Remembering pilot extraordinaire R.A. ‘Bob” Hoover

Air University's 2005 Gathering of Eagles lithograph of honoree test pilot Bob Hoover. USAF image via Wikipedia.

Air University’s 2005 Gathering of Eagles lithograph of honoree test pilot Bob Hoover. USAF image via Wikipedia.

25 October 2016 | Nanton, Alberta, Canada. Spectators gasped in awe in 1973 as the white and red Canadair Sabre Mk V zoomed skyward in a vertical climb and then paused in a stall as gravity counteracted the turbojet engine’s thrust. Slowly the Sabre slid vertically downward, under perfect control, and with raw jet fuel being ejected from the Orenda turbojet engine. A few seconds afterward the swept-wing jet snapped upon Bob Hoover’s command into level flight and screamed past the crowd as it followed the runway at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. SONY DSC

A short while later the same crowd was treated to an incredible display of Hoover’s piloting skill in a Shrike Commander. On alternate days Bob Hoover exercised a yellow North American P-51D Mustang to entertain the throngs.

Sir Isaac Newton would have been perplexed by Bob Hoover’s performances because, apparently, the laws of gravity did not necessarily apply to the man behind the controls of the three aircraft. The pilot’s full name was Robert Anderson “Bob” Hoover. He was a pilot extraordinaire, an honorary Canadian Forces Snowbird, and arguably the best stick man ever to climb into the cockpit of an airplane.

Canadair CT-114 Tutor/ A former Snowbird #4. Photo: John Stemple

Canadair CT-114 Tutor/ A former Snowbird #4 at Bomber Command Museum of Canada.
Photo: John Stemple

Bob Hoover learned to fly at Nashville’s Berry Field while and worked at a grocery to finance his lessons. He also enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and applied for U.S. Army pilot training. After proving his expertise and instructing the instructors during his primary flying training course, Hoover received his wings and was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant.

In England, Bob Hoover flew Spitfires with Royal Air Force squadrons until he and his colleagues were posted to the North Africa theatre of operations. Hoover was subsequently assigned to an aircraft assembly depot, and his job, which proved dangerous due to the inexperienced Arab assemblers, was to test fly newly assembled aircraft prior to their being distributed to squadrons.

Eventually Bob Hoover was posted to the 52nd Fighter Group in Sicily, where he began flying Supermarine Spitfires Mk IXs. In the course of his 59th mission, on 9 February 1944, Hoover’s Spitfire was downed, as a result of a malfunctioning externally mounted jettisonable external overload (auxiliary) fuel tank that caused considerable drag and markedly reduced the aeroplane’s performance, off the coast of Southern France by a Luftwaffe ace flying a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter. Successfully baling out, Bob Hoover became a prisoner of war and found himself confined within the Stalag Luft I detention facility.

After 16 months of incarceration Bob Hoover escaped from the prison camp and managed to steal one of the single-seat Fw 190s from a nearby Luftwaffe aerodrome. He flew to the Netherlands and soon thereafter made his way to England.

The X-1 just prior to breaking the sound barrier. Bob Hoover is piloting the F-80. Photo: USAF.

The X-1 just prior to breaking the sound barrier. Bob Hoover is piloting the F-80 (the light coloured jet behind the X-1). Photo: USAF.

After the war Bob Hoover served as a U.S. Air Force (USAF) test pilot, and he was designated as backup pilot for the Bell X-1 program. Hoover was duly at the controls of the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star chase plane on 14 October 1947 as Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier.

Photo of Yeager and X-1 taken by Hoover from F-80 chase plane 14 October 1947. USAF photo by Lt Bob Hoover.

Photo of Yeager and X-1 taken by Bob Hoover from F-80 chase plane 14 October 1947. USAF photo by 1st Lt R.A. Hoover.

