“Flying the Feathered Edge”, Kim Furst’s new 90-minute documentary about the nearly seven decade aviation career of Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, was privately shown Tuesday afternoon to a group of 80 guests at the Skyscape Theater at the EAA Museum. The film opens with actor and pilot Harrison Ford, airshow performer Sean Tucker and Bob Hoover sitting down at a table in Ford’s hangar to discuss his aviation career. Tucker says he “wouldn’t be alive today” if it weren’t for Hoover’s mentoring. Ford says “You just can’t get to be a Bob Hoover anymore” as he points many of Hoover’s exploits and insights.
As the film progresses, many of his close friends, professional associates and longtime admirers add their perspectives and colorful anecdotes to the narrative. Among them are the late Neil Armstrong, Carroll Shelby, who flew with Hoover during World War II, GEN J. R. Jack Daley of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Clay Lacy, Burt and Dick Rutan, the late George Everett "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient, LT GEN Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland and CAPT Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon.
Highlights include film clips from Hoover’s flight testing the North American YF-100 Super Saber prototype as he intentionally puts it into a flat spin, in accordance with the test plan, only to discover that it cannot be recovered. He ejects from the out of control airplane at 10,000 ft and reports the results to company engineers. Cockpit, formation and ground film shots of Hoover flying several other aircraft are included.
Hoover started his aviation career by taking flying lessons in rural Tennessee, only to discover that he was prone to violent air sickness. To cure the malady, he taught himself aerobatics, progressing from mild chandelles to four and eight point hesitation rolls, along with loops and spins. He quips that he didn’t yet know that airplanes have quite sharp aerodynamic and structural limits, that if exceeded can have fatal consequences.
He then becomes a U.S. Army Air Corp student pilot. Ironically, he ends up teaching his military primary flight instructors aerobatics he learned in civilian flying. But, he nearly washes out of flight training because of his poor eyesight. A friendly flight surgeon helps him pass the eye check, believing that Hoover has a bright future in aviation in spite of his dim vision. Hoover says everybody then needed 20/20 vision to fly any military aircraft. “Now fighter pilots can wear glasses,” he quips.
When he completed military flight training, Hoover was assigned to the RAF. But, rather than going into combat, he was reassigned to a production flight test squadron in North Africa where he flew several missions each day in several different freshly assembled or newly repaired combat aircraft. Eventually, he makes it into aerial combat against Nazi Germany, flying a Spitfire. But, off the south coast of France, he gets into a dogfight with four Luftwaffe Folke-Wulf 190 fighters and discovers he cannot jettison his external fuel tank. Restricted to 220 mph in his Spit because of the drag of the fuel tank, he does his best to outmaneuver the four 300 mph FW190s. In the end, he gets shot down and captured as a prisoner of war. He later escapes and steals an FW190 from a German air base and flies it to Holland.
After the war, he was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and goes through USAF test pilot school. Soon after, he’s assigned to the USAF flight test facility at Muroc Dry Lake, later named Edwards AFB. There he flies several prototype jet and rocket aircraft, including the Bell X-1. He was on track to be the pilot assigned to the X-1 on its pioneering Mach busting mission in 1947, But, he’s caught making a low pass over civilians as a favor to a friend. The flat-hatting stunt costs him his slot in the X-1, so his friend Chuck Yeager gets tapped as the replacement pilot.
It’s apparent that his flight test career with the Air Force is doomed, but his commanding officer helps him get a civilian test pilot job with Allison. Later, he gets a chance to join North American Aviation as a test pilot, making the first flight in the Navy version of the T-28, along with testing and demonstrating the F-86 Saber jet, F-100 Super Saber and FJ-2 navy version of the F-68, among other aircraft.
Next he embarks upon his air show career, flying the North American “Old Yeller” P51 and Rockwell Aero Commander Shrike. During this period, he meets a reclusive Mr. Schwartz at an air show in Germany, who turns out to be Charles Lindbergh in disguise. He persuades Lindbergh to come to the 13th meeting of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots where, as SETP president, he introduces Lindbergh to Neil Armstrong and other pioneering astronauts. When Hoover introduces Lindbergh on stage, the astronauts and other test pilots give Lindbergh a standing ovation.
The film goes on to feature many other of Hoover’s exploits about which he writes in “Forever Flying”, his autobiography, that now is in greater demand than any time in the past decade. Hoover was pace and safety pilot at the Reno National Air Races for several years. He helped many pilots of crippled race planes land or crash land their aircraft and walk away from the mishaps.
Near the end of the film, Hoover talks about his final air show performance at Luke AFB near Phoenix. He says he could tell he was losing his precision airmanship and that he came close to losing the aircraft during the performance. He says we was too close to the “feathered edge” and that’s why he stopped performing. But, he still continued to fly until he was 85 when he finally grounded himself.
He still appeared at many EAA AirVenture events to sign his book for devotees and visit with hundreds of friends. Some people waiting in line at AirVenture in 2011 actually wept when talking about how lessons learned from Hoover had saved their lives in airplanes.
In closing the film, Cernan says, “He is one of the last of a breed, a man who has left his mark on history.” After 90 minutes, there were few dry eyes in the house as the credits rolled at the end of the documentary. This is Kim Furst's finest documentary, in Aviation Week’s opinion, a film well worth our readers’ viewing time when it appears in nearby theaters.
Photo Credit: WPPilot