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Robin Olds

Robin Oldys Junior – Robin Olds – was one of the USA’s most famous fighter pilots, having fought in World War Two and the Vietnam war. He was a triple Ace, a man’s man – and embodied the attributes of the very best fighter pilots – confidence, aggression, massive natural talent and a touch of skepticism about the wisdom of his superiors’ decisions.

While he was certainly the epitome of what it meant to be a fighter pilot, throughout his life he was constantly at odds with the leadership of the US Air Force. This is never a good strategy for career advancement. Olds was one of the USA’s first jet pilots, one of the first jet display team members and later commanded two fighter wings.

He was regarded as the best US wing commander in Vietnam, by virtue of both his leadership and abilities as a pilot. After returning from Vietnam he only held non-operational roles and perhaps due to his maverick nature and fondness for a drink, never rose above the level of Brigadier General.

Early Days

The son of Army Air Corps Captain (later Major General) Robert Olds, Robin Olds was born on July 14, 1922 at Luke Field Hospital, in Honolulu, on Bastille Day. He grew up in Hampton, Virginia.

Robin Old’s father was an aide-de-camp to the famous Billy Mitchell who had commanded all American air combat units in World War One. Mitchell had very outspoken beliefs about the role of, and the need for, increased investment in air power.

Mitchell railed against his superiors with his arguments and criticisms to such an extent that he was eventually court-martialled for insubordination. Olds Senior was at Mitchell’s side during the proceedings and testified on his behalf. Mitchell’s views, like those beginning to be formed by a then-young Robin Olds, would in time be proven right.

Because of his father’s position and many connections and acquaintances, quite a few famous figures, aviators and pioneers passed through the Olds family home, including World War One ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker was America’s most successful fighter ace of War War One.

Listening to all their stories, the young Olds could not help but be influenced and to begin to form strong views of his own. He almost instinctively could see the importance of air power and knew that he would one day himself become a fighter pilot.

At the age of eight Olds was airborne in a WWI-style open cockpit biplane flown by his father and at the age of 12 he vowed that one day he would attend the US military academy at West Point.

But in 1939 World War Two began and Robin Olds, then only 17, wanted to waste no time. In order to get straight to the front line he snuck over the border into Canada and enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force, to be shipped to England and then placed under the command of the Royal Air Force.

His father intervened and had the paperwork ripped up. He enrolled his son into West Point instead. Olds was a talented footballer and famously had his front teeth knocked out during a game. He insisted on staying on the field, bleeding from the mouth all through the second half of the game, with the crowd cheering him on.

Robin Olds earned All-American honours in football in 1942 due to his obvious skills on the field. He eventually graduated from West Point in 1943 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

World War II

Old’s initial military twin engine training was on the Curtiss AT-9 from which he converted to the Lockheed P-38J Lightning, naming his first aircraft ‘Scat I’. Duly qualified and ready for battle, he arrived in Europe in May 1944 and began flying combat missions later that month.

P-38L Lightning - Wikimedia Commons
P-38L Lightning – Wikimedia Commons

Olds was very aware of the importance of aircraft speed and performance and he had his own aircraft regularly waxed to reduce air resistance. He often assisted the maintenance crew in the process, realising that by doing so he was most likely increasing his life expectancy.

Combat duties commenced on May 26 with bomber escort and ground attack missions ahead of the invasion of Normandy. In July Olds was promoted to Captain and later became a flight and then squadron leader.

On the 14th of August, following a bridge bombing mission in France, Olds shot down his first victims – a pair of Focke-Wulf Fw-190s.

Taking on 50 German fighters

Eleven days later he and his four-ship flight encountered 40 to 50 Messerschmitt Bf-109 single-engine fighters at the same level as them, 28,000′. Unseen by the Germans, they turned and followed the three large V-shaped formations while accelerating and climbing above them.

Two of the four aircraft fell back as their engines would not provide the performance to keep up with Olds. He and his wingman continued and then released their drop (fuel) tanks – and attacked.

In the excitement however Olds forgot to switch the fuel system over to internal fuel and both his engines cut out. He continued the attack anyway, firing on the German aircraft and destroying one. Later he reflected that he was probably the only person to achieve a confirmed kill in combat while gliding an unpowered aircraft.

