"There are pilots and there are pilots;
with the good ones, it is inborn. You can't teach it. If you
are a fighter pilot, you have to be willing to take risks."
Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.
Fighter pilots used to say that there was
a glass case in the A Ring of the Pentagon. It was built to the
precise dimensions of then-Colonel Robin Olds, who would be frozen
and displayed wearing his rankless flight suit, crushed fore
and aft cap, gloves, and torso harness with .38 and survival
knife. Beside the case was a fire ax beneath a sign reading:
"In case of war, break glass."
It was something of an exaggeration, but
it contained an element of truth. Robin Olds was built for war.
And he was born to fly. It was imprinted
in his genes. Born in July 1922, Robin was the son of the influential
airman Robert Olds. As a disciple of Billy Mitchell, the elder
Olds became a prominent advocate of strategic bombing and did
more than anyone to make the B-17 an operational reality before
World War II. Olds' influence was acknowledged by no less an
authority than Curtis LeMay.
A big, strapping kid, Robin had drawn attention
when his high school football team won the Virginia state championship
in 1937. He turned down athletic scholarships in favor of West
Point and entered the corps of cadets in 1940, destined for the
Class of '44.
Among his classmates was later Colonel
William J. Hovde of World War II and Korean fame. Billy Hovde
used to insist, "I was Robin's ballroom partner because
I was the only one in the class who could dance backwards."
At West Point Robin made All-American as
a tackle and was named lineman of the year in 1942. Such was
his success that he was inducted into the college football hall
of fame in 1985.
But more than anything, Robin wanted to
fly-and he wanted fighters. He got his wish. He became one of
only a dozen West Pointers to make ace (in comparison to 30 Annapolis
Robin was commissioned and rated a pilot
on June 1, 1943. a 20-year-old second lieutenant. He joined the
479th Fighter Group in February '44, and upon arrival in England
that May he had 640 hours total time. Twelve months later he
was a major leading a squadron.
Robin was a team player as long as the
team wanted to play. When
the leaders were only interested in suiting up, he exercised
In other words, he went freelancing. In his first two dogfights
he was alone
with his wingman, having left formation to hunt on his own. As
he wryly noted
long afterward, "When I shot down my first two airplanes
I was relieved to see that they had black crosses on their wings."
Robin used to say that the two best things
about World War II were London and Colonel Zemke. When the 479th's
first commander was shot down in August 1944, Hub Zemke moved
over from the fabled 56th Fighter Group and rejuvenated the Mighty
Eighth's last fighter outfit. Not that Robin needed any rejuvenating,
but the group had plodded along in pedestrian fashion.
In a few weeks Zemke turned things around,
and added to Robin's
already formidable determination to succeed as a shooter and
a leader. The
group converted to P-51s in September but Zemke's Mustang broke
up in a storm over Germany the next month and he became a POW.
However, the lesson had been learned and absorbed.
Robin became commanding officer of the
434th Fighter Squadron at age 22, and he never forgot it. Decades
later he said, "As a major I was responsible for feeding
and housing my men, training my men, and rewarding or punishing
them. As a colonel I had to check with some general for permission
to visit the latrine."
Unlike many pilots who regarded airplanes
as tools, Robin could be
sentimental about his machines. Near the end of the war he was
one of six P-51 pilots who attacked a German airdrome and found
himself the lone survivor. He nursed his crippled Mustang back
to base but found that it stalled at 175 mph, rolling violently.
But as he said, "Scat VI had taken me through a lot and
I was damned if I was going to give up on her." Somehow
he got the bird on the runway and kept it in one piece.
When the European war ended, Robin had
made ace in both the P-38 and P-51, probably the only pilot ever
to do so.
After VE-Day Robin returned to the States
and reverted to his
permanent rank: a 23-year-old captain. He married Ella Raines,
one of the most glamorous actresses of the era, and got on with
He briefly returned to West Point as assistant
football coach but
chafed at the thought of missing the new jets entering service.
Therefore, he arranged a transfer to March Field, flying P-80
Shooting Stars. He thrived there, becoming a member of the first
jet flight demonstration team and that same year, 1946, was second
in the jet phase of the Thompson Trophy Race.
Robin went to England as an exchange pilot
in 1948, flying No. 1
Squadron's Gloster Meteors. The American major commanded the
prestigious British squadron in 1949, enjoying the high jinks
typical of an RAF mess: a mixture of drinking and physicality
that appealed to him.
Upon return to the States, Robin commanded
the 71st Fighter Squadron at Pittsburgh. He was thoroughly unhappy
in Air Defense Command, protecting Steel Town from Soviet bombers
when friends were bagging MiGs in Korea. Almost beside himself,
he wrangled a temporary assignment to the Far East, and the world
looked good again. As he explained, "I had to go behind
my boss's back, but I thought it was worth it. My wife even had
induced labor so I could see my daughter before I left, and I
was on the way out the door when the phone rang. It was my CO.
