Photo: National Air & Space Museum
Robert A. "Bob" Hoover, the "greatest stick-and-rudder pilot who ever lived," according to General James Doolittle, turns 90 on January 24, 2012. Last Friday at the annual Living Legends gala at the Beverly Hilton, Hoover reflected on his life experiences with the characteristic graciousness that also distinguishes him as the consummate Tennessee gentleman.
Hoover's "infatuation with aviation" started in 1927 he learned of Charles Lindbergh's non-stop flight across the north Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. He told the crowd at Living Legends that his childhood heros were Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner [and his pet lion], Eddie Rickenbacker and especially Jimmy Doolittle.
Fast forward to the early 1950s. Hoover was signing autographs at after performing in the F-86 at an airshow in Europe when an unassuming gentleman in the crowd introduced himself as Mr. Schwartz. The man asked Hoover if he could speak with him. Hoover told Mr. Schwartz that he'd have to wait until he finished signing autographs.
Mr. Schwartz waited patiently for Hoover to attend to his fans for nearly two hours. When the two finally met, it was apparent that Mr. Schwartz actually was the reclusive Charles Lindbergh in disguise.
Hoover's jaw dropped. He had kept Charles Lindbergh waiting while he signed photos. Lindbergh wanted to discuss with Hoover future of jets at Pan Am where he served on the board of directors. A bond between the two soon developed and Hoover helped Mr. Schwartz maintain anonymity while he explored new technologies with top aerospace companies, including North American Aircraft.
In 1969, Hoover was head of the Society of Experimental Text Pilots and he was charged with organizing SETP's big celebration dinner. A once in a blue moon opportunity arose. Hoover had a long-shot chance of orchestrating the appearance of two of America's biggest aviation heros.
Hoover said the dinner was held in the very same ballroom at the Beverly Hilton as the Living Legends dinner. He was presiding over the ceremony at the same place on the stage behind the podium.
Seated at the head table, were the reclusive Mr. Schwartz [aka Charles Lindbergh] and Neil Armstrong, just back from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In the middle of the two was Hoover's wife Colleen.
When Hoover brought up the house lights and introduced Lindbergh and Armstrong to the SETP members, they were awestruck at the sight of the two air and space pioneers.
The media was just as awestruck. They assumed Lindbergh never made public appearances and that Armstrong was still in quarantine after returning to earth. When the wire services and other media saw Lindbergh and Armstrong together they snapped hundreds of photos and sent them all over the world.
The photos all showed Bob's wife Colleen, right in the middle of Lindbergh and Armstrong.
"It was the proudest moment of my life," Hoover says. "There was dear Colleen, now my wife of 65 years, together with two of my biggest heros. Her picture with them was seen all over the world."
"To this day, I assume she is the only person to have sat with the first man to cross the Atlantic in an airplane on one side and the first man to set foot on the moon on the other," Hoover writes in his autobiography Forever Flying.
That moment, some 43 years ago, is so emblematic of Bob Hoover. He speaks infrequently of his many accomplishments as a barn stormer, World War II fighter pilot, USAF and North American Aircraft jet test pilot and air show performer during his 60+ year flying career. He'd much rather laud others for their feats and stand on the sidelines as a humble spectator.
He also calls virtually all his friends on special occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas. Imagine my shock when, out of the blue, my hero Bob Hoover first called me several years ago on December 24 to wish me a Merry Christmas while I was driving on Pacific Coast Highway. I was so awestruck, I nearly crashed my car. That tradition has continued every since, but now I'm less likely to lose control.
But, that's Bob Hoover for you. No wonder the Living Legends gala was packed with all of his friends who were there to wish him a Happy 90th Birthday. All of us hope we'll be saluting him when he turns 100 in January 2022.