They have called him “the best stick and rudder man ever” Robert A. “Bob” Hoover was born January 24, 1922 in Nashville, Tennessee. Bob’s first job was working at a grocery store and he used his salary to learn how to fly at Nashville’s Berry Field.
He enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and was sent for pilot training with the Army. During World War II, he was sent to Casablanca where his first major assignment was test flying the assembled aircraft ready for service.
He was later assigned to the Spitfire-equipped 52nd Fighter Group in Sicily. In 1944, on his 59th mission, his malfunctioning Spitfire was shot down by a Fw 190 off the coast of Southern France and he was taken prisoner. He spent some 16 months at the German POW camp outside of Barth, Germany.
Hoover escaped from the prison camp, by stealing an Fw 190, and flying to the Netherlands. After the war Bob was assigned as a test pilot at Wright Field. There he befriended Chuck Yeager.
Yeager had been so impressed with Bob Hoover, he later named him for the supersonic Bell X-1 flight crew. Hoover became Yeager’s backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program and flew chase for Yeager in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star during the Mach 1 flight. He also flew chase for the 50th anniversary in an F-16 Fighting Falcon.
He left the Air Force for civilian jobs in 1948. This included a brief time with Allison Engine Company and finally test/demonstration pilot with North American Aviation where he went on to Korea teaching the pilots in Korean war how to dive-bomb with the F-86 Sabre, and visited many active-duty, reserve and air national guard units to demonstrate the plane’s capabilities to their pilots. Hoover flew flight tests on the FJ “Fury,” F-86 “Sabre,” and the F-100 “Supersabre.”
In the early 1960s, Hoover proposed the idea of promoting the North American name by demonstrating one of North American’s most famous products, the P-51 Mustang fighter, at airshows around the country. The Hoover Mustang (N2251D) was purchased by North American Aviation from Dave Lindsay’s Cavalier Aircraft Corp. in 1962. A second Mustang (N51RH), later named “Ole Yeller,” was purchased by North American Rockwell from Cavalier in 1971 to replace the earlier aircraft that was destroyed in a ground accident when an oxygen bottle exploded after being overfilled. Hoover demonstrated the Mustang and later the Aero Commander at hundreds of airshows until his retirement in the 1990s. In 1997 Hoover sold Ole Yeller to his good friend John Bagley of Rexburg, Idaho. Ole Yeller still flies frequently and is based out of the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg, Idaho.
Bob Hoover has set records for transcontinental and “time to climb” speed, and has personally known such great aviators as Orville Wright, Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, James H Doolittle, Jacqueline Cochran, Neil Armstrong, and Yuri Gagarin.
Bob Hoover is best known for his civil air show career, which started when he was hired to demonstrate the capabilities of Aero Commander’s Shrike Commander, a twin piston-engined business aircraft which had developed a rather staid reputation due to its bulky shape. Hoover showed the strength of the plane as he put the aircraft through rolls, loops, and other maneuvers which most people would not associate with executive aircraft. As a grand finale, he shut down both engines and executed a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he headed back to the runway. He touched down on one tire, then the other, before landing. After pulling off the runway, he would start engines to taxi back to the parking area. On airfields with large enough parking ramps (such as the Reno Stead Airport where the Reno Air Races take place), Hoover would sometimes land directly on the ramp and coast all the way back to his parking spot in front of the grandstand without restarting the engines.
A few years after starting the show he began carrying passengers during the show. (The Shrike Commander carries six passengers.) These passengers became known as “Hoover’s Heavers” due to the number who became airsick during the maneuvers.
With the advent of camcorders Hoover added a flourish to the act by pouring a cup of tea from a Thermos bottle, while performing an aileron roll, a 1G maneuver. Video of this has been widely distributed, to the pleasure of Aero Commander enthusiasts.
Hoover also served for many years as the official starter of the Unlimited-class races at the Reno Air Races. The race planes (mostly modified World War II fighter aircraft) joined up in line-abreast formation on Hoover’s yellow P-51 Mustang, and when in satisfactory order the spectators would hear over the PA his famous radio call, “Gentlemen, you have a race.” Hoover’s plane would pull up sharply into a vertical climb as the racers dove toward the first turn. Hoover would circle overhead during the race, ready to assist any race pilots with problems. In several cases Hoover helped pilots with crippled race planes to a safe recovery by talking them down while flying in formation with them.
“Ole Yeller,” flown by John Bagley at an air show in Rexburg, ID.
His air show aerobatics career ended over medical concerns, when his medical certificate was revoked by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the early 1990s.
Shortly before his revocation, Hoover experienced serious engine problems in a T-28 off the coast of California. During his return to Torrance, he was able to keep the engine running intermittently by constantly manipulating the throttle, mixture, and propeller lever. Just as he landed the engine froze. Hoover believed his successful management of this difficult emergency should have convinced the FAA that his capabilities were as good as ever. Meanwhile, Hoover was granted a pilot’s licence, and medical certificate, by Australia’s aviation authorities.
Bob Hoover’s Shrike Commander at the Udvar-Hazy Center
Now that his air show career is over, his Shrike Commander is on display at the National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center, in Dulles, Virginia.
Bob Hoover is considered one of the founding fathers of modern aerobatics, and was described by Jimmy Doolittle as, “… the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.” In the Centennial of Flight edition of the Air & Space Smithsonian, he was named the third greatest aviator in history.
During his illustrious career, he was awarded the following military medals: Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier’s Medal for Valor, Air Medal with Clusters, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. He was also made an honorary member of the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, RCAF Snowbirds, American Fighter Aces Association, Original Eagle squadron and received an Award of Merit from the American Fighter Pilots Association. In 1992, he was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor. In 2007, he received the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Trophy.
On 18 May 2010, R.A. “Bob” Hoover delivered the 2010 Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School conferred an honorary doctorate on Hoover at the school’s December 2010 graduation ceremony.
A perhaps-undesired recognition is the “Hoover Nozzle” used on jet-fuel pumps. The Hoover Nozzle is designed with a flattened bell shape. The Hoover Nozzle cannot be inserted in the filler neck of a plane with the “Hoover Ring” installed, thus preventing the tank from accidentally being filled with jet fuel.
This system was given this name following an accident in which Hoover was seriously injured, when both engines on his Shrike Commander failed during takeoff. Investigators found that the plane had just been fueled by line personnel who mistook the piston-engine Shrike for a similar turboprop model, filling the tanks with jet fuel instead of avgas (aviation gasoline). There was enough avgas in the fuel system to taxi to the runway and take off, but then the jet fuel was drawn into the engines, causing them to stop.
Once Hoover recovered, he widely promoted the use of the new type of nozzle with the support and funding of the National Air Transportation Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association and various other aviation groups (the nozzle is now required by Federal regulation on jet fuel pumps).