He was honored with just about every flying medal possible after 58 successful missions in World War II, before his Mark V Spitfire was shot down off the coast of Southern France. Later, he was named among the top three aviators in history in the centennial edition of Air & Space Smithsonian. During a career that spanned more than 50 years, he flew more than 300 types of aircraft at more than 2,000 air shows all over the world. This Saturday, Hoover, 84, is climbing into the cockpit for one more mission, flying a restored B-17 bomber in to Van Nuys Airport for Syncro Aircraft’s inaugural Aviation Career Day. “I’m 84 going on 23,” he said Wednesday, laughing as he sat down to lunch at the airport’s 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant. “So, how did you steal that German fighter plane after escaping from that POW camp?” I asked him. Hoover smiled and shook his head. The story – one more time. Word spread around the camp about a new arrival, a test pilot who had been in England evaluating German aircraft before being captured. “We became friends, and I had him tell me all he could about flying the Fochwolf 190,” Hoover said. “I tried to remember everything he told me, but, of course, I didn’t.” No one had ever made a successful escape from Stalag Luft 1, but the war was winding down, and security at the POW camp was getting lax. “One night, another pilot and I made it out in the middle of the night. His name was Jerry Ennis, and after being shot down in combat, he vowed never to get in another airplane if he made it out of the camp alive.” After two days of walking through woods and dense brush to avoid German soldiers, they came to an airfield. Ennis had been given a gun by a woman from a farmhouse they had passed along the way. “She said it would do us a lot more good than it did her, and she was right,” Hoover said. “When we got on the airfield, I saw some old 190 fighter planes that had a lot of battle damage … Only one had any gas in it. “A mechanic walked by and Jerry pulled the gun on him. We told him unless he could get us airborne fast, we were going to kill him.” While Hoover climbed in the cockpit, Ennis stayed on the ground holding the gun on the mechanic as he started the engine. When it came time for Ennis to climb in, he shook his head no. Ennis gave his friend the thumbs-up sign and wished him luck, then ran into the dense forest to escape the approaching German guards. “I was afraid one of them would take a pot shot and hit the plane, so I didn’t risk taxiing the plane out on the runway. I just took off from the grass, trying to remember everything I knew about the plane. I never knew if Jerry made it or not.” Airborne, Hoover didn’t know where he was going or if he had enough gas in the plane to make it to freedom. “When I saw windmills, I knew I had made it,” he said. For years afterward, people would come up to Hoover at air shows and tell him they had been in the Stalag Luft 1 prisoner of war camp with him. “There must have been 200,000 guys in that camp,” he laughs today. “But about 20 years ago I was at an air show in Redding, Pa., when a young man in the local Civil Air Patrol said there was a man in the crowd who said he was in the POW camp with me. “I laughed and told him to bring the man over, asking as an afterthought if he had mentioned his name.” The young cadet said he had. He thought it was something like Ennis. A half-hour later, Jerry Ennis was telling an audience of 30,000 at the air show how he and his old war buddy, Bob Hoover, had escaped from Stalag Luft 1, and stolen a German fighter plane. The story had begun. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! He was called the best stick-and-rudder pilot alive by legendary World War II Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. And legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager said Bob Hoover’s the best pure pilot he ever met. But that’s not what people want to talk to Hoover about when they meet him. They want to hear the story of how he stole that Fochwolf 190 fighter plane from the German airfield at the end of World War II after escaping from the Stalag Luft 1 POW camp, flying to freedom in Holland after 16 months in captivity. It’s the stuff legends are made of, and Bob Hoover – a member of the Aerospace Hall of Fame – is a 24-karat legend.