He said, 'Gotcha. If I don't go, you don't go.'"
The CO was another ETO triple ace, Colonel
Jack Bradley, who was equally eager to hassle with MiGs. Robin
missed Korea, and he never got over it. He made full colonel
April 1953, which made him eligible to command a group, but the
war was winding down.
Robin served penance in the Pentagon 1958-1962,
waging a notably unsuccessful campaign to keep guns in new fighter
aircraft. "Missiles were immature technology for years and
years after that," he insisted, not without reason. His
pet project was an F-102 with bubble canopy and a gun, which
came to naught.
Robin also had other ideas. While visiting
an aircraft storage
facility he noticed some Navy piston airplanes "with all
these lovely hardpoints under their wings." He figured that
if the "squids" weren't using all their Douglas Skyraiders,
the Air Force should take up the slack. Eventually the Air Commandos
were flying A-1s as the fabulous Sandys, providing close air
support in Southeast Asia.
From1963 to '65 Robin assumed command of
the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. There he formed
an F-101 aerobatic team, demonstrating the Voodoo's low-level
performance across Europe-without official approval. Accounts
vary, but if Robin truly broke regulations as a way of getting
kicked out of Europe, it worked. Third Air Force wanted to court
martial him but General Gabe Disosway of USAFE took pity and
dispatched him to ponder his evil ways at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.
Robin later said that a rotund star wearer
had intoned, "Olds, you're the kind mof Air Force officer
who should be sent to Southeast Asia." As if that were a
Robin got exactly what he wanted: command
of an air-to-air fighter
wing, hunting MiGs. The disappointment of Korea drifted a dozen
Robin's arrival at Ubon, Thailand, was
uncharacteristically low key. He knew from his own sources that
all was not well in the 8th TFW and resolved to see it from the
perspective of the FNG-the "freaking" new guy. He went
through the normal in-processing routine like any other newbie,
paid close attention and spoke little. By the time he reached
the front office, he reckoned that he knew all he needed to.
He began cleaning house.
First he cut loose the deadwood, the ticket
punchers and careerists who had "sniveled some counters"-missions
that counted toward completion of a tour when in fact they had
not gone north. Then he began learning the way the Wolfpack did
business so he could improve upon it. He stood before the Phantom
crews and said, "I'm going to start here by flying Green
Sixteen (tail-end Charlie) and you guys are going to teach me
how. But teach me fast and teach me good, because I'm a quick
Sitting in the audience was Captain Ralph
Wetterhahn, a future MiG killer. Like so many other pilots and
WSOs, he was energized by the new CO's press-on attitude. Years
later, Wetterhahn compared Olds' arrival with that of Brigadier
General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) in Twelve O'Clock High. The
old ways were not only out, they were deceased. A new regime
had arisen, and the Wolfpack began showing results. Under Olds'
predecessor, who seldom flew combat, the 8th had eked out a meager
kill-loss ratio. Like the rest of the Air Force, it had barely
broken even with Hanoi's MiGs, peaking at a 2-1 exchange rate.
Under Robin, the Wolfpack shot to the top of the Southeast Asia
league, bagging 18 MiGs, and when he left, the wing's kill ratio
stood at 4-1.
Robin entered his second war with over
4,000 hours, mostly in fighters. At 44 he was flying against
Vietnamese pilots probably half his age. But he came into his
own at Ubon. He ruled over a fiefdom like a feudal baron, enjoying
the excitement of the hunt by day and discussing the great game
with his men at arms by night. He would have been completely
at home in Arthurian England; better yet in Arthurian legend.
The free-wheeling environment at Ubon fueled
morale, and the Wolfpack's was stratospheric. Dedicated consumers
of booze and red meat, they reveled in the warrior ethic. In
contrast, today's sedate, sober young professionals are superbly
educated, highly competent, and terrified that they might say
something that somebody would find objectionable. Robin did not
want to live in that world, and he didn't.
Unsatisfied with the restrictive rules
of engagement, Robin began seeking a way around them. He found
it in the realm of deception and began planning Operation Bolo.
On January 2, 1967, he led the Wolfpack into an aerial ambush
of MiG-21s expecting to jump a formation of F-105s. Instead of
laden "Thuds" the Vietnamese found a passel of hungry
Bolo's seven credited kills exceeded the
8th's tally during all the
previous CO's tenure. Robin got one himself, becoming the only
pilot to score in WW II and Vietnam. Over the next year he added
Upon return to the U.S., Robin was acclaimed
as America's top gun of the war to date, a record he retained
for the next five years. But he was contemptuous of the Air Force's
attitude toward air combat, exclaiming, "The best flying
job in the world is a MiG-21 pilot at Phuc Yen. Hell, if I was
one of them I'd have got 50 of us.!"