With the engines restarted, Olds pressed the attack while the German planes scattered. He shot down another plane in the dogfight and a further one on the way home, making three for the day and five in total, making him the first ace of the 479th Fighter Group. It also meant that he had become an ace in a mere two consecutive combat missions.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190A - Wikimedia Commons
Focke-Wulf Fw 190A – Wikimedia Commons

Combat Report

Old’s report from that day read:

“Still in a shallow dive, I observed another P-38 and an Me 109 going round and round. It seemed that the 38 needed help so I started down. At about 4,000 ft (1,200 m), the Jerry, still way out of my range, turned under me and slightly to the right. I rolled over on my back, following him and gave him an ineffective burst at long range.

By this time I was traveling in excess of 500 mph (800 km/h). My left window blew out, scaring the hell out of me. I thought I had been hit by some of the ground fire I had observed in the vicinity. I regained control of the aircraft and pulled out above a wheat field. I tried to contact the flight to get myself recognized, but observed an Me 109 making a pass at me from about seven o’clock high.

I broke left as well as my plane could and the Jerry overshot. I straightened out and gave him a burst. He chandelled steeply to the left and I shot some more. He passed right over me and I slipped over in an Immelmann. As I straightened out at the top, I saw the pilot bail out.”

Mustang

In September 1944 the 479th Fighter Group converted to the P-51 Mustang. The following month on October 6, Olds shot down another German aircraft, this time a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 in his new aircraft ‘Scat V’. With six victories under his belt, in November 1944 Olds was given some leave back home in the states.

North American P-51D Mustang - National Museum of the US Air Force
North American P-51D Mustang – National Museum of the US Air Force

Olds began his second tour of Europe in January 1945 and was promoted to Major the following month, on the 9th of February. On the same day that he was promoted, he shot down another Bf-109 south of Magdeburg, Germany, bringing his tally to seven.

A few days later, on the 14th of February, Olds claimed no less than three German aircraft – two Messerschmitt Bf-109s and another Fw-190, although one was later classified as only ‘probable’.

On April 7 1945, Olds, now flying Scat VI, led the 479th Fighter Group on an escort mission. American B-24 bombers were attacking an ammunition dump in Germany when they were attacked by Me-262 jet fighters. This was an attempt to lure the escorting Mustangs away from the bombers.

The Mustangs quickly returned to the bombers in time for Olds to observe a Bf-109 making an attack on the B-24 formation, successfully shooting down one of the planes. Olds immediately pursued the Messerschmitt through the middle of the formation and promptly shot it down, bringing his tally to ten enemy aircraft destroyed in aerial combat in the war. Two probable kills were subsequently converted to a status of ‘confirmed’.

With the war rapidly coming to an end, the Allies were overrunning German towns and airfields, with little resistance being offered. On April 13 he achieved a string of strafing kills, destroying 6 german planes on the ground. Old’s aircraft was part of a group of 5 Mustangs that attacked the Tarnewitz ‘airdrome’ that day, however his was the only one to return home.

Reflecting on the events of that day Olds said:

“I was hit by flak as I was pulling out of a dive-strafing pass on an airfield called Tarnewitz, up on the Baltic. Five P-51s made a pass on the airdrome that April day. I was the only one to return home…When I tested the stall characteristics of my wounded bird over our home airfield, I found it quit flying at a little over 175 mph (282 km/h) indicated and rolled violently into the dead wing (note: the right flap had been blown away and two large holes knocked in the same wing).

What to do? Bailout seemed the logical response, but here’s where sentiment got in the way of reason. That airplane had taken me through a lot and I was damned if I was going to give up on her…why the bird and I survived the careening, bouncing and juttering ride down the length of the field, I guess I’ll never know.”

Robin Old’s Mustang was once again replaced with a fresh one, this time named ‘Scat VII’.

By the time the war had come to an end, Olds was 22 years of age, had been out of West Point for less than two years, had been promoted to commander of the 434th Fighter Squadron, had shot down 12 German planes in aerial combat, destroyed 11.5 planes on the ground, had become an ace in each of his two tours and had been awarded the Silver Star twice.

