Legendary Bob Hoover was a USAF test pilot and an air show performer, known for his graceful energy management maneuvers. He’s referred to in aviation circles as a “pilot’s pilot.”
It’s not often you get to meet a legend. In aviation, most of our legends lived long ago, their exploits reduced to black-and-white photographs and dusty aircraft suspended from museum ceilings. But not Bob Hoover. At 92 years old, the man that both Chuck Yeager and Jimmy Doolittle called “the greatest stick-and-rudder pilot who ever lived,” is very much alive and still inspiring pilots, even from the comfort of his own living room.
“Well, I’m very pleased to meet you,” Hoover announces to me, offering his hand and beaming a warm smile. As I shake his hand, images of Hoover’s canary-yellow P-51 Mustang flash through my head like a dream sequence from a movie. I see his famed “Shrike” Commander doing eight-point rolls in silence, with both engines feathered. I see his trademark straw hat, and I’m returned to an air show in 1978. All I can muster is, “I’m honored, sir.”
We’re in Hoover’s study in his Southern California home. I’m surrounded by the tokens of a life well-lived. There on my left is the Distinguished Flying Cross and Aviation Pioneer Award; over my shoulder are the Lindbergh Medal, Aviation Hall of Fame award and the Purple Heart. If an aviation honor exists, Hoover has earned it, and it’s humbling to know that the room I’m standing in has entertained the most notable aviation and space heroes of our time. There in front of me is the man himself.
It’s a rare luxury to be nearly alone with Hoover. At all events, he’s crowded by throngs of admirers, but today I’m one of only a handful of people in Hoover’s home. Filmmaker Dan Birman is here with his crew to interview Hoover for a film Birman is making about the legendary aviator. It’s a project that has been in the works for some time and is finally nearing completion. Plane & Pilot editor Jessica Ambats is also here, having known Hoover over the years. Today, Hoover will be watching archival footage of his flying career and providing commentary on camera for Birman’s documentary.
“It looks like you guys are all set up,” smiles Hoover as he emerges from his upstairs living area on a gorgeous Saturday morning. Though he isn’t a frail man, 92 years is a long ride for anybody, and he moves slowly but with purpose. Hoover wears his years well and is charming. It’s easy to see why he has had such an impact on people over the years.
Born in Tennessee, Robert A. “Bob” Hoover still carries a slight twang in his characteristic mid-pitch voice. He speaks with a certain cadence, emphasizing words at the end of a phrase. Hoover’s engineering background is evident in his descriptions, and when he tells stories, he likes to give the aeronautical background first, so people can better understand each situation. He comes alive watching footage of flying, and it’s plain to see he still loves aviation with all his being.
Filmmaker Dan Birman’s crew captures Bob Hoover prior to a flight in a Sabreliner jet.
“I always flew for myself,” reflects Hoover, as he watches footage of himself doing point rolls. Just 10 years ago, at the age of 82, Bob Hoover flew Barron Hilton’s Extra 300 with a friend of theirs and filmed it. It was Hoover at the controls as he took the Extra through a series of precision maneuvers that would make any aerobatic pilot envious. “I didn’t fly for the crowds. I just wanted to make each flight better than the last one; more precise.”
The footage shows a remarkably calm Hoover putting the Extra through its paces. It was a man totally at home in an environment that’s foreign to most people. On display was one of the traits that made Hoover such a “pilot’s pilot”—the ease and calm with which he performed extraordinarily difficult maneuvers. “My goal was to perform every maneuver so smoothly that if a passenger were with me, they would feel like they were drinking tea in their living room,” he says.
Never a boastful man, Hoover was an unlikely aviation hero. Tall and lanky, he never looked like the textbook “Fighter Pilot.” His aversion to aerobatics is legendary, and his first forays into three-dimensional flying left him airsick and disoriented. “I used to get so uncomfortable even doing turns,” Hoover relates. “So I would bank steeper and steeper until one day I thought, ‘Well why not go all the way around!’ And I kept doing it and doing it until I didn’t get so sick anymore. But I had a hard time with it at first.”
Of course, Bob Hoover went on to do just about everything you can do in aviation and then some. From barnstorming in old biplanes to dogfights over Europe in World War II to testing the latest supersonic jets, Hoover did it all. Most people don’t know it was Bob Hoover flying chase in an F-84 next to Chuck Yeager’s X-1 on that fateful day of October 14, 1947, when Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time, and the gate to the space age was unlocked. In fact, Hoover took the very first photographs of the diamond-shaped shock waves behind the exhaust plume of the X-1 that President Harry Truman saw the next day.
roll to a stop.
