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At Home in the Blue Vault

By Stephan Wilkinson
5/23/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Legendary fighter leader Robin Olds once told a Strategic Air Command gathering, ‘Peace is not my profession’—a jab at the SAC motto ‘Peace Is Our Profession.’ Rest in peace, Robin.

You have 60 seconds to make your pitch to film producer Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood’s hottest hand. “It’s a sweeping drama about an Air Force fighter pilot,” you enthuse, spinning wildly. “Top Gun over the top. Not just any pilot, he was an ace. And not just any ace but a triple ace, in two wars a quarter-century apart. And he was a football player at West Point. And not just any player but an All-American tackle. Handsome? Think Kevin Costner with a handlebar mustache. Married a movie star. His father had been a fighter pilot too, and a general. His men loved him, but the higher-ups hated him. He was a maverick, a drinker, a mean sonofabitch in a bar fight or on the football field…”

Weinstein cuts you off. “Ridiculous. Nobody’ll believe it.”

Maybe so, but you have just described the very real life of Brig. Gen. Robin Olds—an ace three times over with 16 confirmed kills in World War II and Vietnam.

Olds was a thorn in the side of every Air Force general who wanted nothing more than the status quo and another star. He was also the designer of an aerial sting that in four days blew away more than half of all the North Vietnamese air force’s priceless MiG-21 fighters.

Olds prized rebelliousness and nonconformity. His splendid waxed mustache contravened a regulation that goes back to the days when primitive oxygen masks wouldn’t seal atop big soup-strainers, and he only shaved it off when directly ordered to by the chief of staff of the entire Air Force.

There’s a story from Olds’ days as commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy, after he returned from Vietnam, that has him pursuing a young cadet he’d spotted out of uniform. Up and down dorm corridors and stairwells, the kid somehow eluded the extackle, who gave up the chase. The next day Olds ordered the bad boy to reveal himself and step out of formation. The academy honor code demanded it, and the kid did so.

Olds congratulated the cadet—not for giving him the slip but for showing courage and initiative—and gave the cadet’s entire unit weekend leave. Olds told the stunned students that he didn’t believe in following rules blindly, and that taking off rather than meekly submitting to an order to stop was the fighter pilot’s way.

Another reason why his young airmen loved him: At the 1968 joint dinner for the Naval Academy brigade and the Air Force Academy wing before the Air Force–Navy game in Chicago, Brig. Gen. Olds decided the midshipmen were getting rowdy and disrespectful. He rose to his feet at the head table, and as the hall grew silent, Olds extended both arms high and gave the finger— times two—to the entire Annapolis contingent— students, officers, staff and superintendent.

Robin Olds necessarily learned at his father’s knee, for his mother died when he was just 4. Major General Robert Olds had been a pursuit pilot in World War I and became an aide to General Billy Mitchell, the Air Corps’ original air power maverick. Olds pére was something of a Mitchell disciple, so it’s not surprising that his son became a rebel. “I wanted to fly before I could even tie my shoes,” he once wrote.

But it was football, not flying, that was young Robin’s first calling. Already a state championship high school player, 6-foot-2, 205- pound Olds was recruited by Dartmouth, where the coach was the famous tactician Earl “Red” Blaik. Olds, however, instead went to West Point, even though it didn’t have much of a team.

Then a precedential thing happened during Olds’ plebe year, 1940: A new academy superintendent watched Army lose 48-0 to the University of Pennsylvania—the worst beating West Point had ever taken. He immediately decreed that West Point football coaches would no longer be required to be not only Army officers but also U.S. Military Academy graduates.

Who did he hire? Civilian Red Blaik, who went on to become the greatest coach in Army history. Under Blaik, Olds was a 60- minute man, playing tackle on both offense and defense. He was named an All-American and won a variety of national tackle-of-the-year awards.

But not the Navy game. In one of the most exciting Army-Navy games ever played, eight days before Pearl Harbor, Robin Olds and his teammates narrowly lost 14-6. (For a poignant account of that game as well as the unintended reunion on, above and off the beaches of Normandy on D-Day of four Navy and four Army players, including Olds, read Sports Illustrated writer Lars Anderson’s fascinating 2004 book The All Americans.)

Olds became a pilot while he was at West Point, doing his primary training at Stewart Field, outside Newburgh, N.Y. He returned to Stewart after World War II. Fed up with the U.S. Army Air Forces’ obstinacy, rigmarole and refusal to see the future of tactical aviation as clearly as he felt he did, Olds was on the verge of resigning his commission when Maj. Gen. Frederick H. Smith Jr., a kindred spirit, persuaded him to stay on and come to Stewart to work with him at Eastern Air Defense Command headquarters. Had he not, who knows what the World War II ace would have ended up doing.

