Pour Out an Iced Tea for Bob Hoover

A fond farewell to a legendary test pilot, war hero, and showman.

Bob Hoover

It’s a special kind of sand that makes a guy like Bob Hoover stand out among a generation of heroes. Born in 1922, Hoover was a fighter pilot in the Second World War. He flew in North Africa before pulling a primo assignment piloting a Spitfire out of Sicily. After getting shot down over the Mediterranean, Hoover spent more than a year as a German prisoner in Stalag Luft 1 before making a run for it as the Russians advanced on the camp.

Not content to spend the remainder of the war learning Russian, or hiding in a German barn, Hoover stole a German Focke Wulf 190 and flew like mad to get behind the Western front. In his appropriated German plane, Hoover had to avoid allied aircraft (lest he get shot down by unwitting friendly fire) all the way to Holland, where he landed in a field and was promptly surrounded by pitchfork-wielding locals convinced he was a Nazi flyer. His incredible exploits during the war alone are enough to qualify a guy as pretty damned impressive in my eyes. But Hoover was just getting started.

Unlike so many of his peers, Hoover didn’t leave the cockpit after the war. He stayed on with the Air Corps as it became the Air Force, serving as a test pilot, and eventually as both Chuck Yeager’s wingman and the backup pilot for his famous Mach 1 flight in the Bell X-1. Even after leaving the service, Hoover continued to fly and test military aircraft as a civilian test pilot.

While Hoover had a remarkable gift for flying the wings off high-performance military aircraft (sometimes literally), it was in civilian aviation where Hoover cemented his legend. After a stint flying for aircraft manufacturers, Hoover made for the air racing and air show circuit, where he performed in everything from P-51 Mustangs to cumbersome, twin-engine Commander utility planes. As it turned out, Hoover’s great talent wasn’t making high-performance planes scream for mercy, it was making crowds scream for more after watching Hoover’s impossibly graceful flights in totally pedestrian aircraft.

Engine-out aerobatic flights and perfect one-wheel touch-and-go landings aside, Hoover might be most famous for executing a perfect roll in his twin-engine commander while pouring a glass of iced tea. YouTube is packed to the gills with videos of his antics. Like this one. And this one. And this one. He was many things, but most of all, Hoover was a hell of a pilot—and with his air shows, he inspired a great many more to try to fill his shoes.

Bob Hoover died this morning, at the age of 94. My Facebook feed—usually a spattering of politics and off-road trucks and friendly idiocy—was instead filled with kind words and videos of Hoover, modestly and warmly being his own quiet kind of hero. The last thing we need is fewer heroes, but seeing friends from a dozen countries and hobbies and political outlooks come together early in the morning to give this good man a tip of the hat on his passing is one last act of inspiration from a guy who seemed to have an endless well of the stuff.