow aviators. But… not so much. Hoover’s accomplishments are world renowned… even to the point where Brigadier General (Ret.) Chuck Yeager called him the best pilot he’d ever seen.
Hoover’s exploits were many… including a thrilling WWII escape from a German POW camp, made possible by his theft of a Luftwaffe fighter plane to make his way to freedom.After a stellar career as a test pilot involved in shepherding some of this nation’s most important airframes into history, including his support of the early Bell X-1 Mach flight, Hoover further distinguished himself as an airshow pilot demonstrating a number of unique craft… flying them in ways that remain unequaled by any other performer.
Hoover, a veteran military, airshow, and test pilot, spent decades as the official starter of the Reno Air Races, guiding pilots into line abreast with his P-51, then announcing “gentlemen, you have a race” as he pulled up to circle above the contest. If an airplane got into trouble, as they often did, Hoover would form up on the wing and talk the pilot through it.
“Somebody would have a problem almost every other race, and over the years I must have talked down 30 or 40 airplanes that were in real trouble,” Hoover said in a telephone interview. “As a test pilot, I had more experience, probably, than most people.”
However, in 1992, when the FAA was trying to provide justification for rules that virtually grounded every airline pilot past the age of 60, it was oft pointed out that Hoover’s amazing airshow performances, being flown while he was still in his 70s, pretty much negated and/or belittled the FAA’s position on the ‘Age 60’ rule.
During a June 1992 performance in Oklahoma City, OK, two FAA Inspectors allegedly seeking to ‘bust somebody famous’ filed a report (later contested by every airshow performer who was there, and a fellow FAA inspector) that called into question Hoover’s abilities as a pilot, as well as his reasoning and social skills. Bob went on to fly 33 more airshows, in front of hundreds of thousands of people without a scratch (or a pep from the FAA), before the FAA issued an inexplicable “Emergency” order grounding him immediately – well over a year after the OKC show that started the action.
Despite the fact that Bob’s flying privileges, including his amazing airshow performances, were otherwise unrestricted in a number of countries around the world (even after a cautious reexamination—medical and aeronautical in countries as far away as Australia), the FAA persisted in its course… despite a growing chorus of criticism and expert disapproval.
What followed became a three-year struggle for Hoover. It developed into an immense industry-wide protest of a scope that had never been seen before… or since. After millions of dollars, tremendous personal embarrassment, and no small amount of legal maneuvering, the FAA relented and restored Bob’s privileges—to the delight of flyers everywhere.
While Bob was pleased to be vindicated, the matter still leaves him unsettled, “What happened was wrong… and what happened to me is still happening, every day, to aviators everywhere who did not have the expert help I had.”
Hoover has set records for transcontinental and "time to climb" speed, and has personally known such great aviators as Orville Wright, Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Jacqueline Cochran, Neil Armstrong, and Yuri Gagarin.
In 1984, the Abbotsford Air Show, held east of Vancouver, drew so much attention that traffic was bumper-to-bumper from the freeway to the airfield. In that traffic sat a popular performer who was behind schedule. He watched the sky, judging his launch time by who was in the air. Suddenly, he rammed the car ahead of him. The other driver leaped from his car and raced to the pilot’s window. “Damn it! I just bought this brand-new Lincoln for my wife,” he exclaimed. “Worse than that, now I’m gonna miss seeing Bob Hoover fly!” Embarrassed, Bob Hoover introduced himself, apologized for the inconvenience and invited the couple to ride in his car. Soon, they were traveling through the VIP gate, towards the P-51 and Shrike Commander the legendary air show pilot would be flying that day.
At 15, Hoover began taking flying lessons. Each Sunday, he pocketed the two dollars he’d earned for 16 hours of sacking groceries and showed up at the airport for a 15-minute lesson in a Piper Cub. After almost a year, he finally had the eight hours needed to qualify for solo flight.
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the worst way,” he said.
Shorter pilots were likely to go to fighter training and taller ones to bombers and transports.
At six feet, two inches, Hoover definitely had a problem, as did a short friend, who wanted to go to transports but had been given a fighter assignment.
The two developed a plan and visited a sergeant in the personnel office. “I slipped a 20-dollar bill to him and said, ‘He wants transports and I want fighters. Just switch those names, and everybody will be happy.’
That’s how I became a fighter pilot,” Hoover said.
Hoover became a hero when the squadron was offered a shot-up B-26 Martin Marauder, if someone could retrieve the plane from a short stretch of beach in the Straits of Messina.
No one felt they could get the plane airborne, because it was in a narrow, obstructed area. The challenge intrigued Hoover.
He and a mechanic flew an L-4 reconnaissance plane to look at the bomber, which they found on a 1,000-foot crescent-shaped stretch of sand that had a 12-foot drop-off to the water at one end.
Hoover had studied manuals describing the plane’s capabilities and knew they would need to lighten the aircraft. Two days later, the mechanic and a crew of 10 men began removing the copilot’s seat, most of the instruments and everything else that wasn’t essential to fly the plane. The recovery effort took more than a month.
On takeoff, Hoover had less than 100 gallons of fuel. With about four feet of clearance on each side of 600 feet of steel matting now covering the sandy beach, and a 300-foot extension of chicken wire beyond that, he was able to lift the nose of the B-26 and head toward Palermo.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his effort.