Legendary Pilot Bob Hoover, Who Stole Plane to Escape WWII Prison Camp, Dies at 94

Hoover flew more than 300 types of aircraft in his career

Robert A. "Bob" Hoover, a World War II fighter pilot who became an aviation legend for his flying skills in testing aircraft and demonstrating their capabilities in air shows, has died at age 94.

Hoover, who lived in Palos Verdes Estates, California, died early Tuesday, said Bill Fanning, a close family friend for many years and fellow pilot.

"He was every pilot's icon," Fanning said, recalling his friend as one of the premier test pilots of the 1950s and '60s. "Bob tested everything. He flew them all."

When the National Air and Space Museum conferred its highest honor on Hoover in 2007, the museum noted that Jimmy Doolittle, leader of the famed 1942 bomber raid on Japan, had once described Hoover as "the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived."

"We lost an aviation pioneer today," Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, said in a Twitter post. "He could do magical things with an airplane. He was the best."

Hoover, who began flying in 1937 at Berry Field in Nashville, Tennessee, almost came to an early end. While serving in the Army's 52nd Fighter Group in Sicily during World War II, he flew more than 50 missions before being shot down. He survived and spent months in a prisoner-of-war camp before he escaped, stole a German fighter plane and flew to safety in The Netherlands.

Early U.S. jet-powered warplanes such as the P-80 and F-84 were tested by Hoover, who then became a backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program and flew the chase plane when Chuck Yeager became the first to break the sound barrier in 1947.

Hoover also tested the XFJ-2 Fury, which was developed for the Navy and Marine Corps, and the F-86 Sabre, an Air Force fighter, among more than 300 types of aircraft he flew in his career, according to the National Air and Space Museum.

He later brought his flying prowess to the public in aerobatic performances using such aircraft as North American Aviation's P-51 Mustang and Aero Commanders.

His Shrike Commander 500S, now ensconced in the Air and Space Museum, changed from an ordinary business-style propeller plane into an aerobatic star with Hoover at the controls during a so-called energy management routine. With both engines off he would do a loop, roll, 180-degree turn and land.

In the early 1990s, the Federal Aviation Administration pulled Hoover's medical certificate for failing a neurological exam that followed a performance at Aerospace America air show in Oklahoma City. Hoover fought the decision, and even went to court, and in 1995 he received a restricted medical certificate.

That year he returned to the skies and delivered his signature performance at Daytona Beach, Florida.

"It felt good to be performing in front of my countrymen again," he said at the time. "I'm just glad all that is behind me and that justice and fairness prevailed."

A recipient of numerous honors, Hoover was among the 100 heroes of aviation honored in 2003 at the First Flight Centennial celebration.

"It's fair to say that anyone who ever had the privilege of flying with Bob, saw him perform at an airshow, or who heard him speak, was affected tremendously by the experience," said Andrew Broom, executive director of the Citation Jets Pilots Association.

The association, in conjunction with the Bob Hoover Legacy Foundation, provides scholarships in Hoover's name to students attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“Bob Hoover truly personified the ‘pilot’s pilot’ and was deeply beloved in aviation circles,” said Jim Kidrick, President and CEO of the San Diego Air & Space Museum. “He will always hold a special place in our hearts at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and he will be sorely missed.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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