NFL coach? Perhaps. Blaik had gotten Olds stationed at West Point right after the war, as an assistant football coach, but it was a brief assignment: Blaik’s staff didn’t cotton to the newcomer, an arrogant fighter pilot who was already a major and had way more medals than they did.

Olds had become an ace for the first time over Europe, initially flying Lockheed P-38J Lightnings and then North American P-51D Mustangs with the 434th Squadron, 479th Fighter Group. Lightnings and Mustangs plural indeed, for he ran through eight of them—Scat through Scat VIII. (The sobriquet had nothing to do with animal droppings but was the nickname of a late friend).

“I just loved P-51s,” he once told writer Stephen Joiner. “[Seeing one today] is like meeting an old girlfriend you once loved with all your heart and soul.” Scat VI was his favorite—the best-rigged, straightest Mustang he ever flew, Olds claimed. His final mount in Vietnam, a McDonnell F-4C Phantom II that is currently on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, is Scat XXVII, so let’s just say the big guy was hard on airplanes.

During a low-level strafing run over Germany, Scat VI got hit so hard by flak that the entire right flap departed the wing, which also suffered two gaping holes. The combination of asymmetry and lack of a prime low-speed aerodynamic aid left Olds unable to slow the Mustang below 175 knots indicated airspeed before the airplane began to roll uncontrollably into the bad wing. He landed at something above that speed and somehow survived a touchdown at roughly twice a P-51’s normal three-pointer.

Olds was the last P-38 ace in the Eighth Air Force. He shot down two Focke Wulf Fw-190s and three Messerschmitt Me-109s with three different Scats. While the twinengine Lockheed was well-armed and powerful, it was not a rat-racer. A splendid ground-attack airplane and long ranger, it wasn’t the bird you’d choose to fly in an aerobatic contest. Pacific theater aces like Richard Bong (40 P-38 kills) racked up huge scores using hit-and-run tactics, but you didn’t dare get into a turning or looping contest against an agile Zero or Messerschmitt. Olds, however, could make the big twin sing.

During a mission to Berlin on August 25, 1944, he and a wingman became separated from their bomber-escorting group, and the two of them blundered into a swarm of more than 50 Me-109s. Outnumbered better than 25 to one, Olds still managed to shoot down two…plus a third on his way home from the furball.

After he transitioned to P-51s in 1945, Olds was involved in a unique confrontation that spring. The Luftwaffe had recruited a group of volunteer pilots to fly specially configured Me-109s as aerial rams, and Olds flew one of the P-51s escorting B-24 Liberators attacked by Rammkommando Elbe during its sole mission, on April 7.

The Rammkommando remains little understood, controversial and shrouded by myth and misunderstanding. Some sources call it Sonderkommando (Special Command), but that was the term generally used for Jewish collaborators who oversaw the work of Jews in concentration camps, so it’s hard to imagine the Luftwaffe borrowing the term.

It was not a suicide squad. A kamikaze concept would have been utterly foreign to the German mentality even during the depths of the war. The Germans felt their pilots had an excellent chance of bailing out (over home territory at that) either just before or just after impact. And the ramming was not intended to be a full-bore midair collision but a careful prop-Cuisinarting of an American bomber’s vertical tail or, optionally, a wing leading-edge slice through the vulnerable fuselage just forward of the tail surfaces.

But such plans carefully made in a briefing room with everything standing still can become totally unwieldy in the air at 250 knots, and in the end, the Rammkommando—120 Messerschmitts, some sources say, 180 say others—managed to hit only 15 bombers, downing eight of them. Somewhere between 50 and nearly 80 of the Me-109s (again, depending on the source) were downed, one of them by Olds. It was such a disaster the rammers never flew again.

Olds ended WWII with 12 confirmed victories plus one probable, though many enthusiasts simply credit him with a straight 13. (The confusion about Olds’ kill total is persistent. In the authoritative 1997 book Fighter Aces of the U.S.A., a coffee-table tome the weight of a cinderblock, P. 184 notes that Olds “became a fighter ace in World War II with 12.0 victories over the Germans.” Page 187 reads that “he confirmed an additional four aerial victories [in Vietnam] for a lifetime tally of 17.”)

The postwar years were awkward for Olds. After his brief involvement with the West Point football coaching staff, he was sent to March Air Force Base, in California, to fly his first jet—the Lockheed P-80. In P-80s he flew in a USAAF jet aerobatic team that predated the Thunderbirds and took part in a PR-stunt transcontinental flight that left California at sunrise, flew to the East Coast and arrived back in California before sunset. If nothing else, it was a long day.

