One of the Air Force’s legendary combat leaders has died.
Brigadier General Robin Olds, who shot down 16 enemy aircraft in dogfights during World War II and the Vietnam War, passed away last Thursday at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He was 84. An Air Force press release announcing his death was issued earlier this week.
As a young P-38 and P-51 pilot during the Second World War, Olds scored twelve aerial victories against the German Luftwaffe, making him a double ace at the age of 24. Oddly enough, he did not fly during the Korean Conflict, returning to combat two decades later, as a 44-year-old Colonel in Vietnam.
It was during his tour in Southeast Asia that Olds became a legend. In September 1966, he assumed command of the 8th Fighter Wing, based at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, at a time when American air losses were increasing. North Vietnam’s small cadre of MiG-21 Fishbed pilots had become proficient at interrupting bombing runs by U.S. F-105s Thunderchiefs. The F-105 was fast, but lacked maneuverability, especially when carrying heavy bomb loads into North Vietnam. When the Fishbeds appeared, the “Thuds” were often forced to jettison their bombs, giving them a better chance against the smaller, more agile North Vietnamese fighters.
The 8th Wing was equipped with F-4 Phantoms, which were better suited for air combat against the enemy MiGs. After putting his pilots (and himself) on a crash course to improve dogfighting skills, Olds began searching for a way to lure the MiG-21s into a major air battle. The result was Operation Bolo, planned by a group of junior officers that Olds considered his best pilots and tacticians.
Bolo was based heavily on deception; three flights of Ubon-based F-4s replicated the flight routes, formations, radio call signs and even the electronic signatures of F-105s. The mission was originally scheduled for January 1, 1967, but had to be postponed until the following day due to bad weather. Olds was in command of one flight; his wing Vice-Commander, Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James, led another.
Believing that the ingressing Phantoms were actually F-105s, the North Vietnamese took the bait, and paid dearly for that mistake. In the aerial combat that ensued, the North Vietnamese Air Force lost seven MiG-21s–almost half their inventory. Olds scored one of the kills, shooting down a Fishbed with an AIM-9 Sidewinder. He later described the engagement, in an account posted at acepilots.com:
The battle started when the MiGs began to get out of the cloud cover. Unfortunately for me, the first one appeared in my ‘six o’clock’. I think it was more an accident than a planned tactic. As a matter of fact, in the next few minutes many other MiGs started to exit from the clouds from different positions.
I was lucky. The flight behind me saw the MiGs and tried to divert its attention. I broke to the left, sharply enough to get away of his line of fire, hoping that my wingman would take care of him. Meanwhile another MiG came out of the clouds, turning widely about my ’11 o’clock’ at a distance of 2,000 yards. He went into the clouds again and I tried to follow.
A third enemy plane appeared in my ‘10 o’clock’, from the right to the left: in simple words, almost in the opposite direction. The first MiG zoomed away and I engaged the afterburner to get in an attack position against this new enemy. I reared up my aircraft in a 45 degree angle, inside his turn. He was turning to the left, so I pulled the stick and barrel-rolled to the right. Thanks to this maneuver, I found myself above him, half upside down. I held it until the MiG finished his turn, calculating the time so that, if I could keep on turning behind him, I would get on his tail, with a deflection angle of 20 degrees, at a distance of 1,500 yards. That was exactly what happened. He never saw me. Behind and lower than him, I could clearly see his silhouette against the sun when I launched two Sidewinders. One of them impacted and tore apart his right wing.
Air Force F-4s shot down two more Fishbeds on January 6th, forcing the North Vietnamese to ground their best fighter for almost three months, while they reevaluated their tactics and employment strategy.
After leaving the 8th Wing, Olds was promoted to brigadier general and served as Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and later, as Chief of Safety for the Air Force. His flamboyant, aggressive manner that served so well in combat, proved less effective in a military emerging from the Vietnam War. Olds also had a fondness for alcohol, a trait that also limited his promotion prospects.
But General Olds was never afraid to speak his mind, and kept doing it until the end of his Air Force career. After making a tour of fighter bases in Southeast Asia in 1972 (and flying several, unauthorized combat missions), he told the Air Force Chief of Staff, General John Ryan, that Air Force pilots “couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.” He offered to take a reduction in grade and return to Vietnam as a wing commander to “straighten out the situation,” but his offer was declined and Olds retired in 1973.
General Olds’ demands for better conventional aircraft, air-to-air missiles and realistic air combat training were ultimately vindicated, through development of fighters like the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18; the advent of newer versions of the AIM-7 and AIM-9 air-to-air missiles, and expansion of the Navy Top Gun and USAF Weapons School programs. In many respects, the stunning aerial victories in Iraq and Kosovo can be traced directly to the lessons taught by Robin Olds in the skies over Southeast Asia.
Commenting on Olds’ passing, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley, described him as “one of our Great Captains and pioneer of air power.” General Olds will also be remembered as a leader who was unafraid to take risks, and took care of his men. As commander of the 8th Wing, he flew 152 combat missions during a 12-month tour, 105 of those over North Vietnam (his predecessor had flown on 10 missions over a one-year period). After the triumph of Operation Bolo, he ensured that everyone involved in planning and executing the mission–including maintenance personnel and intel specialists–received recognition for their contributions.
But another, lesser-known anecdote from his Ubon days also speaks volumes about Olds’ leadership and character. Shortly after taking command of the 8th Wing, Olds appeared at the base finance office for in-processing. He discovered a long line of waiting airmen, who told him that the office operated on “bankers’ hours,” making it difficult for them to complete pay transactions.
Olds summoned the Major in charge of the organization, and ordered him to put the office on 24/7 operations, even if it meant the Major had to pull a shift at the pay window. Olds then waited until all the other airmen had been served before completing his in-processing. Word of the incident quickly spread, and the airmen of the 8th Wing understood that their new commander was genuinely concerned about their welfare. Their dedication to Olds was returned three months later, when hundreds of airmen lined the ramp at Ubon to congratulate the wing commander and his fellow pilots, returning from Operation Bolo.
Brigadier General Robin Olds was a legend and a leader in the best sense of both words. In a military increasingly dominated by technocrats and managers, he was a rare breed, a genuine warrior who led from the front and by example.
He will be missed. Truth is, we’ve been missing his leadership–and warrior ethos–since 1973.