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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A tribute to Bob Hoover

"Legend" is a word that is overused these days. Adjective inflation has stolen the true meaning of legend and turned it into a watered down compliment. Bob Hoover, however, was a legend among legends. If Michael Jordan had someone to look up to, Bob Hoover would be the guy.

He is probably most famous for pouring iced tea into a glass while doing a roll. You can see him do it here just past the 2:20 mark of this video, which does a good job condensing many the things that made him the real World's Greatest Fighter Pilot:

That video is a trailer for a documentary made about him called Flying the Feathered Edge. It has 5 stars over 79 reviews, which—like many things about him—is a record that few things can match.

In 2013, I wrote a post called "Bob Hoover reveals the secret to learning anything" about how he got as good as he was. Like all of us, he didn't start off already knowing how to fly. He had to learn it just like everyone else. He just happened to learn it better than most of us put together.

He had the right combination of determination that let him not make a setback into the setback, an internal strive for perfection, the ability to look at a failure as a marvelous opportunity to learn from and improve for next time, and a curiosity or thirst for knowledge that made him not just want to know what to do, but the why behind it. Knowing the why creates

In the early 1980s, Tom Wolfe wrote an outstanding book called The Right Stuff. In it, he mentions how fighter pilots would talk about who had the "right stuff". There is no one, set answer as to exactly what that is; it's one of those things that you know it when you see it, but you can't exactly say exactly what that "it" is. Bob Hoover is probably the closest we can ever come to a hard definition of what that "right stuff" is.

Wolfe's book (and the pretty decent movie it was made into) has the story of the day Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Chuck Yeager is a household name: you ask a random person if they've ever heard "Chuck Yeager" before and they can probably say he was the one who broke the sound barrier. Probably 99% of the world will have no idea what the answer to the question, "Who was Chuck Yeager's wingman when he broke the sound barrier?"

That answer: Bob Hoover. And that's not the only amazing story that almost nobody knows outside of the aviation community:

This picture is of another famous pilot, Harrison Ford, and Bob Hoover. The caption refers to yet another incredible Hoover story. He spent 16 months in a German prison camp during WWII. He escaped by stealing a Nazi fighter—a plane which he obviously had never flown before and with all the controls marked in German—and flying it to the Netherlands! (He tells this story and others in his 1997 autobiography, Forever Flying: Fifty Years of High-flying Adventures, From Barnstorming in Prop Planes to Dogfighting Germans to Testing Supersonic Jets.)

Although he retired from the aerobatics for which he was legendary, his influence still lingers on today. He is in many ways the Michael Jordan of aviation. Both of them had a burning passion and drive to do whatever it took to be the best. Both of them were serious students of their respective fields, constantly pushing themselves to find that next little trick that will make them .1% better. And both of them are still talked about two decades after they left, and are the yardstick against which everyone else is measured.

To me, the lesson he leaves in how he flew and how he lived his life is one of excellence, and that mastery is not a place but a journey. Like him, I know that there is no stopping point on the road to excellence. And like him, I try to get a little bit better every time I fly, and I try to make no hour in the logbook void of some lesson, no matter how small. The fact that he was that good means it is possible to be that good, and he is the standard toward which I will continue to strive each day. If he could do it, it means it can be done. Blue skies, Bob.

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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