The Pilot’s Pilot

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There isn’t a Bob Hoover fan alive who doesn’t remember the first time they saw him fly. It may have been in Florida, California, or any of dozens of other air shows across North America. For me, it was on a cold, rainy August day at the Abbotsford International Air Show in Abbotsford, British Columbia in the early 1970s. The low overcast kept most performers on the ground, but Bob was able to fly his Shrike routine and provided some great entertainment to the waterlogged audience.   

Just a few years later, I produced my first air show in Pasco, Washington, and Bob was the first performer I hired. Bob still flew for Rockwell, which had long since merged with North American. Rockwell had just won a big government contract in our area, and I was able to persuade them to sponsor Bob’s performance. That was in 1978 and he continued to fly our show for many years thereafter. Each time I worked with him, I learned something new, whether it was about flying or about producing shows. He was a big help to this fledgling show producer and had a gentle way of nudging me in the right direction. 

Bob is now retired from air shows, but not from aviation. His wheels last touched the pavement about three years ago and while he has slowed some, due mostly to a near-fatal auto accident a year and a half ago, he is still on the go. Bob is actively engaged in a number of aviation-related business ventures ranging from aircraft fleet insurance to the overhaul and resale of older model business jets. He is also active on the lecture circuit. 

I had long wanted an opportunity to talk with Bob, to reflect on his career, and discover what today’s air show industry could learn from his years of experience as a showman. He graciously opened his home to me and my wife earlier this year, and we spent an afternoon discussing his childhood in Tennessee, his military career, and his life as an air show pilot.  

What I learned from Bob is the value of persistence and being true to your dream. He acknowledged that he had overcome some incredible odds to be successful. He endured air sickness from the outset of his flight training, near catastrophes years later, being shot down over Germany during World War II, and spent the last 18 months of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. Lesser pilots would have given up on aviation at that point.  But not Bob Hoover. 

Once repatriated, Bob remained on active duty status until private industry beckoned and he went to work for the Allison Division of General Motors testing new jet engine designs. He turned down the opportunity to become chief test pilot for Boeing, opting instead to go to college for an advanced degree, then to North American where he flew such airplanes as the F-86 Sabre and the F-100 Super Sabre. In the cockpit, his movements were always smooth and precise, with no wasted motion, reflecting his quest for smooth perfection. Ultimately, he became known for his unique demonstrations with the Shrike Commander, a routine that had its roots during his early flying career with the Army Air Corps. 

Bob’s list of civilian and military honors and awards is long and distinguished. He has also held a number of speed and time-to-climb records in various aircraft. He has received the Arthur Godfrey Aviation Award for his accomplishments in flight testing, the Flying Tiger Pilot Award for his outstanding contribution to aviation, and the Lindbergh award for a lifetime of contributions to aviation.  He has been enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame and was the inaugural member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame. While there was no defining moment that Bob can point to when he knew that aviation would be his life’s work, he said there simply was never any doubt.   

When did you know you were going to be a pilot?  “It’s just always been with me. At a very young age, I was fascinated by airplanes and built a lot of models. Whenever an airplane would fly over, which wasn’t too often in those days, I’d run outside to watch. Flying was something special and I knew I wanted to do it.” 

How did you get your start?  “I wasn’t a very good student in those days, but in high school I formed an aero club. One of the teachers was helping me put it together and helped turn me around. I was able to start taking lessons at sixteen, but I had to work all day Saturdays in a grocery store sacking groceries and stocking shelves to earn enough money for a fifteen minute lesson on Sunday. It took me a long time to log eight hours and I suffered from nausea. It was the worst thing that I could imagine because I wanted to fly so badly. But I was so determined that I was going to do it that I kept doing maneuvers until I could do them without getting sick. There was nobody to teach me aerobatics, so I had to learn on my own. I was doing four, eight and sixteen point rolls before I was 18 years of age.” 

How did your military career influence your future?  “It prepared me in ways I could never have imagined. I went overseas at 20 years of age. I was in charge of 67 fighter pilots because I had more flight time than anyone else in the group. We flew Spitfires on combat missions out of England, but when we invaded Africa, my group was sent down there and I expected to go back into combat. Instead, they assigned us to a depot where aircraft were coming in from overseas in crates. We had to assemble them using indigenous labor and they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic.  Some spoke French, so we had French interpreters, but we didn’t have enough people to sufficiently inspect the aircraft before we flew them. All we did from sun up to sundown was fly those airplanes. We had every kind of malfunction you could possibly have. We had fires, we had engine problems, and once I even shot off my own propeller because the guns were so misaligned. As you can imagine, we got very skilled at managing emergencies in every different kind of aircraft.  It was one emergency after another and was the greatest learning opportunity anyone could ever have. It gave me a lot of mental discipline in managing my aircraft.” 

What happened after the war? “I was assigned to Wright Field in Ohio to fly the Bell X-1 to break the sound barrier. I was on cloud nine and did a lot of research before Chuck Yeager was on the program. At one point, I had buzzed the Springfield airport with a P-80 Shooting Star that I was flying and I then got a call from a colonel who asked me if I was the one who did it. He already knew I had done it, so I told him I was and he said I was honest, but I was also irresponsible. He told me he couldn’t take me off the program because I had too much knowledge, but said he was giving the job of flying the X-1 to Chuck. I was disappointed, but I was also pleased that of all the pilots available the job went to Chuck because Chuck was one of the finest pilots I’d ever met. 

