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Bob Hoover Warmly Welcomed

Frederick A. Johnsen

July 29, 2016 - A crowd estimated at about 1,000 came to listen to aviation legend Bob Hoover during a special Friday Warbirds in Review. Hoover’s career of aviation adventures is matched by his relaxed way of recounting the details in a way that kept listeners fondly focused. Hoover’s arrival at Warbird Alley prompted a spontaneous standing ovation for the World War II veteran, prisoner of war, test pilot, and air show legend.

Hoover was less charitable on himself when describing how he stole a German Fw 190 fighter and flew to Allied lines as the war was nearly over in Germany. After getting airborne in the enemy airplane, Hoover said he thought: “You are the dumbest aviator that ever flew. What the hell are you accomplishing?” He had no parachute, and was heading toward Allied territory in a swastika-emblazoned enemy warplane.

Had he remained at the POW camp a few days longer, the Allies likely would have reached him. But now he faced possible extinction at the hands of any friendly pilot who would presume his Focke Wulf was manned by the enemy. Hoover said he hugged a cloud ceiling at about 4,000 feet, figuring he would duck up into it if he was spotted by any Allied aircraft. He planned on flying west until he saw signs of Allied territory. “I wanted to see windmills to be sure,” he explained. That would signal friendly Holland.

By the time he reached Holland, Hoover said, “My gas tank was registering close to zero.” He chose to land while he still had full control of the fighter, and selected an open field. Hoover dropped the fighter’s landing gear and settled in. A ditch suddenly loomed ahead, and Hoover said he did not want to end up trapped in a German fighter on its back, where the Allies might not realize an American was inside. He said he “just reached down and sucked up the gear” to get the fighter to stop before tipping into the ditch.

Hoover said he wondered, “What the heck are you going to do now?” He didn’t have to wait long. “All of a sudden pitchforks came at me from every direction,” Hoover said. Dutch farmers who spoke no English were understandably angry with the man who emerged from the German fighter. Providence intervened in the form of a British Army truck approaching. Hoover queried the truck’s occupants: “I hope you can help me. I’m a Yank; they think I’m a Kraut!” With perfect British aplomb, the soldiers whisked Hoover to safety.

Hoover said he did not consider his actions in escaping to be heroic. “I was no hero. I didn’t do anything but be stupid,” he chuckled. Hoover said, “It’s a stupid story. For about a year and a half I wouldn’t tell anyone that story.” But word got out years later at an air show, and Hoover acknowledged his feat, albeit with disarming self-criticism.

Since the topic of the Warbirds in Review session was the P-47 Thunderbolt, Hoover was happy to oblige host David Hartman by recounting test flights he made in the Thunderbolt after the war. The Army Air Forces had rudimentary understanding of the effects of compressibility on airflow and control of an aircraft in the transonic region approaching supersonic flight. In a dive, fighter pilots had found their controls locked by the forces, as if “the stick is in concrete before you slow down,” he explained.

Three test pilots including junior team member Hoover were to dive a big, heavy P-47 Thunderbolt to around 500 miles per hour. An electrically driven metal plate on the tail surfaces was to be deployed to break the effects of compressibility and pull out of the high speed dive. Hoover said the first pilot was decapitated when the P-47’s canopy came off in the maneuver. Hoover suggested a bigger electric motor for the metal plate. The second pilot also succumbed in a dive.

Hoover said, “My turn next, and I don’t think I like this job.” Hoover came up with a mechanical lever he could extend inside the cockpit to give him the amplified force to manually move the metal plate. “I did a lot of flights before the bad one,” he said. When it came time to deflect the plate, Hoover said the P-47 pulled so hard he heard a loud bang as the wings buckled at Mach .83 and remained flexed upward. Blacking out, Hoover rode the damaged Thunderbolt as it resumed level flight. He told the AirVenture audience he heard his name being called and wondered where he was as he regained consciousness.

“Finally I looked over and saw my chase plane.” The chase pilot said he had been calling Hoover on the radio for 15 minutes while the bent Thunderbolt flew itself. The other pilot urged Hoover to abandon the stricken P-47. Instead, Hoover kicked the rudder to see if the main gear, which had self-extended when the wings bent, were stiff or wobbly in the slipstream. Assured that the wheels were down and locked, he chose to land. With part of the elevator ripped off in the pullout drama, Hoover said he had to land faster to maintain control. The airplane was junk.

“That’s my horror story about the P-47. But it was a wonderful aircraft,” he assured the audience.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Bob Hoover again received a standing ovation. He paused in the Warbirds gift shop where devoted fans asked to have pictures taken with their hero — an American hero despite what he might humbly say about himself.