It’s also frequently reported that Olds “finished second in the 1946 Thompson Trophy races (jet division),” but the reality is that he was in the second of six USAAF P-80s that flew a staged mock race—Air Forces PR, again—before the real Thompson Trophy race. What little racing there might have been would have been tempered by orders not to do anything too risky. Now perhaps if Navy jets had competed—which they did two years later, but only against Navy North American FJ-1 Fury carrier fighters—Robin Olds would have had himself a real race.

Olds was without a doubt a handsome, personable representative of the new U.S. Air Force, an ex–West Pointer and former football great who by this time had even married a movie star (Ella Raines, probably as famous as a barracks pinup girl as she was as an actress). But what he really wanted was to go to Korea and shoot down MiGs.

It was not to be. His many applications for transfer to Korea were ignored, and it was apparently thought more important that double ace Robin Olds defend his country by being part of an air defense squadron stationed at the new Pittsburgh Municipal Airport. Somebody up there didn’t like him.

One way the Air Force kept Olds out of its regulation-cut hair was to send him to England, where he became the first foreigner to command a Royal Air Force unit—No. 1 Squadron, flying Gloster Meteors out of historic RAF Tangmere of Battle of Britain fame.

In 1955 he was given command of the first of two North American F-86 Sabre wings that he oversaw in Europe, and then a wing flying McDonnell F-101 Voodoos. The F-101 was the direct predecessor of the F-4C Phantom II, aboard which Robin Olds achieved his ultimate fame.

The Voodoo got him in trouble again: Olds formed a totally unauthorized F-101 demonstration team that performed low-level aerobatics at shows all over Europe to showcase the big fighter-bomber’s agility. It’s said that when the commander of the Third Air Force found out about it, he tried to have Olds court-martialed— shades of Billy Mitchell—but that instead Gabriel Disoway, the commanding general of the entire U.S. Air Forces in Europe, yanked Olds out of the F-101 wing, canceled a recommendation for a Legion of Merit (which he was never awarded) and sentenced him to Shaw Air Force Base, in South Carolina.

Olds loathed the Air Force ethos of the time—when every airplane designed and built for it was intended to carry a nuclear weapon, even if it was a “fighter.” (One of the F-101’s original missions was to climb rapidly to altitude and down Soviet bombers with hypothetical nuclear air-to-air missiles.) Guns and dogfighting were considered World War I kid stuff, and henceforth fighter pilots would pickle rockets that would magically seek their target and antiseptically knock it from the sky from 20 miles away. Or 100 miles, depending on which defense contractor flack you were listening to.

The adversary was the Russian bear, so few ever imagined we’d end up rat-racing against surprisingly skilled Southeast Asian pilots flying cheap, minimally equipped but deadly ground-vectored gunfighters. “Perhaps the biggest lesson [Vietnam] taught us is that dogfighting…is surprisingly like our experience in World War II,” Olds wrote in 1968. “We found ourselves doing the things that the people in the service swore would never be done again….‘Squadron formation,

Colonel Olds? You’re a romanticist. You’re living in the past. You have to think of the future. As a matter of fact, you’ll never dogfight again, Colonel Olds. You don’t need a gun because you have missiles.’ These predictions…proved to be tactically unsound.” Colonel Daniel “Chappie”

James, a drinking and bartussling buddy of Olds’, found Robin doing scut work at Shaw and helped to have him transferred—ultimately to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, where Olds was given command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying F-4C Phantom IIs. James, a Tuskegee Airman who would become the Air Force’s first African-American four-star general, was the 8th’s deputy commander for operations. James and Olds, who flew numerous missions together, were known in the wing as “Blackman and Robin.” It’s said that for a long time a sheetrock wall in the officer’s club at Ubon bore the near-perfect imprint of Robin Olds’ butt, after Chappie James picked up all 6-2 feet and heaved him into it during a friendly wrestling match.

Olds’ prime skill, somehow retained during the 22 years between his last WWII combat and his first tussle over Vietnam, was situational awareness, SA, the superb fighter pilot’s ability to see, store and analyze opposing positions and potential movements in four dimensions—the three of space and the fourth of time. One of Olds’ F-4C backseaters, William Lafever, remembered one mission, quoted in the book The Ace Factor, by Mike Spick: “Our number two, on the right side, called two MiGs at 10 o’clock. Olds says, ‘Okay, I got ’em.’ So we do a vector roll attack and the MiGs did a defensive split. We followed one…and hassled with him every which way, upside down, all the good things….While all this was going on, the other MiG had extended out, then come back….I said, ‘We got the other MiG 12 o’clock high!’ Olds says, ‘I got him.’ He knew, he actually knew where the other MiG was in the middle of all that hassle. That’s SA. How do you teach a thing like that?”

