The US pilot who escaped a German prison… then fled the country in the same plane that had shot him down!

He taught himself aerobatics and used his knowledge as a pilot to escape a prisoner of war camp: was there anything this American pilot couldn’t do? 

If you’re looking for a character whose life could be defined by aviation, meet Robert ‘Bob’ Anderson Hoover. Born in January 1922, Hoover’s life spanned 94 years and saw him work as a test pilot, a flight instructor, a fighter pilot in the US Army and Air Forces and (most famously) an air show aviator with impressive record-breaking accomplishments.  

Across his lifetime, Hoover was described time and time again as ‘simply the best’. He was the pilot that every single air show organiser wanted: his smooth flying and complex knowledge of his aircraft put him in such high demand that it caused him to fly all over the world.  

So where did the love begin?  

The answer is Tennessee. Specifically, Berry Field in Nashville. As a young man, Hoover used his wages from working as a grocery assistant to fund his love of flying before signing up as a trainee pilot in the United States Army. After qualifying in 1941, he famously flew Spitfires in World War Two as a pilot in 52d Fighter Group based in Sicily. Actively serving until 1944, it was only when Hoover’s Mark V Spitfire malfunctioned, and he was shot down by a German Focke-Wulf FW 190, that his time serving on behalf of the Allies was brought to an abrupt halt. Due to his fame as a beloved air show pilot, many are unaware of the time following this, which saw Hoover become a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft I near Barth in Germany. It’s no surprise, then, that many don’t know how he got himself out. 

Hoover’s escape from Stalag Luft I was actually his fourth attempt. It started with a staged fight amongst prisoners in order to distract the attention of the guards away from Hoover’s plans. Once they had been diverted, Hoover climbed a barbed wire fence to escape. After walking for miles and coming across no Allied territory, he saw an abandoned FW-190: the exact aeroplane that had gotten him into this mess in the first place. It was now that Bob’s incredible knowledge of flight aided him once again. He made the daring decision to fly the aeroplane as far as possible. He made it all the way to Holland, which had recently been liberated by the British armed forces. He’d spent a total of 16 months in the camp.  

Flying an abandoned German aeroplane as an escapee prisoner of war? Now that’s what we’d call determined. But Bob’s life certainly didn’t slow down following this; in fact, his years following World War II were equally as populated with many incredible achievements. Bob’s past of learning to fly in Nashville served him well – especially the fact that he had taught himself aerobatics in his formative years. World War II had been an important period in his life, but Bob Hoover’s career within the aviation industry – and indeed his worldwide fame – was only just taking off… 

Read part two on Friday