Robert A. Hoover was born January 24, 1922, in Nashville, Tennessee. He began taking flying lessons at the age of 15, and wasted no time before learning to perform loops and dives. At 18, he joined the Tennessee Air National Guard. During World War II, Hoover was based in North Africa and southern Europe, and flew 58 missions as a pilot with the Army Air Forces. For his success rescuing a damaged B-26 from a beach in Sicily, he would win a Distinguished Flying Cross.
On February 9, 1944, during his 59th mission, Hoover’s plane was shot down off the coast of southern France, where a German patrol boat picked him up. He spent the next 16 months in a prison camp, Stalag Luft I, on the northeastern coast of Germany. With the war in its last phase and Soviet troops approaching the camp, Hoover and another American POW managed to climb over a barbed wire fence while a staged fight distracted their Nazi guards.
After hiding in some nearby woods, the escapees got a stroke of luck when a local woman–feeling more cooperative as the war neared its end–gave them a gun. When they stumbled on a field containing hundreds of damaged German warplanes, Hoover and his comrade used the weapon to force a German mechanic to get one of the planes (a Focke-Wulf 190) up and running. Hoover’s fellow escapee refused to board, having vowed never to get on another airplane, and continued on foot; he would also survive.
Risking Allied fire due to the German cross printed on the plane’s side, Hoover flew along the German coast toward the Netherlands. Though he had no maps or charts, “I knew that if I turned west and followed the shoreline, I would be safe when I saw windmills,” he later said. Sure enough, he landed in a Dutch field, where farmers bearing pitchforks promptly surrounded him. A British army truck soon rolled up, and took Hoover to safety.
After the war, Hoover became a test pilot in the newly formed U.S. Air Force. In October 1947, he flew the chase plane behind General Chuck Yeager when Yeager broke the Mach 1 sound barrier in his experimental Bell X-1 aircraft in the skies over southern California. Hoover took the first photographs of Yeager’s flight, and always expressed regret that he himself wasn’t the first to break the sound barrier.
When Hoover left the military in 1948, he began a long career as a test pilot with General Motors, North American Aviation and North American Rockwell. During the Korean War, Hoover also taught dive-bombing techniques to Air Force pilots. While traveling the world performing in more than 2,500 air shows, Hoover demonstrated his considerable skill in everything from the P-51 Mustang (his was dubbed “Ole Yeller”) to the twin-engined North American Rockwell Shrike Commander 500S. In the latter plane, Hoover wowed spectators with his trademark move: shutting off one or both of the engines while performing loops and dives. A precise and accomplished stunt pilot, he was famously able to pour a glass of iced tea while executing a 360-degree roll.
In 1994, federal officials threatened to ground the aging Hoover for failing medical tests, but aviation fans protested so strongly that he was reexamined, and his pilot’s license restored. He published his autobiography, “Forever Flying,” in 1996 and was the subject of a 2014 documentary film, “Flying the Feathered Edge.” “It’s easy to call him an icon, but he truly is,” Ron Kaplan of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base told the Dayton Daily News of Hoover. “He has influenced more individuals than probably…any single person in aviation.”
Hoover lived in Southern California for most of his adult life. His wife of 68 years, Colleen, died earlier this year. According to Kaplan, Hoover had planned to travel to Ohio to attend the NAHF enshrinement dinner later this month, but had to decline due to health concerns. Hoover died on October 25 at a hospital in Torrance, California; the cause of death, according to his daughter-in-law, was congestive heart failure.