By Marilyn Dash
Robert Lee Gibson, better known to Air Racing Fans as “Hoot” is one of the most highly decorated racers around. Will he finally get the chance to be a Champion?
Hoot was born in Upstate New York, yet considers a town outside of LA to be his “hometown.” He, like so many others, soloed at 16 and earned his pilots’ license at 17. He always knew he wanted to be a pilot– even at the age of 10 when his dad turned the Bonanza yoke over to his side and let him perform his first take off. Both of his parents were pilots, and his dad was an aeronautical engineer. Flying and aeronautics were a family tradition in the Gibson household.
He then entered the U.S. Navy and was selected for pilot training in 1969. Between April 1972 and Sept. 1975, Hoot served on the USS Coral Sea and the USS Enterprise flying combat missions over South East Asia. He had two tours in the F-4 and his final tour in the F-14.
In 1974, he saw a sketch of the new Space Shuttle. He decided then and there that he wanted to fly that Shuttle. Prior to that, astronauts really didn’t fly – they had capsules, not aircraft. But when he saw that sketch, he knew that’s where he wanted to be and to get there, he needed to be a Test Pilot first.
He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School, better known as “Top Gun.” Following service in South East Asia, Hoot returned stateside and was selected as an instructor in the then new F-14A. In June 1977, Hoot graduated from the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School.
Following his dream, he was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in Jan. 1978. He met his future bride because of NASA – she was also in the class of 1978. So, he joined NASA to meet women?
While at NASA, Hoot flew five times in various Space Shuttles for a total of 36.5 days in space. His first flight was as Pilot of Challenger on STS-41B in Feb. 1984, which is best known for the first test flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, the self-contained backpack that allowed astronauts to fly untethered outside the Shuttle.
His second flight and first as Space Shuttle Commander, was STS-61C in Jan. of 1986, the last successful flight before the Challenger was lost in an accident. After the Challenger accident, Hoot worked on the accident investigation team and worked on the redesign and recertification of the solid rocket boosters.
Following the Shuttle’s return to flight, Hoot was selected to Command STS-27 the second Shuttle Flight after Challenger, which he did in Dec. 1988. The details of this mission, flown in Space Shuttle Atlantis, were classified by the Department of Defense. The mission was so secret at the time, that after the flight, the crew received special medals from the CIA, but they were not allowed to take them home.
In Sept. 1992, Hoot flew Endeavor on mission STS-47, which carried the Spacelab laboratory. This mission was a cooperative venture between the U.S. and Japan and included the first Japanese astronaut.
Hoot’s fifth and final NASA space flight came in June and July 1995 when he commanded, Atlantis on STS-71. This was the first mission to dock with the Space Station MIR. Hoot, a guitar enthusiast and collector, actually brought guitar strings with him to MIR as a gift to the Russian Cosmonauts. Apparently, they had a guitar on MIR – with no strings. It could be said that his guitar strings melted the Iron Curtain.
Once his NASA flying career was over, he served as Chief of the Astronaut Office and as Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations until leaving NASA in Nov. 1996 to fly a more regular schedule with Southwest Airlines.
Hoot has flown more than 100 different types of aircraft. This includes everything from single engine piston aircraft like his personally owned Cassutt and a J3 Cub to Helicopters and to several Gliders, known to some as Space Shuttles.
Unlimited Air Racing
In 1998, he started racing Riff Raff at the Reno Air Races. Riff Raff is a Hawker Sea Fury owned at the time by Mike Keenum. Mike sold Riff after several years campaigning her with Hoot or himself at the stick. In 2012, he was asked to take over as pilot for 232, another Hawker Sea Fury. This one owned by Rod Lewis.
Unfortunately, the fact that 232 had won at the Air Races in the past didn’t count for much. The closest he came to the winner circle was in 2012 with a second place finish. The last two years made him an expert on deadstick landings instead of a National Champion.
Tiger knew that 2014 was his last year – his final retirement. He also knew that he needed a rockstar in the cockpit. And he found one in Hoot.
Tiger made the announcement in March at the National Air Racing Group Annual Dinner Meeting. Many raised an eyebrow – but not me. I immediately called Hoot to confirm – and he said yes! I could not be happier for Tiger, Hoot, and for Strega.
So now it is “The Kid” – Stevo Hinton and “The Astronaut” – Hoot Gibson. Both are amazingly skilled pilots. Both are crowd favorites and both are hungry for a win.
Let’s see how this goes. Pass the popcorn – see you at Reno!