By Jane Roberts
April 12, 2007
According to Wikipedia, Robert Hoover wasn’t the first pilot to break the sound barrier in 1947 because a “desperate bailout from an F-84 Thunderjet shattered both his legs.”
Nope, not true at all.
“That happened several weeks later,” said Hoover, 85, the glory of the clear blue yonder permanently etched
in his gaze. “A new test pilot who hadn’t done his check-out asked me if I would buzz the Springfield, Ohio,
(The lad apparently thought he could impress someone over there, figuring the letters on the tail were too small to read from the ground.)
A 23-year-old Hoover did the deed, and several months later the airman who had escaped a German POW camp and earned a fistful of medals — including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier’s Medal for Valor and the Purple Heart — was in trouble.
“Yes, sir, I did buzz the Springfield airport,” he told the commander in charge. “ ‘That tells me two things about you,’ “ Hoover remembers the officer saying. “ ‘You are honest, and you are irresponsible.’ “
That is the short story on how Hoover’s friend, Chuck Yeager, became the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, a mission Hoover says he was groomed to perform.
Any regrets about the prank?
“Not a one. You’re not going to change a fighter pilot. They are going to take advantage of every opportunity
they can to have fun,” said the wry Hoover, minutes after landing at Wilson Air Center Wednesday afternoon.
Wednesday night, he was the guest of honor at a reception there, a tribute to his flying prowess, friendship with CEO Bob Wilson and longtime Tennessee roots.
Within a half-hour of landing, pilots walking by the conference room where Hoover was telling his story were
doing double-takes and looking for a seat.
“Bob Hoover proved that a lot of planes can fly with one engine and do acrobatics, too,” said Paul Lugin, pilot
for Jim Wilson and Associates in Montgomery, Ala.
Hoover, considered one of the founding fathers of modern aerobatics, was once described by Jimmy Doolittle as “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”
He was born in Nashville in 1922 and got his start flying for the Tennessee Air National Guard, which he says
“was the beginning of a wonderful career.”
It included broken bones, death-defying experiences and heroics. Besides flying stunts well into his 70s, Hoover tested dozens of planes for the U.S. military, getting them up to the speed that would show off their design — if it was good.
If it wasn’t, “we’d change the prototype for what was still in the pipeline,” he says with the assuredness of a
man the magazine Air & Space Smithsonian in 2003 named the third-greatest aviator in history.
He doesn’t say who his competition was, but if it was Yeager or even Charles Lindbergh, there are no hard feelings; Hoover knew them both, well.
“When I was president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in 1969, I called Deke Slayton (one of the
Mercury Seven NASA astronauts) and asked him if he could do me a favor,” Hoover said. “I wanted to have
the Apollo 11 crew — and Deke got them for me — in a gathering with Charles Lindbergh at the Beverly Hilton
“Imagine, it would be the first man to cross the Atlantic and the first men on the moon together,” Hoover says,
distant memories dancing in his eyes. “Lindbergh had been living in obscurity for 30 years. He agreed, but he
made me promise that no one would take pictures.
“I told him, ‘Charles, people will have cameras. I can’t protect you.”’
In the end, Lindbergh came — after much vacillation — and was captured in front-page newspaper photos around the world, sitting at the head table next to Hoover’s wife, gently reminding Neil Armstrong on her other side that he should not be signing autographs because it would give the world access to his signature.
“My wife later told me that Neil Armstrong told Lindbergh that he was in a room full of men who had risked
their lives for aviation.
“ ‘I consider them all equal to me. If they want my photograph and signature, I am going to give it to them.’ “
Hoover, who describes himself as 85 going on 23, would gladly live his life all over again, including a three year fight to regain his flying status after a Federal Aviation Administration “conspiracy” sought to have him
declared incompetent and removed his certificate when he was 70.
“F. Lee Bailey (legendary defense attorney known for his defense of Dr. Samuel Sheppard) told me to get rid of
“I’m taking over for you — no fee — this is friendship,” Hoover said.
In some high-stakes witness recants, the truth came out, and Hoover’s U.S. certificate was reinstated.
“A week later, I was performing in Daytona Beach.”
— Jane Roberts: 529-2512
Copyright 2007, commercialappeal.com – Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.