Lafever recalled being in another furball behind a different pilot and getting bounced by a MiG-17 that was itself quickly torched by a Republic F-105 Thunderchief, and he heard Olds, who he’d glimpsed fully 10,000 feet below them, call, “Nice shot, that!”

“It’s unbelievable, but he knew what was going on,” Lafever remarked.

Olds himself said in Spick’s excellent book: “The key is what you can see, retain, anticipate, estimate in a three-dimensional movement of many aircraft. Can you look at an enemy aircraft and know the odds? It’s a three-dimensional impression; you must get it in seconds. This is essential in aerial combat. The guy you don’t see will kill you.”

One reason why Olds was given command of the 8th was that his predecessor was said to have flown only a dozen combat missions during the 10 months that the wing had been incountry, and his pilots resented the absentee leadership. Olds immediately put himself on the flight schedule as a newbie—after all, he hadn’t been in combat in over two decades—flying wing for pilots he outranked, and he challenged them to bring him up to speed.

Apparently, they did. Said Bill Lafever, who considered Olds to be the greatest fighter leader of the Vietnam War,“Robin Olds led from the front….‘Follow me, guys, we’re going on Package 6, and probably some of us ain’t coming back, but I’m going to be up there leading you.’ And to me, that’s leadership.”

Olds is best known for conceiving, designing and leading Operation Bolo, the aerial sting that, with an attendant follow-up mission several days later, destroyed nine of North Vietnam’s estimated 16 MiG-21 fighters. The MiGs were a fierce threat. Fast, maneuverable and cannon-armed, they were small and smokeless. Head on, they presented a tiny, hard-to-spot silhouette to the big, exhaust-spewing F-4 fighters and F-105 fighter-bombers. The Air Force was also lumbered with pathetically benevolent rules of engagement and micromanagement from Washington that had missions to Hanoi following courses, procedures and schedules that an 8-year-old could predict.

Olds turned this squinty-eyed MacNamara mission planning into an advantage. He had a hard time selling the idea initially, but he wanted to use dogfight-prepped F-4s to imitate bomb-laden F-105s and attract the MiGs aloft into an ambush. His Phantoms would carry F-105 ECM packs, they’d follow the customary aerial highway over Thud Ridge and their pilots would communicate exactly as though they were Thud drivers.

Pacific Air Forces commander General Hunter Harris Jr. simply ignored Olds. He wanted nothing to do with the maverick and his looney tunes. But Olds ran into General William W. “Spike” Momyer, head of the Seventh Air Force, at a cocktail party in the Philippines and bent his ear. Momyer told Olds to come up with a plan as long as it didn’t involve attacking any MiG bases directly, which, paradoxically, was forbidden.

One of the lesser-known aspects of Bolo, because as with all best-laid plans it never actually got organized in the air, was that Olds planned to assign certain F-4s to simply orbit near the air bases and deny the North Vietnamese access to their runways. They’d be dead meat if they tried to slow to approach speed, and they’d run out of fuel after a few minutes of late-in-the-mission dogfighting. (Designed as point interceptors, MiG-21s had limited fuel.)

December 2, 1966, had been Black Friday. The Air Force lost five aircraft that day and the Navy three, all to SAMs and triple-A batteries. Exactly one month to the day later, Robin Olds and his Wolfpack, the 8th TFW, got revenge. Bolo went surprisingly well, considering that it was such a huge mission, totaling some 96 F-4C, F-104 and F-105 fighters, plus KC-135 tankers, EB-66 ECM aircraft, an EC-121 AWACS up high and various rescue birds. It all came down to a single 13-minute dogfight: A dozen F-4s took on 14 MiG-21s and waxed exactly half of them without a single U.S. loss. One of the MiGs fell to Olds.

A follow-up mission four days later took out another two MiGs, when a pair of F-4Cs flew such a tight formation that radar painted them as one ship, which to the North Vietnamese could only be an unarmed RF-4C recon aircraft. Four MiG-21s were sent aloft to wipe “it” out and found themselves outmatched.

The North Vietnamese were so stunned that for 21⁄2 months after Operation Bolo not a single NVAF jet dared to challenge a U.S. fighter or fighter-bomber.

But give them their due, when they did come back, it was with a vengeance. Some NVAF MiG pilots (flying both 21s and the outmoded but highly maneuverable and heavily armed MiG-17s) were in fact Soviet “advisers,” who were allowed to engage under certain circumstances; one Russian claimed six USAF kills during 1966 alone.