1945 to 1966

Robin Olds returned to the States and worked for some time at West Point as an assistant football coach. A number of the staff there resented him, perhaps for his rapid rise through the ranks and numerous combat decorations. Perhaps they wondered about his family connections and the role they played in Old’s rapid advancement in the service.

In February 1946 he transferred to California and joined the 412th Fighter Group. He was among the first pilots from the War to transition to jet fighters, in this case the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.

Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star - National Museum of the US Air Force
Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star – National Museum of the US Air Force

In April 1946, along with Lieutenant Colonel John Herbst, Olds formed the Air Force’s first jet aerobatic display team – the forerunner of today’s USAF Thunderbird display team, currently operating F-16 Fighting Falcons. Later that year Herbst died during a display when his aircraft stalled during a loop and he was unable to recover in time.

Also in 1946, Olds competed in the Thompson Trophy in the newly established jet division. This was the first ever closed course jet race. He competed against 5 other pilots, all flying P-80s over a 30 mile long closed course comprising 3 pylons. Olds came second.

In 1947 the US Army Air Corps was restructured and renamed as the US Air Force. The same year Olds married the Hollywood actress and ‘pin-up girl’ Ella Raines. They would have two children together.

Posting to England

In 1948 Olds took an exchange to England and flew the Gloster Meteor, commanding the No.1 Squadron at RAF Tangmere until September 1949. He was the first foreigner to command a RAF unit in peacetime.

Gloster Meteor - Wikimedia Commons
Gloster Meteor – Wikimedia Commons

Returning stateside Olds was assigned to March AFB (Air Force Base) and transitioned to the North American F-86A Sabre. Assigned to the 71st Fighter Squadron, he was based in Pittsburgh and attached to the US Air Defense Command, which had become a subordinate operational command of Continental Air Command, tasked with the defence of the continental USA (CONUS).

F-86A Sabre - National Museum of the US Air Force
F-86A Sabre – National Museum of the US Air Force

Korean War

The Korean War broke out on June 25 1950 and Olds soon requested – and made repeated requests for – a combat assignment in Korea. His requests were repeatedly denied however. Perhaps he thought that his defiant individualism had not made him any friends in senior ranks and they took pleasure in denying his requests. He said that he never got over that, because he wanted to go to Korea in the ‘worst possible way’.

Olds said that it took him years to find out what was really happening. He recalled that “…my wife, who was an actress, was making a television series in New York City. The backer of this series was a friend of the Secretary of the Air Force and they got together and put a stamp on my records – ‘Don’t send him’ because the backer didn’t want Ella worried about me being in Korea. It took me years before I found that out – much after the fact.”  Thus Robin Olds, against his wishes, remained safely at home and well away from combat.

Olds became very discouraged at being required to stay behind in the States. He could have flown and become an ace in all three conflicts – WW2, Korea and Vietnam. For him I doubt it was about breaking records, but about doing what he loved alongside his men.

He made his displeasure well known and entrenched his reputation as someone unable to hold his tongue when conversing with his superiors. If Olds was at any time reflecting on the fate of Billy Mitchell, it didn’t show in his discussions with his superiors.

Olds was constantly challenging Air Force brass and royally pissing them off with increasing frequency. He considered resigning from the Force but was talked out of by a mentor of his and took a posting instead at Stewart AFB.

He settled down somewhat and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in February 1951 and to a full Colonel in April 1953 at the age of thirty. He served in a number of miscellaneous non-flying assignments until he regained a flying position in 1955 with the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing in Germany, still flying the Sabre.

He commanded the Group until August 1956 and was then transferred to the huge US base in the Kingdom of Libya, where he remained until 1958.

The Pentagon

In 1958 Olds was transferred to the Pentagon as Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division, where he worked on various papers. He identified an over-reliance on the nuclear mission at the expense of training for warfare with conventional munitions and also identified deficiencies in training and tactics for conventional (non-nuclear) warfare and air combat. Both of these issues manifested themselves later throughout the war in Vietnam.