Of all the airplanes you have flown, which was your favorite?  It was the F-86 after we got the bugs out of it. The Air Force lost several good pilots early on in the F-86 program and investigators blamed pilot error.  But I discovered the real problem when I was demonstrating the plane to the Idaho Air National Guard in Boise.  I came out of an Immelman and went into a five turn spin. All of a sudden the plane went ape on me. I’d never had problems like that before and when I looked out I saw that the leading edge slats had racked. I got the plane out of the spin by applying full power, which is the worst thing you can do, but I had no other option. I regained control, landed, and immediately called the head of flight safety in the Air Force to tell him what happened. We then redesigned the airplane and we were also able to clear the names of all those pilots who had been accused of pilot error. 

Was your time in North Africa the foundation for your Shrike routine? One of the planes I had to fly in Africa was the P-38 and I did a lot of engine-out landings and actually developed an engine-out routine to demonstrate the aircraft. It was easy to adapt that routine to the Shrike. When Rockwell merged with North American, they brought the Shrike with them and they asked me what I could do to help sell them because the planes weren’t too popular. I was sent to the various Rockwell manufacturing plants and saw more than 100 unsold Shrike Commanders with fading paint and half flat tires.  So I started flying them and worked out a routine that was within the envelope and it was the same show I had done with the P-38. It caught on and I did it ever since. 

What do you think are the most important changes that occurred in the air show business during your career?  Greater attention to safety. The air show industry needed to have safety measures forced upon them.  I saw more people killed [during air shows] in my lifetime than you can ever imagine. I saw people do some of the dumbest things in the world and some even crashed right in front of me as I was waiting to begin my act, and most of them were skilled pilots.  I’ve been preaching safety my entire career and I still do it. 

In what way are you preaching safety today? There are air show pilots who still consult with me when they want to incorporate a new maneuver into their act. They know that what may look safe to them in the cockpit isn’t always as safe as it appears, and I’m able to help them maintain the excitement of the act, but increase the margin of safety in case something goes wrong. Some pilots didn’t heed my advice and unfortunately some of them aren’t with us anymore. 

How far did you go to push your safety concerns? I never hesitated to speak to a pilot if I thought an act was unsafe or if they were doing an unsafe maneuver. And if he wouldn’t listen, I’d go to the FAA. Usually, I was able to get my point across before something terrible happened.  

What were the most common problems you witnessed? Pilots either don’t leave enough of a margin if something goes wrong or they overstress the airplane. You can overstress an airplane dozens of times and get away with it, but sooner or later the fatigue is going to cause a critical component to fail. Sean Tucker is smart. At the end of every season, he completely strips his airplane down and inspects every single part. That’s what I’m talking about when it comes to safety.

If a new performer came to you wanting to get into the air show business, what advice would you give them? First and foremost, fly for your own satisfaction. Second, stay within the limits of the design of the airplane. Third, stay within the limits of your capability.  Lastly, if you have a problem with the airplane, don’t quit flying it until it comes to a stop.  I’ve seen people give up when they could have saved the airplane and saved themselves. 

Even among experienced pilots? At the Reno Air Races, as the safety pilot, I started those races and I have seen more emergencies than you can ever imagine. In one race alone, I talked five of them to safe landings. In an emergency, if you haven’t been exposed to problems like I have, you have a tendency to panic, so I would come on the radio with a calm voice and talk them down to a safe landing.  

Is the air show industry moving in the right direction? Absolutely. Again, it’s because of the increased attention to safety. The ACE program was one of the smartest things that has taken place.  

In your mind what are the key elements for a good show? Noise is always good. Unusual acts are important too, like Jimmy Franklin. I thought the world of Jimmy. He developed the jet powered Waco which was so exciting to watch. We need more innovative acts like that. 

As you look back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently? I wouldn’t have buzzed the Springfield airport and missed out on being the first pilot to break the sound barrier. That’s the only thing I can think of that I would have done differently, and yet I know I could not have done any better than Chuck Yeager.  I was proud of him then and still am. 

What do you think of today’s high energy aerobatics compared to the type of flying that you were known for? Did you ever wish you could be part of today’s modern aerobatics? Not at all. I liked what I did. I’ve always been impressed with smoothness. I want everyone to love aviation. Everything I did in my flying career was to see how graceful and smooth I could be. That’s the impression I always wanted to pass along to people: smoothness and precision.  I appreciate the enormous capability of today’s pilots.  They are highly skilled, but that was never my thing.

Was it tough to walk away form the air show business? I hated to give it up because of all of the friends I was able to see year in and year out. I still miss that, but I had always said when the time came to stop flying air shows that I’d be the first to know. And the first time I flew the Mustang after being grounded for three years, my knees hurt so bad fighting the torque through the rudder peddels that I knew I couldn’t do it any longer.  

How does it make you feel to know you are a hero to a lot of people in aviation and that you inspired so many pilots? I’m very flattered. Even today, I get letters from people in aviation who say they met me when they were children and that I helped inspire them. And almost every time I fly commercially, I meet a crew member who recognizes me and tells me he saw me at an air show when he was a child and I’m as flattered as I can be.

Our conversation ended all too soon.  There were many more questions I wanted to ask Bob, but time didn’t allow.  Bob is a marvelous story teller who not only lived history, but made history, and it would have taken more time than either of us had for him to tell me everything that he wanted to talk about.  Perhaps someday I’ll be able to return and do it again.  I’ve always hoped that some of his wisdom would miraculously transfer itself to me via some mystical force and I would be a better pilot as a result.  I know that’s not going to happen, but I’m grateful for the time I had with him anyway.  Time spent with your hero is to be treasured. 

God speed Bob Hoover. 

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.