Bob Hoover, possibly the greatest pilot ever, has passed away at the age of 94.
I don’t think that statement is hyperbole, though I suspect I might get arguments from some people.
Even General Yeager, perhaps the most famous test pilot of his generation, was humbled by Mr. Hoover, describing him in the foreword to Mr. Hoover’s 1996 autobiography, “Forever Flying,” as “the greatest pilot I ever saw.”
The World War II hero Jimmy Doolittle, an aviation pioneer of an earlier generation, called Mr. Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived.”
“Well, if he was such a hot stick, why wasn’t he the one who broke the sound barrier?” Answer: because he got crosswise with his superiors for doing some unauthorized low-level flying, so they put him in the chase plane for Yeager. When Chuck freakin’ Yeager says, “I want you to have my back on this one”, well…there’s your sign.
As a pilot with the 52nd Fighter Group, based in Corsica, Mr. Hoover, a lieutenant, flew 58 successful missions before his Spitfire fighter was shot down by the Luftwaffe in February 1944. He spent 16 months in Stalag Luft I, a prisoner of war camp in Germany reserved for Allied pilots.
Mr. Hoover and a friend escaped from the camp in the chaotic final days of the war, according to his memoir. Commandeering an aircraft from a deserted Nazi base, they flew it to freedom in the newly liberated Netherlands, only to be chased by pitchfork-wielding Dutch farmers enraged by the plane’s German markings.
He went on to become a hugely popular performer on the air show circuit:
Mr. Hoover’s trademark maneuver on the show circuit was a death-defying plunge with both engines cut off; he would use the hurtling momentum to pull the plane up into a loop at the last possible moment.
But his stunts were not foolhardy. Each involved painstaking preparation and rational calculation of risk. “A great many former friends of mine are no longer with us simply because they cut their margins too close,” he once said.
I regret that I never saw him perform: somehow, it just never seemed that he came anywhere near me in Texas. (There’s video of part of his routine on the NYT page.)
I did read, and liked, Forever Flying. There’s a story in there that I sometimes pull out and tell to younger technicians who have messed up and feel bad about it.
The story goes: Mr. Hoover was flying back from an airshow and stopped to have his plane refueled. He took off again, and very shortly after takeoff, the engines quit. By dint of superior airmanship, he managed to land the plane: nobody on board was killed or even injured, but the plane was pretty much a total loss.
When Mr. Hoover removed the gas cap, he found out what the problem was: as I recall, the guy who filled the plane put in the wrong type of fuel. (I want to say he put in jet fuel instead of aviation gasoline, but don’t quote me on that: I don’t have the book in front of me.)
So Mr. Hoover hikes back to the airfield, and the guy who filled up the plane is staring off into the distance looking like the whole world has come down on him. Because he realizes he screwed up Bob Hoover’s plane.
And Mr. Hoover comes over, puts his arm around the guy, and says, “Son, I just want you to know: nobody was hurt. The plane got bent, but we can replace that. I have another plane coming in tomorrow morning, and when it gets here, I want you to be the one who puts fuel in it…
…because I know you’re never going to make that mistake again.”
By all accounts I’ve read and heard, he was a pretty kind gentleman, too. 94 is a good run, but the world is still a smaller, lesser place today.