Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Some Quality Time with Rapid Robert

Each year in May, the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) commemorates the 1927 flight of The Spirit of St. Louis by presenting the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture. This year the lecture was presented by the pilot that Jimmy Doolittle called "the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived," R.A. "Bob" Hoover. And I had the good fortune to be in the audience.

I'm pleased to report that Bob is, at the age of 88, doing quite well. He has a bit of a problem with walking - about which he is apologetic, attributing it to delayed after-effects of having his legs broken during a high speed ejection a few decades ago. (Click the photo to check out his Wikipedia article.)

I imagine Bob, on being informed that he'd been chosen to give this year's Lindbergh Lecture, asking, "Well, what do you want me to lecture about?" And the museum director saying, "Aw, hell, Bob, just get up there and tell some stories." And that's what he did.

Appropriately for the event, Bob told us about his friendship with Charles Lindbergh, and how he persuaded the great aviator to emerge from seclusion in 1969 to be honored alongside the newly-returned Apollo XI crew at the Society of Experimental Test Pilots' 1969 awards banquet. He went on to tell us about Jimmy Doolittle, whom he described as his hero and who became his close friend.

Bob shifted his focus from aviators to airplanes and piloting, and told us how circumstance had led to his acquisition of greatly varied experience and how surviving that experience allowed him to become one of the icons of aviation (my words - not his). And he told us about a few flights that didn't turn out as he hoped, including his getting a Spitfire shot out from under him and fracturing his spine in the crash of the F-100 Super Sabre prototype.

He was asked his opinion of the continuing rumors that the North American XF-86 exceeded Mach 1 before Chuck Yeager did that deed in the Bell X-1. He supported his view that, essentially "it couldn't have happened," with considerable convincing evidence based on personal observation. And he was there!

The hour-and-a-half flew by as the auditorium full of aviation devotees hung on "Rapid Robert's" every word. When the Director of the NASM called time on the proceedings, we all stood and applauded for a long time, as it is indeed a rare privilege to stand and honor a man like Bob Hoover.


Anonymous said...

Icon, indeed. Wish I could have been there...

LarryPetro said...

It was quite an evening with a remarkable person who lived an incredible life in aviation. I was impressed by his "aw, shucks" demeanor combined with keen insight into what an aircraft can do next in every corner of the flight envelope.

This evening Bob brings to mind the lecture given by Reeve Lindbergh a few years ago. As she told stories of her father and their flights together when she was a child, the sense of being in their presence shrank that immense auditorium to seemingly her and few of her friends. You could have heard a pin drop that evening as the audience hung on every word.