Another project he worked on was a major restructure of the Air Defense Command in order to provide budget savings of $6.5 billion (a huge sum at the time) which was channelled into funding for the (then) super secret SR-71. Olds time at the Pentagon came to an end in 1962.

Following the end of his Pentagon assignment, in 1963 Olds attended the National War College and graduated later that year.

RAF Bentwaters – 1963 to 1965

In 1963 Olds took a posting as commander of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters in England. He flew the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo and remained in the role until 1965.

His deputy commander was Colonel Daniel James Junior, whom he had met at the Pentagon and had brought to England with him. James went on to become the first African-American Four Star Air Force General. The two would work together again a few years later in Vietnam.

Olds and James developed a strong professional and personal relationship - Wikimedia Commons
Olds and James developed a strong professional and personal relationship – Wikimedia Commons

In 1965 there were over 180,000 US troops in Vietnam and nearly 2,000 of them would die in that year. Olds once again wanted to join the fray, but he was firmly ensconced at RAF Bentwaters. In addition, he had been advised that a further promotion was in the pipeline, this time to Brigadier General. This would mean that he would be unable to serve in any combat role. Robin Olds did not want that promotion to go ahead.

Perhaps taking a calculated risk, Olds, without any authorisation, formed a jet display team from his fellow F-101 pilots on the base. Due to its high angle of attack handling idiosyncrasies, the Voodoo was probably not the most appropriate type of plane to use in a display team.

The commanding general of USAFE (Europe), General Gabriel Disosway, had got wind of the planned performance and warned Olds against it. He was actually the person planning to give Olds his star (promotion).

Despite the warning, at the 1965 RAF Bentwaters Open House, Olds and the team went ahead anyway and put on a smooth and polished performance in front of the crowd.

The repercussions were felt immediately. Olds was removed from command at Bentwaters; the planned promotion was cancelled; a planned Legion of Merit award was cancelled and Olds was transferred back to Shaw AFB, South Carolina pending possible further action.

At one time it was possible that Olds would be court-martialled, Mitchell-style, or at least Olds claimed that this had been threatened.

McDonnell F-101B-110-MC Voodoo (S/N 58-0312) of the 18th FIS (U.S. Air Force photo)
McDonnell F-101B-110-MC Voodoo (S/N 58-0312) of the 18th FIS (U.S. Air Force photo)

Court-martial or not, it is possible that Olds was close to being kicked out of the Air Force at that point in time. In the end, a little over a year later, the Air Force brass decided that Olds would be assigned to command a fighter wing in Vietnam, which was probably exactly the outcome that he had originally sought.

So they couldn’t have been that mad at him….

The Vietnam War

And so in September 1966 Olds was ordered to South East Asia to command a F-4 Phantom wing. He was told that he would be expected to command the wing from his desk. He replied that he would only agree to do that if ‘the desk could fly’.

He stopped at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona where he completed the 14 day Phantom conversion syllabus in only 5 days.

Olds insisted on travelling to Ubon airfield in Thailand in the same way as any of the other men, via long and uncomfortable charter flights. He arrived unannounced and was dropped at the end of the flight line with some enlisted men and all their luggage. He then took command and made it his business to ensure that from then on all new arrivals were welcomed and inducted in a more appropriate way.

Olds McDonnell Douglas F-4C - US Air Force Photo
Olds McDonnell Douglas F-4C – US Air Force Photo

Having assumed command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing and now 44 years of age, Colonel Olds went about instilling aggression and a sense of purpose among the pilots in the Wing. Previously there had been poor leadership and inadequate training. In December 1966 Olds brought in Daniel ‘Chappie’ James to be his deputy commander of operations.

It was apparent to Olds that the men had not been trained in classic dog fighting strategies and undertook to remedy the situation by implementing the appropriate training, strategies and tactics.

He immediately put himself on the flying roster under the training of junior officers. He directed them to train him properly, as he would soon be leading them. He told them that once trained to a basic level he would then advance further and demonstrate methods and techniques superior to anything used by anyone on the base. It was no idle boast.

Olds had previously named all his aircraft ‘Scat’ and now he was conducting missions in an F4-C Phantom he named Scat XXVII (Scat 27). During the course of the war his wing shot down a total of 24 enemy aircraft.

