During his career, pilot Bob Hoover escaped Nazi captivity in a stolen plane, tested supersonic aircraft and crisscrossed the world as an awe-inspiring stunt performer, but one of his “most satisfying” experiences was what he called his “extraordinary adventure over Moscow.”
Hoover, who died October 25 at the age of 94, was eulogized as one of America’s most celebrated veterans, a true legend.
While his survivors may not have been present for his Moscow adventure,” they surely heard about it. It happened in 1966, when more than a million Soviet spectators and reporters from around the world gathered at the Tushino airfield to observe the closing ceremonies of the International Aerobatic Competition. Flying in a Yakovlev-18 as part of the U.S. aerobatic team, Hoover performed breathtaking stunts. But certain of his maneuvers — specifically, flying upside down and executing spectacular loops — violated Soviet regulations.
While Hoover’s flight electrified the Soviet audience — “people were waving their hands in the air, cheering loudly, and rushing toward the aircraft,” according to Hoover’s autobiography — it angered the Soviet authorities.
Hoover was whisked away in a staff car, driven to his hotel and locked in a room guarded by two armed soldiers. “At this point, you must consider yourself to be under arrest,” Hoover was told by an interpreter.
After a few hours, the soldiers marched Hoover down to the hotel’s lobby past the banquet celebrating the conclusion of the air show, where in an amazing twist of fate, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, was giving a speech.
A year earlier, in 1965, Hoover had befriended Gagarin at an international air show outside Paris. Despite the language barrier, the two formed a quick bond. “I had a lot of respect for him. It took a great deal of guts and determination to face the dangerous challenge of being the first man put into orbit,” Hoover said about Gagarin.
A French television station produced a program about the two aviators. The report featured their daring deeds and highlighted their regard for each other and their newly formed friendship, even showing footage of them waterskiing together.
Little did Hoover know at the time of the filming that in a year, their proximity in this hotel would play a critical role in his life.
“I leaned away from my captors to catch a glimpse of him,” Hoover remembers in his autobiography. “Fortunately, he saw me as well.”
Gagarin raced to Hoover, pulled him away from the guards, who did not dare to oppose one of the USSR’s biggest heroes, and in a flash, Hoover was on the stage alongside Gagarin.
Hoover’s book reports that the Soviet cosmonaut spoke to the crowd:
“What in the world are the guards doing? Mr. Hoover is a great aviator. What’s going on here? What are they going to do with him?”
As the crowd cheered, Gagarin grabbed Hoover and gave him an “awkward, goodbye bear hug.” The Soviet officials “appeared to just give up and bow to [Gagarin’s] wishes.” The next morning, Hoover was on an Aeroflot flight to Norway and on the way back to the United States.
The rest is now history.