Many words will be written about the legendary Bob Hoover who died on October 25, 2016, at age 94. His flying exploits have made news over the years and his accomplishments and talents have been well celebrated with countless awards and accolades.
I spent time with Bob off and on over the years and a couple of things really stood out that set him apart. Bob was a true gentleman who enjoyed his celebrity but never hid behind it. He was open and friendly and made everyone in his presence feel like he was interested in them and considered them a friend. In other words, when I was with him I always felt like he tried to make the visit about me, not him.
Whether it was having dinner with Bob and F. Lee Bailey when they were battling the FAA for Bob’s medical certificate or walking together from the hotel to the convention center during the NBAA meeting in New Orleans he was always the same.
As an aviator, Bob was the best, but he did play it right up to the edge. The difference in him was in never falling over the edge and into the abyss like so many others did.
I don’t know of any other air show performer who came so close so many times. And after an untoward event, he would dust himself off and get right back to business.
Bob was a fixture at the Reading Show in Reading, PA, back in its 1970s heyday. He would fly both his P-51 and Shrike Commander during the show and when Bob flew everything paused and all watched.
His Shrike act was truly graceful with rolls and loops, some without power, climaxing in a dead stick landing that rolled out at a prescribed location. The glass of iced tea that he sat atop the glareshield before takeoff was still right there when he landed.
One day at the bottom of a loop he rubbed the belly of the Shrike on the grass. Maybe he enjoyed the Commander so much because he could do that and the props would remain clear so he could power up and fly away. Anyway, after the encounter with the grass, which did no damage except to belly-mounted antennas, Bob simply said that he came up about an inch short on energy.
In his P-51 act at Reading, Bob would disappear just north of the airport by flying low along the Schuylkill River. One day when he landed, there was no question that the leading edges of the ’51 had gotten into some wires. He offered no excuse other than that the wires hadn’t been there the year before and he should have learned about them before flying. He did apologize to the folks who lost their power for a while that afternoon.
There was an engine problem with his Shrike once that resulted in an impromptu landing and when he was doing a roll right after liftoff in a Sabreliner at an air show in Europe he customized that airplane pretty thoroughly.
Those are just the events that I remember and I think they do illustrate Bob’s ability to push risk to the limit without exceeding that limit.
They are the same attributes that enabled him to swipe that Nazi fighter and fly to freedom from a POW camp during World War Two and that saw him through a lot of combat missions and later on through some pretty aggressive test flying.
The FAA cast a shadow on his career by lifting his medical certificate when he was 72. It happened after an inspector didn’t like what he saw at an air show and they trumped up a complaint that said Bob’s cognitive abilities had diminished and he didn’t meet the medical standards. The FAA didn’t want to back down but they were wrong and finally relented and Bob was back in business. And, you guessed it, he was a perfect gentleman the whole time.
Bob Hoover, Gone West at 94. Face the west and drink a toast to him as the sun sets this evening. You’ll be in the good company of folks the world over who appreciated Bob Hoover for the special person that he was.