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Bob Hoover
Crowd favorite Bob Hoover related fascinating flying exploits beside an F-86 Sabre at Warbirds in Review on Thursday. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)

By Frederick A. Johnsen

August 1, 2013 - About a thousand of Bob Hoover's friends dropped in to hear the legendary flier chat about his experiences at Oshkosh on Thursday.

The Warbirds in Review area becomes part cheering section, part comfortable living room as everyone settles in to hear Bob relate flying stories in his disarmingly relaxed and sometimes self-deprecating style.

Bob was happy to tell about the time in 1966 when he flew a Russian aerobatic plane that got him arrested. As non-flying captain of the U.S. aerobatic team that had just been defeated by its Soviet counterparts in Moscow, Hoover was invited to fly the Soviets' Yak-18 aerobatic airplane at the Moscow field right after the Soviet victory.

Bob believed the Soviet victory was due to a superior aircraft, not superior airmanship. In classic Hoover style, he set out to show the Soviets that an American pilot could do as well or better in the same airplane. Hoover honed an ability to use terrain to mask his aircraft in low flight, a feature he often incorporated into his American air shows.

In Moscow that day, he quickly got the Yak airborne, tucked up the gear, rolled inverted, and aimed for a 30-foot dike separating the airfield from a river. Just when it seemed he must smash into the dike, Hoover said he nosed the airplane up and over the embankment, disappearing from view.

Righting the Russian airplane, Hoover sneaked along the dike, presuming the crowd on the other side was scanning for a smoke cloud where he disappeared. The surprise was complete when he rolled inverted again and popped up and into the airport infield.

That was a prelude to repeating the Soviets' aerobatic routine that he had memorized. "I did everything they had done...I did it inverted," he told his AirVenture audience. "The crowd went wild," Hoover remembered. Upon landing he was mobbed by Russians until uniformed troops extricated him from the airplane and summarily arrested him!

House arrest at his hotel was ultimately softened that night by the intervention of famed Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; the next morning Hoover was allowed to leave with the American team. "It was the biggest relief in my life," he said.

The stories come easily to Bob; he recalled that early F-86 Sabre pilots were experiencing difficulties placing bombs accurately on target during ground attack sorties in Korea. Working with North American Aviation engineers, he perfected a way to judge the right combination of dive angle, airspeed, and altitude - coupled with the calm air that usually prevails at sunrise - to make the Sabre a lethal bomber.

The Air Force liked his methods, and flew him to Korea in a C-124 to teach fighter pilots the trick. At night in the officers' club at a Korean base, he overheard young pilots scorning anything that an old man like Hoover could possibly teach them.

The Hoover humor kicked in as he ordered drinks for the house, including his own beverages he swallowed with theatrical fanfare. Bob would excuse himself after each round and purge the alcohol in the men's room. "Next morning, there were a lot of hangovers and I had a sore throat...but no hangover."

Now Hoover was posted to fly an F-86 attack mission to a bridge in North Korea with the young pilots. His top secret clearance made him a valuable security asset should he be captured, and the other pilots were briefed: "He's not to hit the ground alive" if Hoover had to bail out of his Sabre. "It was a very exciting time for me," he told his crowd.

The upshot of the mission was a bridge destroyed by Bob, but initially credited by the other pilots to their formation leader until it became apparent the leader's ordnance had failed to separate.

The "old man" in his 30s had made his point.

Hoover had other anecdotes about saving early models of the famed F-86 during flight testing, despite the urging of chase pilots to bail out. Hoover's innate airmanship - although he modestly credits luck sometimes - saved him and the Sabre.

Following his presentation, Hoover was available with copies of his popular autobiography. And the aviator who was mobbed by the Soviets so many years ago was mobbed - politely - by his adoring fans at Oshkosh.

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