Doing things his way

Unusually, and presumably against regulation, Olds assigned his flight leaders based on skill and not rank. He did not believe in entitlement through class, rank or tradition.

When presented with inferior equipment, Olds simply refused to use it. For example, the original F-4C was not fitted with an internal gun. A gun pod was available, but it slowed the aircraft down and degraded it’s performance characteristics, making it more vulnerable against the MiGs.

To make matters worse, none of his pilots had any training in using the gun pods, and certainly no training in the dog fighting tactics that were needed to use them.

Additionally, the F-4Cs were not originally equipped with lead-computing gunsights and the guns needed to be frequently bore-sighted to make them accurate. Olds wanted an internal gun, but that was not available until the introduction of the F-4E. And so, inevitably, Olds refused to use the gun pod.

Along the same lines, when his Wing transitioned from the F-4C with Sidewinder missiles to the F-4D with the more ‘advanced’, but in reality very unreliable Falcon missiles, Olds quickly assessed the situation and made a decision. He had the new aircraft modified to the previous specification so that they could take the Sidewinders instead.

Operation Bolo

Along with James, Olds conceived Operation Bolo, an attempt to lure MiG 21 aircraft into an aerial trap by impersonating the flight profile of F-105 Thunderchiefs (Thuds). The F-105s, especially in Wild Weasel configuration, were relatively unaffected by North Vietnam SA-2 SAM missiles, partly due to their QRC-160 jamming pods, and also their well-honed missile-evading techniques.

But when bomb-laden, the Thuds were slower and therefore frequent targets of MiG-21 fighters. The escorting Phantoms did not have the pods and because they were vulnerable to the SAMS, were generally required to remain outside SAM range.

In the plan, the F-4C Phantoms from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, led by Olds, would be equipped with the pods, thus electronically appearing as F-105s. They would use call-signs normally used by the Thud formations and would even fly their typical flight profiles.

The idea was that this would lure the MiGs into attacking the Phantoms, believing they were F-105s. Instead the MiGs would get a nasty surprise and would encounter highly capable fighter aircraft equipped with Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

MiG-21 - US Air Force photo
MiG-21 – US Air Force photo

On Jan 2 1967 the operation went ahead over North Vietnam, specifically over the primary MiG-21 base at Phuc Yen. 16 North Vietnamese MiG-21s were known to be in the inventory at that time and between 11 and 14 took to the air. Olds was in the first flight of Phantoms and described the commencement of battle:

“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.”

A total of 7 MiGs were shot down in the engagement – one by Olds – and no US planes were lost, for a kill ratio of 7:1. The operation was repeated over the next few days and 2 more MiGs were shot down. Olds was awarded another Silver Star for Operation Bolo.

He summarised the operation with these words: “The deliberately planned fighter sweep went just as we’d hoped. The MiGs came up. The MiGs were aggressive. We tangled. They lost.” In fact it was Operation Bolo that gave the 8th TFW it’s name – the Wolf Pack.

There is a fascinating and detailed explanation of all aspects of Operation Bolo here.

In May Olds shot down another MiG-21 and a few weeks later shot down two MiG-17s in what one of his pilots described as a ‘vengeful chase’, after a MiG shot down Old’s wingman. Olds now had a total of 16 kills, 12 in WW2 and 4 in Vietnam, making him a triple ace.

Robin Olds completes his final mission - Wikimedia Commons
Robin Olds completes his final mission – Wikimedia Commons

He was awarded a fourth Silver Star in March 1967 for a successful low-level bombing strike and an Air Force Cross for an attack on the Paul Doumer bridge, near Hanoi, in August.

The Moustache

It is appropriate at this point to discuss the famous and extravagant moustache that adorned Robin Old’s upper lip at this point in his career. Olds knew that his moustache was longer than regulation length, but he didn’t care. He jokingly said that it made him ‘bulletproof’ and said:

“Generals visiting Vietnam would kind of laugh at the mustache,” said Olds. “I was far away from home. It was a gesture of defiance. The kids on base loved it. Most everybody grew a mustache.”