During a break in Birman’s filming schedule, Hoover sat down to a deli sandwich lunch with us and talked more about flying. I asked him about his favorite aircraft. “My favorite is the F-86,” he answered. “It was so nice to fly, maneuverable and quick.” I asked him about flying with other pilots. “I don’t like to fly aerobatics with other pilots,” he said, much to my surprise. “It makes me uncomfortable if I don’t know what the pilot is going to do without warning. It’s not pleasant for me. I prefer to know what a pilot is going to do, so I can prepare for it.”
Hoover’s comment brought me back to what he’s probably best known for: his mind-blowing aerobatic routines from air shows spanning more than 30 years. While some pilots tumble and spin with brute force and power, Hoover took a twin-engine business aircraft—a Rockwell Shrike Commander—and flew what he called “energy management maneuvers.” These were smooth rolls and loops with one engine, then both engines, feathered. He’d land dead-stick and roll the aircraft to a stop perfectly in front of the cheering crowds. He also flew soaring maneuvers in a yellow P-51 D Mustang. During both acts, he wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. YouTube has videos of these shows, and they’re breathtaking to this day. Nobody has ever matched Hoover in finesse and grace. I doubt anybody will.
I wonder if Hoover misses flying, but looking out his window, perched high above the Pacific Ocean and with a sweeping view from Malibu to Palos Verdes, I realize he’s flying every day in this aerie of his. He lives a quiet life here in a home he has owned for 65 years alongside his beloved wife, Colleen. When asked how it feels to have accomplished everything he has in aviation, Hoover says, “Every time I fly, I experience another dimension of existence, no longer tied to the earth. I feel free—free of gravity, free of everything. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Bob Hoover’s 1996 autobiography, Forever Flying, is still in print and available at retail outlets. Look for Birman’s film this year.
Honoring A Lifetime Of Excellence
| The documentary film about Bob Hoover is the keystone of a larger project to honor the man and his contributions. Though the film isn’t titled yet, noted documentary filmmaker Dan Birman wanted to create something that would honor Hoover’s accomplishments in aviation in a unique way. “I didn’t want to make a old-style history documentary on Bob Hoover,” said Birman during filming at Hoover’s home near Los Angeles, “I want to make a film that shows the depths of what this man has accomplished.”
In February 2014, a series of “Bob Hoover Events” will take place in Los Angeles to both honor Hoover’s contributions to aviation and raise funds for a series of Bob Hoover scholarships. Funds will also be used to complete the documentary film. The events are being organized by three noted aviation couples, Tom and Sharon Poberezny, Mike and Maria Herman, and Ron and Diane Fagen. Event hosts will include Harrison Ford, Sean D. Tucker, Clay Lacy, Randy Babbit, astronauts Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, and other aviation luminaries.
Beginning on February 20th, a series of special events will take place to honor Bob Hoover and his legacy. On the 20th, the aviation world will launch the “Bob Hoover Hall of Heroes.” This will be a virtual hall of honor that will be accessed online from around the world. Its mission will be to preserve Hoover’s legacy and serve as a lasting tribute to his accomplishments. The Hall will also honor other aviation greats who have given a lifetime of contributions and achievement to aviation. Hoover will be the inaugural inductee, and eight other inductees will be named at a special “Hoover’s Heroes Dinner” that evening at the famed Four Seasons Los Angeles.
The main event will happen on February 21st, when the aviation world will gather together to pay tribute to Bob Hoover. This event will take place at the historic Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Calif., and will start with the Lifetime of Excellence Reception for attendees as they walk the red carpet of Bob Hoover’s life. This will be followed by dinner under the iconic Paramount Arch. Attendees will then enter the Paramount Studios Theater for the premier of the documentary, with a special program to follow.
Earlier on the 21st is a “Lunch with Bob Hoover and Friends” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. This will be a special program for students from high schools and universities with aviation programs to have lunch with Hoover and a group of aviation leaders. The luncheon will be a special opportunity for young adults to be inspired and motivated by one of aviation’s biggest heroes.
Visit www.hooverhallofhonor.com for more information and to purchase tickets.