Robert Anderson "Bob" Hoover was born in Nashville, Tennessee on January 24, 1922. He like many other pilots did not have oodles of cash available to pay for his flying training so he found a job at the local grocery store and started his flying training at Nashville's Berry Field. He later enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard and due to his contagious passion for flying was noticed and sent for pilot training with the Army. He quickly progressed and within a relatively short time found himself as an Army Air Forces fighter pilot.
During World War II, Hoover was sent to Casablanca, where his first major assignment was flight testing the assembled aircraft ready for service. He was later assigned to the Spitfire-equipped 52d Fighter Group in Sicily. On February 9, 1944, on his 59th mission, his malfunctioning Mark V Spitfire was shot down by a pilot of Jagdgeschwader 2 in a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 off the coast of Southern France, and he was taken prisoner. He spent 16 months at the German prison camp Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. After a staged fight covered his escape from the prison camp, Hoover managed to steal an Fw 190 from a recovery unit's unguarded field, the one flyable plane being kept there for spare parts and flew to safety in the Netherlands.
Focke-Wulf Fw 190
After the war he was assigned to flight-test duty at Wilbur Wright Field, there he impressed and befriended Chuck Yeager. When Yeager was later asked whom he wanted for flight crew for the supersonic Bell X-1 flight, he named Hoover. 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 of the Mach 1 flight in a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Bell X-1 Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star
Hoover decided to leave the Air Force and pursue a career in the civilian aviation sector in 1948. He took up a brief position at Allison Engine Company until he was offered a position as a test and demonstration pilot with North American Aviation Company. Hoover was sent to Korea to teach pilots in the Korean War how to dive-bomb with the newly released F-86 Sabre. During his six weeks tour in Korea he flew many combat bombing missions over enemy territory but was denied permission to engage in air-to-air combat flights.
During the 1950's, Hoover visited many active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard units to demonstrate planes' capabilities to their pilots. During his time at North American Aviation Hoover Test flew many of the iconic fighters of the time including the FJ-2 Fury, F-86 Sabre, and later the F-100 Super Sabre.
F-100 Super Sabre
In the early 1960’s, Bob Hoover began flying the North American P-51 Mustang at air shows 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, which had been 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 air shows 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 at the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg.
Hoover was 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-engine business aircraft that had developed a sedate reputation due to its bulky shape. Hoover showed the strength of the plane as he put the aircraft through rolls, loops, and other manoeuvres, which most people would not associate with executive aircraft. As a grand finale, he would shut down both engines and execute a loop and an eight-point hesitation slow roll as he headed back to the runway. Upon landing he would touch down on one tire followed gradually by the other. After pulling off the runway, he would restart the 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. He was also gained fame for creating the stunt of successfully pouring a cup of tea while performing a 1G barrel roll.
His air show aerobatics career ended in 1999 but was marked by issues with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over his medical certification that began when Hoover's medical certificate was revoked by the FAA in the early 1990s. Shortly before his revocation, Hoover experienced serious engine problems in a North American T-28 Trojan 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 pitch. The engine seized at the moment of touchdown. Hoover believed his successful management of this difficult emergency should have convinced the FAA that he hadn't lost any ability. Meanwhile, Hoover was granted a pilot license and medical certificate by Australia's aviation authorities. Hoover's United States medical certificate was restored shortly afterwards and he returned to the American air show circuit for several years before retiring in 1999.
At 77 years old Hoover still felt capable of performing and passed a rigorous FAA physical post retirement, but he was unable to obtain insurance for air shows. Although he had had free insurance for several years as part of air show sponsorship deals, he was forced in 1999 to pay for it out of his own pocket and could not get coverage under $2 million. His final air show was on November 13, 1999 at Luke Air Force Base. His last flight in his famous Shrike Commander was on October 10, 2003 from Lakeland, Florida, to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. with long-time friend Steve Clegg.
Hoover died of Congestive heart failure on October 25, 2016 near his home in Los Angeles at the age of 94. A memorial service and celebration of life honouring Bob Hoover was held on November 18, 2016, hosted by aerobatic legend Sean D. Tucker and world renowned pilot Clay Lacy at the Van Nuys Airport. Nearly 1,500 family and friends attended the memorial, with speakers such as Hollywood icon Harrison Ford, film producer David Ellison, Jonna Doolittle (granddaughter of Jimmy Doolittle) and many others. The event culminated with the United States Air Force Honour Guard presenting the American Flag to the family, coincident with a three-element fly-over. The lead element featured a Rockwell Sabreliner, similar to that which Hoover flew during airshows, along with two F-16s from the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and a Canadair CT-114 Tutor from the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. The second element featured the USAF Heritage Flight with a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and two F-86 Sabres, and the third and final instalment featured a four-ship World War II warbird flight, with the P-51 Ole' Yeller pulling up in the missing man formation on the final note of Taps.
Hoover was considered one of the founding fathers of modern aerobatics and was described by General Jimmy Doolittle as "the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived".
During his career, Hoover was awarded the following military medals: The Distinguished Flying Cross, the Soldier's Medal for non-combat valour, the Air Medal with several oak leaf clusters, the Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was also made an honorary member of the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds, the RCAF Snowbirds, the American Fighter Aces Association, and the original Eagle Squadron, and received an Award of Merit from the American Fighter Pilots Association. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988 and to the Aerospace Walk of Honour in 1992.
Hoover received the Living Legends of Aviation Freedom of Flight Award in 2006, which was renamed the Bob Hoover Freedom of Flight Award the following year. In 2007, he received the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Trophy and was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
On May 18, 2010, Hoover delivered the 2010 Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture at the Smithsonian Institution'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. On December 12, 2014, at the Aero Club of Washington's 67th annual Wright Memorial Dinner, Hoover was awarded the National Aeronautic Association's Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy.
The R.A. "Bob" Hoover Trophy is named in honour of him, and awarded to those who have demonstrated the airmanship, leadership, and passion that Hoover did during his career and life. The Bob Hoover Academy was also named after him, which was founded by Sean Tucker in 2017 and acts as a charitable education and aviation program for at-risk teens, largely backed by the local California school district and Harrison Ford.