We have lost a great man and a legendary pilot. All the superlatives apply. For those not of the aviation world, it is hard to describe how much Robert A. “Bob” Hoover meant to us and how much he loved us in return. This biography will help explain his place in history but, most of all, day after day, Bob Hoover was a true gentleman.
Bob Hoover began flying at Nashville’s Berry Field in 1937, where he taught himself basic aerobatic maneuvers. He joined the Tennessee Air National Guard and his squadron became part of the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940. Because of his extraordinary flying skills, Hoover soon became a test pilot, charged with flying military aircraft to the edge of their performance capabilities. Eager to fly in combat in World War II, Hoover was assigned to Corsica and flew 58 missions before being shot down. He spent 15 ½ months in a German prison camp before escaping and commandeering a Focke-Wulf FW-190 for his flight to freedom.
After the war, he became a front line military test pilot flying the F-84, P-80 and others at Wright Field. In 1947, he was the back-up pilot for Chuck Yeager who flew the Bell X-1 beyond the speed of sound. He then became a civilian test pilot for the Allison Division of General Motors and North American Aviation where he flew the first flight of the XFJ-2 Fury, and became a civilian graduate of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School to continue carrier flight test of the FJ-2. He tested the F-86 Sabre jet, including one 40-minute flight with failed flight control systems, and demonstrated the jet to Air Force pilots in Korea, flying several bombing missions to prove the validity of new bombing procedures. His flight test and engineering knowledge led to the redesign of the tail of the first century series supersonic fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre.
Hoover moved into corporate positions and also continued to fly a precision aerobatic routine at military and civilian air shows with a North American P-51 Mustang. For many years, flying the bright yellow P-51 Old Yeller, Hoover started the Unlimited class race at the Reno Air Races with his signature phrase, “Gentlemen, you have a race!” As a safety pilot there, his advice saved the lives of several pilots in emergency situations. He was captain of the 1966 U.S. Aerobatic Team and his skill as an aerobatic performer is unmatched. He set altitude and speed records in North American and Rockwell aircraft and was routinely sent abroad to the Paris Air Show and even Moscow to demonstrate aircraft. Hoover demonstrated the business version of the T-39 jet, the Sabreliner, and then, in 1968, he began demonstrating the Aero Commander fleet at the National Business Aircraft Maintenance Show in Reading, Pennsylvania. He earned his helicopter rating in the 1970s.
He began flying the Shrike Commander model in 1973. Shrike Commander 500S, N500RA, was manufactured in 1972. President and C.E.O. of Rockwell International, Robert Anderson, first flew the aircraft, followed by several other owners, before Hoover bought it in 1979. N500RA was a production 500S business aircraft, with the exception of smoke and propeller unfeathering systems. He painted it in a distinctive white and green paint scheme, with his name on the top of each wing. Hoover’s routine demonstrated the Shrike’s excellent high and low-speed handling capabilities, and its one-engine and no-engine performance. But because it was a stock business aircraft that lacked highly modified engines and quick climb or turn characteristics, the Shrike Commander was a more challenging aircraft for air show flight than his P-51 fighter. In addition, to 16-point rolls and loops, Hoover flew a precise deadstick (no-engine) maneuver with a loop, eight-point roll, a 180-degree turn to a touchdown with first one wheel and then the opposite wheel, landing, and taxi to air show center.
One particular maneuver demonstrated Hoover’s superb pilot skills in both the Shrike and the Sabreliner, but it is only visible on film. At altitude, Hoover set a glass on top of the instrument panel and proceeded to pour iced tea into the glass from a pitcher in his right hand while using his left hand to completely roll the aircraft. Combining centrifugal force with smooth handling of the controls, he never spilled a drop of tea.
Hoover flew the aircraft at air shows in the United States and around the world until April 1994 when the FAA intervened. In a highly controversial decision, Hoover’s medical certificate was revoked, causing an outcry from the aviation community. Hoover submitted to several medical examinations and flight tests, consistently proving his health qualifications and flight proficiency, before his certificate was restored to him, at age 73, in October 1995. In 2000, Hoover, citing high insurance costs, decided to retire the aircraft and offer it to the Museum. In October 2003, Hoover and his ferry pilot delivered the Shrike to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center where it is now displayed.
Robert A. Hoover has flow more than 300 types of aircraft at more than 2,500 air shows. He is a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier's Medal for Valor, Air Medal with Clusters, Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. A graduate of both the USAF Test Pilot School and USN Test Pilots School, he is a past president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and the only man to serve two terms as president. He is an inductee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) Hall of Fame. He was also made an honorary member of the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, and American Fighter Aces Association. He is the recipient of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lindbergh Medal, Living Legends of Aviation Award, the 2007 National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, and the 2014 National Aeronautic Association Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy.
No less an expert than Jimmy Doolittle said, “Bob is the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived.”