Bob Hoover: the one and only

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.

Bob Hoover by P-51
Bob Hoover was a gentleman in addition to being a great pilot.

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.

Bob Hoover landing
The Commander routine was legendary, and there was no margin for error.

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.

15 Comments

  • I had the privilege of meeting Bob several times over the years, and was always impressed not only by his incredible piloting skill, but by his extremely gentlemanly conduct, a truly nice man. Although I have great memories of his incredible performances, my favorite memory of him is of a departure right after an airshow at FFZ in the 1970 – I had talked with him for a bit after his performance, and, after the show, we departed in our 310. Bob took off immediately after me in his 51, and pulled up off my left wing and flew formation with us for a few minutes as we climbed out of the field, then waved and zoomed ahead. Yes, he was wearing his trademark straw hat! I can still see him as clear as that day. He will be sorely missed.

    • i never formally met Bob Hoover, just one quick eye contact and a nod at Osh Kosh. But once, a long time ago, while making my rounds for Cessna Finance at Garden Air in Garden City Kansas, they hangared my C177 next to a bright yellow P51 with Bob Hoover written down the side. I asked the Garden Air manager for the story. A week prior to my arrival, Bob had been headed to the west coast at one of the flight levels and had an engine failure. He apparently knew exactly where he was, and calmly told center that he had an engine failure and would like an approach into Garden City. The weather was marginal and it was night time. He shot the approach to 19 dead stick, made the first available turn off, made it to the ramp, and almost pulled up in front of Garden Airs hangar. He then walked in, poured a cup of coffee and requested some long term hangar space. Wow. Talk about full use of kinetic energy.
      Fair winds and following seas Bob Hoover Fly on

  • In 1964 I was based at NAS Sanford, Florida. Bob was part of the airshow which included Dick Schram and the Blue Angels. Bob’s P-51 had a mechanical so he borrowed the stations T-28 and flew the same routine, never missing a beat.

  • I’ll never forget meeting him at our Rochester Area Pilots’ Association air show back in the ’80s– gentleman to the core– and seeing his performance. The air show had to be delayed due to low ceiling, but a scout plane soon reported (honestly or not) a show-legal ceiling. During Bob’s loops in the Shrike, he would disappear into the clouds at the top! I’m sure more than one FAA rep had come down from Minneapolis, but apparently they were Bob fans and played “see no evil” etc.

  • I saw Bob at Reno this year which reminded me of the many years he would start the air show with “Gentlemen, you have a race”. I purchased his book “Forever Flying” which he autographed.
    I will always remember his routine in his P-51 Old Yeller. I was amazed by this routine and also in the Shrike.
    As Jimmy Doolittle said, he is “The greatest stick and rudder man” ever. God rest his soul.

  • In the 80’s I was on a chartered bus from Van Nuys to a farm in Oxnard for a gathering. On that bus amongst others was Clay Lacy, Tony LeVier, and, of course Bob Hoover. Everyone was laughing, having a few drinks, and having a great time but I was so star-struck I’m not sure I said a word! True, many words will be written about Bob but none more than yours need be…you said it all Dick. Thanks for writing them……

  • Thanks so much for a “EXCELLENT ” written article,I’m 80 years old and This article helped me relive a part of my life that I so love enjoyed……the Reading Air show was one of the highlights…I can clearly close my eyes and see “Mr Bob Hoover ” coming out of the hollow at the end of the runway “POWER OFF”……….in his twin Aero Commander ……and land…….then taxi to the spot he was parked at beginning of his demonstration of his flying skills all without any additional power (Hoover had shut down engines down in that hollow) when he was out of sight from all the people in Air Show……..for a few seconds you thought he might of “LOST” power…”.truly thrilling moment”

    THANKS for letting me relive IT all
    Lewis “DOC” Adam

  • I was fortunate enough to see Bob fly at the Reading Air Show back in the day and at NAS Willow Grove. At Willow Grove he was close enough to me to hear me say Hi and he looked over and acknowledged me. What a WOW moment. Not many people of his stature would do that but he did and I never forgot.

    I worked on Sabreliners and know it was one heck of a jet. To see Bob go from P51 to Shrike to the jet and do the same basic routine was really something. What a pilot, what a person.

    • And let’s not forget his doing the same routine+ in an F-86 at Reno, the “+” being putting it into a multi-turn spin. He was a hero of mine from the first time I saw him in a P-51 while in college (late 1960s), long before I began flight lessons…and remains one today, and not only for his flight skills and demonstrated patriotism and courage, but for – by all accounts – being a Really Decent Person to boot. My loss for never having met the man – RIP Mr. Hoover.

  • I saw him fly and perform in Abbotsford, B. C. Canada and in USA. He has become a legend and left a glorious legacy behind. There may be more pilots with great stick and rudder skills but Bob Hoover is someone who left an indelible mark.
    Happy Journey Bob. You have our wishes !!

  • The late Pam Bird, Forrest Bird’s wife coined the the expression “Old pilots never die, they just get a new set of wings”. Certainly applies here !

  • The many times I saw Bob’s show, it was perfect each time. What else can you say? Sure wish I’d had the chance to meet this remarkable aviator.

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