Despite his MiG-killing fame, Robin was
perhaps proudest of the
strike against North Vietnam's best-defended target: Thai Nguyen
steel mill. In an ultra low-level attack, leaving rooster tails
on the paddies behind them, Olds and two wingmen put their bombs
on target. He considered it a dangerously wasteful effort, as
the mill had been hit repeatedly, but the smoke stacks remained
standing. What he valued most was the courage and skill of his
Having promoted Robin to general, the Air
Force sought a safe place to stash him. For reasons both ironic
and obscure, he was assigned as commandant of cadets at the Air
Force Academy, where his brand of irreverent individualism could
infect hundreds of future officers.
Robin's influence on the cadets was profound.
One who became a FAC and author was Darrel Whitcomb, who recalls,
"In the fall of 1968, I was a first class cadet at the Academy
when he was our commandant. Every Friday evening he would have
the first classmen from a different squadron to his house for
dinner. I was in Seventh Squadron. The evening of our visit,
I was late to arrive because...I had my very first solo. I walked
in as he was telling a war story. Seeing me in my flight suit,
he asked if I had just had a flight. Needless to say, I had to
share my big event. He listened and then said, 'This deserves
something special.' He left the room and came back about five
minutes later with one of his flying scarves. It reeked of whiskey
and cigars. He put it around my neck and said, 'Well, now we
have another new Wolf cub.'
"I was absolutely blown away by his
act and felt at that moment,
that if he had asked, I would have flown that T-41 to Hanoi for
After Colorado Springs, Robin was packed
off as Director of
Aerospace Safety to finish his career but got an unexpected reprieve.
When the Vietnam war heated up again in 1972, his four MiGs remained
the U.S. record. Offering to take a reduction to colonel for
a chance at the fifth MiG, Robin instead was dispatched to learn
why the Navy was running up a 12-1 kill ratio while the Air Force
struggled to maintain parity.
He found what he feared: most Air Force
fighter crews "couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper
bag." Commander John Nichols, a Navy MiG killer brought
to Udorn, Thailand to teach dogfighting to the blue suits, saw
Robin taxi his F-4 into the chocks after a practice mission.
"The canopy came open, followed by General Olds' helmet
in a high, lofting arc. He was not happy."
Robin retired in June 1973. With 17 career
victories (13 in WW II plus four in Vietnam) when he died this
year he was America's third-ranking living ace. Thetop three
now are Walker "Bud" Mahurin (24.25), Alexander Vraciu
(19) and Clarence "Bud" Anderson (16.25.)
I'll never forget the first time I met
Robin in the late '70s. He wore a Nehru jacket with what resembled
a peace symbol pendant. Looking closer, I saw that it was a stylized
rendition of "the track of the Great American Chicken"
that actually said "War."
Robin cultivated image of the warmongering
fighter jock, but just beneath the barbarian faÃ§ade
lurked a powerful intellect. In unguarded moments he allowed
the esthete to pop up for a quick look-see before pulling the
manhole cover back over his head. On one occasion we were discussing
history and Robin smiled. "In 416 BC. Hannibal conducted
the first recorded battle of encirclement." He looked at
me from slitted eyes. "You know, someday I'd love to tell
old Hannibal how Cannae became the basis for Operation Bolo."
That was what detectives call A Clue. Robin
Olds, who some regarded as an alcohol-fueled throttle jockey,
had the gray matter to reach back 2,383 years and apply the lesson
of antiquity to the jet age.
But there was more. Far too many military
personnel, policemen, and politicians mouth their oath of office
as a rote exercise. Not Robin Olds. He thought about the words,
absorbed, them, and passed them along. In addressing newly commissioned
officers he said, "The airman swears that he willobey the
orders of the officers appointed over him. Do you realize what
responsibilities that puts on your shoulders? Your orders have
to be legal and proper. Think about it before you give one.
"But I think about how to protect
and defend the Constitution. Because do you know what that is?
That is by, for, and of The People. It is not the President;
it is not the Speaker of the House; nor the Leader of the Senate.
It is the People of the United States; who, hopefully, in their
wisdom will guide their forces properly."
Robin had been writing a memoir for several
years, and those who saw portions were disappointed. Says F-4
pilot and novelist Mark Berent, "It was well written, as
you'd expect from Robin, but it wasn't really about him. It was
more about people he knew."
Another Air Force officer who read part
of the text said that it began as an ethereal discussion with
the ghost of Robin's father. Robert Olds had asked his son the
status of the U.S. Air Force and got a detailed debriefing on
what's wrong with the service. It was a long list.
When he died on June 14, not quite 85,
Robin left the work incomplete. The fact that his book remains
unfinished represents a major loss to aviation literature.
However, I bet that by now Robin has cornered
Hannibal in some
corner of Valhalla and thanked him for the example of Cannae.