Olds described the moustache as the middle finger that he wanted to, but could not, raise in PR photos. He said that it:

“…became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with higher headquarters on rules, targets and fighting the war.”

Visiting Air Force brass were smart enough not to object, knowing that it was good for the men’s morale to see their boss sticking it to his superiors up the chain of command. When Robin Olds eventually returned to the US from Vietnam he was directed to report to Air Force Chief of Staff John McConnell. Olds describes the meeting:

“I remember my first interview with McConnell,” Olds said. “I walked briskly through the door, stopped and snapped a salute. He walked up to me, stuck a finger under my nose and said, ‘Take it off!’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ And that was the end of that.”

The moustache would only make one more appearance – when Olds was approaching retirement. Moustache March has now become a USAF tradition where each year, US airmen worldwide grow them in a good-natured ‘protest’ for one month against Air Force facial hair regulations – and also make themselves temporarily bulletproof.

You can read more about “Moustache March” here.

Extending his time in Vietnam

Olds knew that he would have to return to the US once he reached 100 missions and so he arranged to fly on numerous ‘unofficial’ missions that did not count towards the official count. He also learned that once he achieved ace status in Vietnam with his fifth kill, he would be brought back to the US to be used as a publicity asset.

But Robin Olds had spent over 20 years trying to get back into combat after WW2 and he wasn’t about to leave Vietnam without a fight, so to speak. Olds said that after the 4th kill he was involved in up to 10 more dogfights but “nothing worked”….

It is widely believed that Olds had more kills but didn’t report them. Apparently he let his wingmen take the kill on a number of occasions instead. He almost certainly shot down at least 5 enemy aircraft in Vietnam, but officially the tally was four.

Eventually his tally of ‘official’ flights reached the magic figure of 100. He flew his final combat mission over Vietnam in September 1967. Together with his 107 combat missions in WW2, he had actually flown 152 missions in Southeast Asia.

Olds during Vietnam War - Wikimedia Commons
Olds during Vietnam War – Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts On Leadership

On the topic of leadership, Olds said:

“Know the mission, what is expected of you and your people. Get to know those people, their attitudes and expectations. Visit all the shops and sections. Ask questions. Don’t be shy. Learn what each does, how the parts fit into the whole. Find out what supplies and equipment are lacking, what the workers need. To whom does each shop chief report? Does that officer really know the people under him? Is he aware of their needs, their training?”

“Does that NCO supervise or just make out reports without checking facts? Remember, those reports eventually come to you. Don’t try to bullshit the troops, but make sure they know the buck stops with you, that you’ll shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Correct without revenge or anger. Recognize accomplishment. Reward accordingly. Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogans and never at the expense of another unit.”

“It won’t take long, but only your genuine interest and concern, plus follow-up on your promises, will earn you respect. Out of that you gain loyalty and obedience. Your outfit will be a standout. But for God’s sake, don’t ever try to be popular! That weakens your position, makes you vulnerable. Don’t have favorites. That breeds resentment. Respect the talents of your people. Have the courage to delegate responsibility and give the authority to go with it. Again, make clear to your troops you are the one who will take the heat.”

Post War Desk Jobs

When Olds returned to the US he was asked to brief President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He encouraged them to make every effort to win the war, believing that it was the quickest way to end it.

He and his aircraft parted ways. His plane – the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II known as Scat XXVII – was retired from service and placed in display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

For Olds, the next assignment was Commandant of the cadets at the USAF Academy in Colorado. He served in that role from 1967 to 1971. During that time he was promoted to his final rank of Brigadier General.

Olds final role was Director of Aerospace Safety, which he held from 1971 to 1973. In his first year in that role he was asked to return to Vietnam to assess the state of readiness of Air Force pilots.

He toured bases in Thailand and, typically, flew several unauthorised missions. His assessment was that the pilots couldn’t fly their way out of a wet paper bag because of a lack of interest by the USAF in air to air combat training for its pilots. He predicted that if USAF pilots re-commenced aerial dog fighting the losses would be significant. Once again he was proved right.

