Why the war hero, test pilot and airshow great means so much to us pilots
Was Bob Hoover the greatest pilot ever? I don’t know. He surely needs to be in that conversation, but when all is said and done, the result is discovering that the question is unanswerable. Truth is, it’s impossible to say what even goes into deciding who’s the greatest pilot or what it even means. Suffice it to say, Bob Hoover was great. I learned that as a boy. And it wasn’t about his flying.
It was back in the mid-1970s, and my mom and dad (we owned a small FBO in the desert of Southern California) decided to put on an airshow. I’m dredging up the details, and my folks aren’t around to ask anymore, but I recall it was a gorgeous fall day in the desert and personal flying was at an all-time high. The planning for the airshow started no more than a couple of months before the event and it turned out to be hugely successful. Not only did my folks put on an airshow, but they put on an air race, complete with pylons and the whole nine yards. It would be impossible to do such a thing today, but at the time when word got out, everybody wanted to be there. While it was easy to attract pilots and warbirds to the event, the crowd was mostly local and numbered probably no more than 5,000, many of whom flew up from the L.A. basin through clear smooth skies through the pass between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. By the time the show started, the ramp was chock-a-block with Comanches and Bonanzas, 172s and Commanders. It was GA at its height.
I was a kid who drove the fuel truck, and, boy, was I busy. I don’t remember the exact details, but I’m sure I pumped from 6 to 80 gallons of fuel into at least 200 airplanes over the course of a couple of very long days, and our little restaurant had set up folding tables on the grass and was flipping my mom’s famous chili burgers as fast as the physics of the grill would allow.
The star of the show was one Robert A. Hoover. Bob. My dad often spoke of the pitch he gave him to come and put on his famous airshow routine in his green-and-white Shrike Commander. The negotiations consisted of my dad laying the groundwork—small startup show, not much of a budget, which I’m sure Bob had heard a hundred times before—and Hoover telling my dad that he’d do it if we fueled him up before and after the show, and then whatever we could afford to pay him on top of that would be gravy.
Well, he did indeed fly, and to say that his performance was the highlight of our little show . . . understatement does not do it justice. He held the crowd spellbound, including me, who got to watch while perched atop our big red Texaco fuel truck, engine idling, the guy in the 152 wanting fuel as spellbound as I was so not complaining about my impromptu break while Bob wrung out the Shrike. Magic!
Even more though, I remember Bob after the show walking the crowd, decked out in his signature white flight suit and Panama hat, shaking hands and asking the people if they were pilots, and if so, what did they fly. His eyes locked on and he listened to these weekend warriors as if he were listening to Neil Armstrong describe his journey to the moon. And it wasn’t fake. It was absolutely genuine. And I thought to myself, if this guy, who I knew was one of the greatest pilots in the world, a FACT I’d just witnessed, could open himself up to commoner pilots like I was just starting to be, well, then there had to be something really special about him.
And there was.
Years later, Bob spoke at Oshkosh along with Chuck Yeager and Bud Anderson, two other pilots who would have to be on the list of the greatest of the greats—but it was Bob who commanded the stage. Not because he was trying to, but because he could tell a story. And not because he was a practiced storyteller. He was a natural. He told the tale of a flight he took in an experimental North American jet—I wish I could remember more, it’s been so many years—and the long and the short of it was the thing was almost impossible to control. What Bob described was his understanding that he was probably going to die unless he figured this thing out. The remarkable thing to me was that it wasn’t a realization. It was as though he knew the risk involved as he climbed aboard and buckled in, so the pickle he was in was no surprise. Indeed, he recounted how he worked through the problem one desperate attempt at a time until he hit upon a partial solution that allowed him to barely fly the craft to a survivable crash landing in the desert. And the way he told it was like he’d never told the story before. It was as though it were happening to him as he spoke. Not only that, but he talked about it as though he were trying to figure out a tricky crossword and not save his life from the ill-mannered supersonic lawn dart he was strapped into.
I took it as humility, and the more I got to listen to Bob and the more I got to know him, I realized that this was exactly what it was. For Bob Hoover, what he did in an airplane was the exact same thing that you and I do when we’re in an airplane. We fly. The details beyond that are fascinating and he remembered them all. But at base level, it was the flying that was magic, and we pilots were all so dang lucky to be able to go on this incredible ride we call flight.
And what a flight Robert Anderson Hoover went on. What a life.