By Rob Finfrock
The aviation community has been rocked over the past three months with the loss of two extraordinary individuals and aviators who left indelible marks on the CJP membership. On the heels of the news of the Sept. 25 loss of legendary pilot, golfer, and 2014 CJP Hall of Honor inductee Arnold Palmer, exactly one month later we learned about the death of another aviation giant.
Those fortunate enough to have ever met famed aviator R.A. “Bob” Hoover quickly learned two important things about him. He always made you believe that you were the most important person in the room, and you invariably walked away from the conversation with a great story to tell.
It would be impossible to count all the stories shared by Hoover, who passed away Oct. 25 at the age of 94, or all those within the aviation community touched by Hoover’s sage advice and incomparable warmth. “What sticks with me about Bob is this description: he was the world’s best example of being the best example,” said CJP Director Tracy Forrest. “He was incredibly giving, to his very last day.”
“I first met Bob at 1991 at Embry-Riddle where he was performing in the airshow,” recalled CJP Executive Director Andrew Broom. “In the last few years, I got to spend more time with him, and he counseled me on different scenarios within my career. I didn’t realize back in the 1990s who I was getting to know, but having that time with him over the past few years was incredible. I will remember his influence on me personally, and also on aviation as a whole.”
“He was truly one of a kind,” said CJP member Mike Herman at the Nov. 18 ‘Celebration of Life’ gathering for Hoover, held at Van Nuys Airport in southern California. “He was a mentor to me, a parent, and a friend like no other I’ve ever had.”
A Hero in Combat, and Far Beyond
Born January 24, 1922 in Nashville, TN, Hoover flew as a combat aviator in the European Theater during World War II. He flew 58 missions before being shot down, and spent 16 months as a prisoner of war before commandeering a German Focke-Wulf Fw190 to escape to Allied-controlled territory.
After the war, Hoover evaluated a wide range of captured enemy fighters and U.S. military aircraft, including the first jets. As an alternate pilot for the supersonic Bell X-1, Hoover flew the chase plane when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. In the preface to Hoover’s autobiography “Forever Flying,” Yeager called Hoover “the best pilot I’ve ever seen.”
After leaving the Air Force in 1948, Hoover flew as a civilian test pilot for North American Aviation and Rockwell International for more than three decades. In this role, Hoover became widely renowned for his for his jaw-dropping aerial demonstrations in the P-51 Mustang and Shrike Commander twin-turboprop business aircraft.
Even after flying his last airshow performance in 1999, Hoover remained a familiar presence at airshows and other aviation events around the country. “Whenever I’d speak with Bob, he’d ask if I was heading to whatever the next event was,” Forrest added. “‘Want to go to Reno on Thursday? Tracy, I want to go and be with my friends.’
“In his later years, he really lived for the few events he attended,” Forrest continued. “He so enjoyed giving those talks. That’s what kept him going. At Reno this year, he still had the grin of a six-year-old, even though we could tell he was in pain.”
Herman, who also served as Hoover’s personal pilot, was out of the country the day he passed. “I visited Bob the day before we left, [and he told me] ‘I’ll be packed and ready to roll to NBAA in the beginning of November,’” Herman recalled in Van Nuys. “I spoke with Bob every day from Down Under, and on this particular day the phone was answered by Gracie, one of Bob’s two caregivers. Gracie told me he was having a hard time breathing.
“She gave him the phone, he got on, and I quote: ‘Mike, I’m so glad you called, because I wanna have the opportunity to say goodbye.‘ And a few hours later, he was gone.”
“Among the most important lessons Hoover imparted on other pilots reading his book, or listening to him speak, was how at the end of the day, you have to fly the airplane as far into the crash as you can,” added Forrest. “In retrospect, he flew that old body of his into the crash as far as he could.”
Continuing Hoover’s Legacy
Despite having received a wealth of prestigious honors including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Trophy, and enshrinement in National Aviation Hall of Fame, Hoover’s most significant contribution to the aviation community was the importance he placed on serving as an example and mentor to future aviators.
One of the ways his example will live on is through the Bob Hoover Legacy Foundation, formed to introduce younger generations to Hoover’s story and to support their own aviation careers and experiences. In partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) and CJP, the foundation presents the annual Bob Hoover Presidential Scholarship to ERAU students pursuing careers in the aviation industry.
Inaugural scholarship recipient Yann Bosch first met Hoover at a 2014 tribute in Hoover’s honor in Los Angeles, where he played the U.S. Air Force song – “Into the Wild Blue Yonder” – on violin as Hoover was escorted onto the stage.“It was really an honor to meet someone who shook hands with the Wright Brothers and [Charles] Lindbergh, and to be able to speak with him several times,” explained Bosch, who was recently hired as a first officer at SkyWest Airlines. “He was so gracious to me, and he always expressed interest in my career. Even with the thousands of people he’d met, he always asked how I was doing… and, he’d say he was proud of me, every time we talked.”
“Mr. Hoover’s death came as a great sadness for all of us,” added Anna Robinson, one of four recipients of the 2015 Hoover Scholarship. “It was heartbreaking that the aviation community lost such a pillar, but I took solace in having met him, having dinner with him, getting to listen to his stories, seeing him again at AirVenture last year.
“It means a lot to me to be called a Hoover Scholar,” Robinson added. “Thank you so much for everything.”
Forrest – one of the founders of the Bob Hoover Legacy Foundation, along with Herman – said its mission now holds even greater significance. In addition to awarding future scholarships, the foundation also hopes to eventually raise funding to endow a charity in Hoover’s name.
“We must do all we can so that people understand who he was, and what he meant to our community,” Forrest concluded.