A year later Operation Linebacker, a joint interdiction campaign between the US Seventh Air Force and the US Navy Task Force 77, unleashed waves of air strikes against North Vietnamese supply lines. Air Force and Navy fighters were employed in large numbers in escort roles. Up against them were 200 interceptors of the North Vietnamese Air Force.

The Navy and Marines had earlier established the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (aka Topgun) in March 1969. The US Air Force had done nothing along those lines. The results were immediate and plain to see. In the first few months the Air Force had a poor 1:1 kill ratio while the Navy and Marines enjoyed ratios of around 6:1.

Olds offered to take a reduction in rank so that he could return to Vietnam and fix the problem. Instead he was offered another inspection tour. He declined that offer and instead resigned, started growing the moustache again, and finally left the service in June 1973.

Post Retirement

After his retirement Olds was a regular speaker. He and his first wife divorced in 1976. In 1985 he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 2001 he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, making him the only person enshrined in both Halls.

In March 2007 Robin Olds was hospitalised for Stage 4 prostate cancer. Three months later he died of congestive heart failure in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It was one month before his 85th birthday.

He was honoured with a flyover and service at the Air Force Academy on June 30 and his ashes are kept at the Academy.

In a statement after Old’s death, General T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, said:

“Throughout his career, he was a staunch advocate for better fighters, better pilot training and new tactics, culminating in the war-winning air-to-air tactics and doctrine of surgical precision bombing that we use today.”

Robin Olds Memorial Ceremony - Wikimedia Commons
Robin Olds Memorial Ceremony – Wikimedia Commons

Wrapping it all up

Olds frequently lamented that US pilots weren’t trained to dogfight in Vietnam. He said that there was a need to teach tactical warfare that employed dedicated and well-trained fighter pilots. He was informed repeatedly by his superiors that air combat was a thing of the past.

Olds proved to be right of course and although the USAF did not initially agree, the Navy had separately come to the same conclusion, creating the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School on 3 March 1969 to remedy their own deficiencies in air combat manoeuvring training.

The US Air Force eventually came around to Old’s campaign for better air training, equipment and tactics. The F-15, F-16 and F-18 embody his ideas in various ways. For example, all of those aircraft were designed with internal guns and all are optimised for the air combat role.

The USAF now conducts several two week long Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB each year, which emphasise advanced air combat training and tactics.

Olds talked openly about his individuality. In fact in his memoirs he wondered why anyone kept asking him to speak in public, given that he lacked any sense of tact whatsoever.

He had a low tolerance for people or organisations that could not meet standards or perform their jobs. Olds was constantly arguing (not always tactfully) for better training, better pilots and better tactics. This was a theme of many of his talks after he retired.

He was willing to break rules if it meant getting the job done. He also had the habit of saying exactly what he thought, not matter who he was talking to.

Olds has a famous and often-repeated quote about the makeup of a fighter pilot:

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.”

Brigadier General Robin Olds - Wikimedia Commons
Brigadier General Robin Olds – Wikimedia Commons

There is an oil painting of Brigadier General Robin Olds hanging in the lobby of the Wargaming Institute at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. In it he is grinning mischievously through his non-regulation moustache…

Awards

Olds decorations and awards include:

  • Air Force Cross
  • Air Force Distinguished Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster
  • Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters
  • Legion of Merit
  • Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters and valor device
  • Air Medal with thirty-nine oak leaf clusters
  • Air Force Commendation Medal
  • Air Force Presidential Unit Citation
  • Air Force Defense Service Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with valor device & 3 oak leaf clusters
  • Air Force Longevity Service Award with 1 silver and 1 bronze oak leaf clusters
  • Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon
  • British Distinguished Flying Cross
  • French Croix de Guerre (War Cross 1939-1945) with silver star
  • Vietnam Air Force Distinguished Service Order, second class
  • Vietnam Air Gallantry Cross with Gold Wings
  • Vietnam Air Force Meritorious Service Medal with two bronze campaign stars
  • Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
  • European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one silver and 1 bronze campaign stars
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star

Although he came close, he was never awarded the purple Heart, for being injured in combat.

Some of Robin Olds medals & awards - Wikimedia Commons
Some of Robin Olds medals & awards – Wikimedia Commons

Videos

 

 

Books about Robin Olds

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