Bob Hoover was a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot stuck in a Nazi prison camp in Northern Germany after being shot down in 1944 over Southern France.
He’d spent 16 months as a POW and wasn’t going to stay there one minute longer. So he staged a fight between fellow prisoners, jumped over the Stalag’s barb wire fence, and stole an unguarded Focke-Wulf 190 from the nearby airfield.
He flew to Holland, which had just been liberated by the Allies.
As a child, he was inspired by his parents talking about Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. By age 15, he started a flying club at his high school. He took a job bagging groceries for $2 a week to pay for 15 minutes flying time. After becoming solo-certified, he began teaching himself aeronautical acrobatic moves.
He joined the Army Air Corps after enlisting in the Tennessee National Guard during World War II and was sent to Army Pilot Training School.
He wasn’t shot down until his 59th mission.
Jimmy Doolittle called Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived,” high praise for a man who had been flying for just 10 years by the time the United States Air Force became an independent branch of service. Hoover became an Air Force legend, joining the ranks of Doolittle, fellow Stalag Luft I prisoner Gabby Gabreski, and Chuck Yeager — to name a few. He flew captured enemy planes and later, experimental airframes in the Air Force, including the P-80, F-86, and F-100 Super Sabre.
Hoover was also Chuck Yeager’s backup (and chase plane pilot) when Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 in 1947.
His time testing aircraft even led Hoover to design technology to advance the development of aviation, including the “Hoover Nozzle” and the “Hoover Ring.”
— Buzz Aldrin (@TheRealBuzz) October 25, 2016
Throughout his life, Hoover earned numerous awards and accolades, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was also inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and Aerospace Walk of Honor. The Blue Angels, USAF Thunderbirds, and Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds inducted him as an honorary member. After awarding him the Living Legends of Aviation “Freedom of Flight” Award in 2006, the nonprofit renamed the award after him the very next year.
Considered a “pilot’s pilot,” Hoover continued to fly in air shows until 2000.
Hoover’s death follows his wife Colleen’s in March. Yeager’s wife Victoria recounted the story of Bob and Colleen’s first date on her website.