Not until 1972 did U.S. fighters go back on the offensive over Vietnam. The Navy guys did well, many of them having been through the then-innovative Top Gun program, but Air Force pilots were fighting to just stay even against the NVAF—at times a 1-for-1 kill ratio, which hadn’t been the case since the very earliest days of WWII in the Pacific.

By this time, Olds was Stateside, having scored a total of four victories over Vietnam and eventually been shipped home. Some people insist that Olds actually shot down a fifth MiG but made sure it was credited to another pilot, since he knew that becoming a “Vietnam ace” would ensure he’d immediately be withdrawn from combat because the Air Force couldn’t afford the PR risk of having an ace shot down. That’s hard to believe, since certainly Olds was already in combat, already an ace and already vulnerable. He once described the thrill of a kill as being “like an orgasm,” and coitus interruptus just doesn’t sound like the guy.

Olds wasn’t kill-hungry, though. Back-seater Lafever recalled a mission when Olds could well have gotten his fifth. They were part of a four-ship flight of Phantoms returning from escorting an F-105 strike, fat with fuel, ordnance still in place. Southbound, abeam the big NVAF fighter base at Phuc Yen, which was ringed by SAMs and triple-A, a quartet of MiGs showed up on Lafever’s radar. Olds intercommed to Lafever, “We can go down and get one, maybe two, but to do that we’d have to drag this four-ship across all that flak and all them SAMs,” and Olds decided the hell with it, it wasn’t worth the risk to the other guys.

Somebody had the bright idea of sending him back to Vietnam to see what the Air Force’s dogfighting problem was, and it’s rumored that he flew several unauthorized combat missions during his factfinding tour. Olds came home to tell his superiors that Air Force pilots “couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.”

Not what the brass wanted to hear, particularly since part of the problem Olds had detected was that ambitious, career-minded Air Force officers were going to Southeast Asia simply to get their tickets punched—fly 100 missions and go home to onward-and-upward staff jobs. Some of them were MAC and SAC pilots with little fighter time. But they were dogfighting Vietnamese pilots who didn’t ever get to go home, who were skilled, experienced and fighting close to their bases.

Olds also knew that the Air Force’s fascination with air-to-air missiles was, no pun, misguided. The Sparrows and Sidewinders were lousy weapons, and of course the early F-4s had no guns at all. During Bolo, 18 Sparrows were launched and only half of them guided. Of the 12 Sidewinders launched, seven guided.

One vet posted on an Air Force Web forum: “I had a friend who worked in combat ops at Ubon. He was on duty when Robin Olds came back from a mission in which he failed to get a MiG because his missile didn’t fire. Olds came into ops, picked up the phone and called Saigon. He said it was the only time in his life he’d heard a bird colonel chew out a four-star general. Shortly thereafter, gun pods that could be hung on an F-4 were made available.”

Whether that story is accurate or exaggerated, Olds would have done it if he’d had the chance. Yet he was also a bit of a romantic. “I think it is the love of that blue vault of sky that becomes your playground if you are a fighter pilot,” he once wrote. “You don’t understand it if you fly from A to B straight and level and merely climb and de-scend, you are moving through a basement of that vault of blue. A fighter pilot is a man in love with flying. A fighter pilot sees not a cloud but beauty, not the ground but something remote from him, something he doesn’t belong to as long as he is airborne. He is a man who wants to be second to no one.”

When Olds was brought home from Vietnam, he was promoted to brigadier general, but that’s as far as he went, and he never held another major command. Some say it was because he was known to be a big-league drinker, and indeed in July 2001, long after his retirement, he was arrested in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he lived, for DUI and, no surprise, vigorously resisting arrest. Olds pled guilty and was given a year’s probation and required to do community service.

After his largely ceremonial stint as commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy, he was given several desks to fly, including every pilot’s anathema—glorified safety officer: Olds became director of aerospace safety at the Air Force Safety and Inspection Center at Norton AFB, in California.

Olds retired from the Air Force in 1973—finished with an organization that, as he once said, was led at the top by officers who had been the squadron and group commanders of WWII. They were “men who didn’t fly a whole hell of a lot,” Olds once griped. “Yet after the War, they became our Air Force leaders and planners.”

Robin Olds, bless his failed heart, died this past June, exactly one month short of his 85th birthday, but he’d lived the life of a thousand lesser men.

 

Stephan Wilkinson writes from Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., less than seven miles from Stewart Field, where Robin Olds learned to fly. Further reading: Aces in Command: Fighter Pilots as Combat Leaders, by Walter J. Boyne, and Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience, by John D. Sherwood.

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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