Thrown for a Loop

updated 09/19/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1994 01:00AM

AT AN OKLAHOMA CITY AIR SHOW two years ago, Bob Hoover lifted off in his twin-engine Shrike Commander prop plane, executed some daring twists and somersaults, shut down both engines at 3,500 feet, threw in another flip—and then glided to a perfect landing before thousands of cheering fans. It was a routine stunt for Hoover, known in aviation circles as one of the greatest living pilots. But two observers in the crowd—inspectors that the Federal Aviation Administration sends to all air shows—were not impressed. Calling the 72-year-old daredevil's flying flawed, they ordered him to get a physical. He did—and passed. But the FAA wasn't satisfied. It chose another set of doctors to examine Hoover, and this time he was judged unfit to fly. In April 1993, the FAA grounded him.

The decision threw Hoover into a tail-spin. Since 1940 he has performed worldwide, earning some $500,000 annually from air show stunts. Now the World War II hero looks on wistfully from the ground as he tries—so far unsuccessfully—to recover his medical certificate. "These guys said I seemed uncertain of my maneuvers," he says. "It was ridiculous. I flew flawlessly."

Hoover's plight has caused hundreds of exhibition pilots to rally to his defense, raising $50,000 for his legal fees. Some fear similar treatment. Former test pilot Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 was the first to break the sound barrier (Hoover stood by as his backup), describes his friend's flying as "perfect" and suspects the FAA's only rationale was his age. "I'm only a year younger than Bob, so it worries me," Yeager says. "It would worry any pilot."

The FAA, which is responsible for keeping unfit pilots from endangering themselves and others, insists Hoover has neurological problems. After testing him, a panel of FAA-chosen physicians and psychologists recommended against reinstating the unrestricted medical certificate Hoover needs for solo flying and stunt work. They said a problem-solving test took him three times longer than average, putting him in the category of "significantly impaired." And a brain scan showed irregularities that one neurologist, citing Hoover's "bulbous red nose," hypothesized could be a result of heavy drinking.

Hoover calls the FAA's tests "nutty" and insulting and says they have nothing to do with his ability to fly. One test, he says, lasted six hours and involved repeating lists of words. As for his red nose, Hoover says, "If they'd done their homework, they'd know I've had numerous surgeries on my nose to remove skin cancer."

To clear his name, Hoover visited another string of doctors, who testified on his behalf at a National Transportation Safety Board trial last January. The judge ruled in Hoover's favor, but the FAA appealed, and the NTSB reversed its decision. The fight, however, is far from over. Hoover has famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, a longtime pal and fellow aviator, representing him at no charge. Bailey has vowed to see the case through—even if it means taking a day off from the O.J. Simpson murder trial when the U.S. Court of Appeals hears Hoover's appeal in Washington on Oct. 31.

Bailey sees it as a bias case and claims one of the two inspectors suffers from "Napoleonic" envy of the lean, 6'1" Hoover. At the NTSB trial, Norbert Nester, a third FAA inspector present at Hoover's fateful air show, supported this theory. A tall, thin pilot himself, Nester testified that Clint Boehler, one of the inspectors who critiqued the show, had told him, "I hate people like you because you are...tall and skinny. I don't like being short and paunchy." Nester, who judged Hoover's performance to be smooth, also testified he overheard Boehler say he was after Hoover because "the old bastard has been around for a long time." Bailey says this shows age discrimination. The FAA will not comment on the case before the upcoming hearing.

Hoover piloted his first plane as a teenager in his native Nashville. Son of Leroy Hoover, an accountant, and Bessie, a homemaker, young Bob worked at a grocery store to pay for $2 flying lessons, where he coaxed clunky planes into loops and cartwheels. "I learned early on that if you were very gentle, you could do an awful lot with an airplane," he says. In 1942 he went overseas with the Army Air Corps, flying 59 missions over Europe until 1944, when his British Spitfire was shot down and he was held prisoner in Germany for a year. Released at the war's end, he began his career as an experimental test pilot and part-time stuntman. While working at Wright Air Force Base in Dayton, in 1947, he met Colleen Humrickhouse, a bakery employee, on a blind date. They were soon married and moved to a cliffside house in Palos Verdes, Calif., where they raised two children, Anita Ley, 38, and Robert, 29.

These days, Hoover keeps his technique honed at air shows in countries like Australia, Mexico, Canada and Singapore, where he is still allowed to perform. But he says he won't rest until he can fly at home again. This fight, he explains, is not just a one-man show. "I'm doing this not only for me," he says, "but for every pilot in the country who doesn't have F. Lee Bailey as a friend."

TARA BAHRAMPOUR
SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Palos Verdes

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