Over the course of Hoover’s military career he was awarded numerous honours including the following: Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier’s Medal for non-combat valour, an Air Medal with oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. Hoover was also made an honorary member of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

f-100-at-wings-museum-13-oct-2016-by-john-stemple-4x6-with-textAfter completing a rich military career, Bob Hoover continued test flying. He was employed by the Allison Engine Company and then North American Aviation. Notably, during the Korean conflict in the early 1950s Hoover demonstrated advanced tactics for American pilots flying North American F-86 Sabre Jets relevant to dogfighting with North Korean Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot fighters and dive-bombing.  Following this, Bob Hoover flight tested the F-86’s successor — the North American F-100 Super Sabre series of supersonic birds.

According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, at the time of his induction Hoover had flown “over 300 types of aircraft and flight tested or flown nearly every type of fighter aircraft.” He had furthermore set records for time-to-climb and maximum and transcontinental speeds.

bob-hoover-p-51-and-shrike-commander-at-oshkosh-1974-by-john-stempleBob Hoover thereafter became a world-renown air show performer by piloting a North American P-51D Mustang and an Aero (Shrike) Commander through incredible manoeuvres and making extremely difficult flying look simplistic. Hoover was reportedly described by the great General Jimmy Doolittle as “… the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”

One incident reflected Bob Hoover’s personality. Once a lineboy erroneously fuelled Hoover’s Shrike Commander with Jet A fuel, a mistake that resulted in Hoover making a forced landing after engine failure. Bob returned to the airport and sought out the fuel handler. Most aviators would have been irate to say the least, but Hoover spoke compassionately to the young man and essentially told him not to excessively fret about his slip-up.

bob-hoover-93rd-birthday-poster-216x300Additional recognitions of Bob Hoover’s greatness include an Award of Merit from the American Fighter Pilots Association, and Bob Hoover was inducted, in 1988, into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Furthermore, he was nominated to the Aerospace Walk of Honour in 1992, and in 2006 Hoover received the Living Legends of Aviation Freedom of Flight Award. This award was duly renamed, in 2007, as the Bob Hoover Freedom of Flight Award. Also that year, Hoover received the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Trophy.

forever-flyingBob Hoover continued to perform until 1992, and authored an autobiography titled Forever Flying circa 1996-1997. In 2015 the Air Force Association awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Over the decades Bob Hoover’s aerial magic inspired thousands of individuals, one being this writer, worldwide to become pilots which is, possibly, his greatest legacy. Hoover’s legion of fans will find comfort in the knowledge that he will continue to inspire future generations not privileged to have seen his winged routines in person through film archives and print media.

In passing, at the age of 94, to his heavenly reward on 25 October 2016 this extraordinary Snowbird bypassed the warm American South and reached his new home in heaven. It would not be surprising if Bob Hoover is already giving the angels a few pointers on flying techniques.


The author (John Stemple) thanks Bomber Command Museum of Canada and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds (No. 431 Air Demonstration Squadron). 20th Century Aviation Magazine salutes the late Robert Anderson Hoover.

Suggested Viewings

Bob Hoover: A Legendary Stick and Rudder Man

Bob Hoover Demonstrating the F-86F

EAA Bob Hoover Tribute from 1967

F-100 Super Sabre Demo Test Flight by Bob Hoover

Test Pilot Bob Hoover – P-51 Mustang Air Show “COME FLY WITH ME” 24064

The Bob Hoover Project: Flying the Feathered Edge

Video from the Past [33] – Bob Hoover – American Test Pilot

Sources and Suggested Readings

Bob Hoover

Canadian Forces Snowbirds

Jet A and Piston Commanders Don’t Go Together

Honorary Snowbirds

Hoover, Bob. Forever Flying: Fifty Years of High-flying Adventures, From Barnstorming in Prop Planes to Dogfighting Germans to Testing Supersonic Jets, An Autobiography. Atria Books, 1997.

Jet A and Piston Commanders Don’t Go Together

Robert “Bob” Hoover

The Bob Hoover Project: Flying the Feathered Edge