“Triple Ace” American Fighter Pilot “Robin Olds” – World War II and Vietnam War

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Robin Olds was a “triple ace” American fighter pilot with a combined total of 17 victories in World War II and the Vietnam War. He retired in 1973 as a Brigadier General of the United States Air Force (USAF) after 30 years of service. The son of Army Air Force Major General Robert Olds, he was educated at West Point, and saw upbringing in the early years of the United States Army Air Corps. Olds epitomized the youthful World War II fighter pilot. He remained in the service as it became the USAF, despite often being at odds with its leadership, and was one of its pioneer jet pilots. Rising to the command of two fighter wings, Olds is regarded among aviation historians, and his peers, as the best wing commander of the Vietnam War, for both his air-fighting skills, and his reputation as a combat leader.

Father Major General Robert Olds. Picture Credit: af.mil

          Olds was promoted to brigadier general after returning from Vietnam but did not hold another major command. The remainder of his career was spent in non-operational positions, such as Commandant of Cadets at the USAF Academy and a posting in Air Force Inspector General’s Office. His inability to rise higher as a general officer is attributed to both his maverick views and his penchant for drinking. Olds had a highly publicized career and life, including marriage to Hollywood actress Ella Raines. As a young man he was also recognized for his athletic prowess in both high school and college, being named an All-American as a lineman in college football. Olds expression about fighter pilots is summed up in his quote “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.”

Major Robin Olds, United States Army Air Forces. 1946. Picture Source Lif Magazine

Young Days – Fascinated About Aviation

          Robin was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on July 14, 1922, into an army family and spent much of his youth and did his schooling in Hampton Virginia. His father was Captain (later Major General) was  an instructor pilot in France during WW I, and former aide to Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, who was a leading advocate of strategic bombing in the Air Corps. His mother, died when Robin was four and he was raised by his father. Olds was the eldest of four brothers. Growing up primarily at Langley Field (airbase on east coast), Virginia, Olds virtually made daily contact with the small group of officers who would lead the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. One neighbor was Major Carl Spaatz, destined to become the first Chief of Staff of the USAF. As a result Olds was imbued with an unusually strong dedication to the air service, and conversely, with a low tolerance for officers who did not exhibit the same. On November 10, 1925, his father appeared as a witness on behalf of Billy Mitchell during Mitchell’s court-martial in Washington D.C. He brought three-year-old Robin with him to court, dressed in an Air Service uniform, and posed with him for newspaper photographers before testifying.

First Flight

          Olds first flew at the age of eight, in an open cockpit biplane operated by his father. At the age of 12, Olds made up his mind to join the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His goals were to become an officer and a military aviator, and become a football player. His father was made commander of the pioneer B-17 Flying Fortress 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field on March 1, 1937, and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Olds attended Hampton High School where he was elected president of his class three successive years, and played varsity high school football on a team that won the state championship of Virginia in 1937. Olds was aggressive, even mean, as a player.

Football Position: Tackle, Years: 1941-1942. Picture Source: footballfoundation.org

Enters West Point

          Instead of joining college after graduating in 1939, Olds enrolled at Millard Preparatory School for West Point in Washington D.C. When Germany invaded Poland, Olds attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force but was thwarted by his father’s refusal to approve his enlistment papers. After completing Millard Prep, he applied for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He passed the West Point entrance examination and was accepted into the Class of 1944 on June 1, 1940. One month after he entered the academy the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Olds was sent to the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for flight training. This training ended a year later by Christmas 1942.

Football Hall of Fame

          Olds played football on a freshman squad. Olds played on the varsity college football team in both 1941 and 1942. At 6 foot 2 inches in height and weighing 92 kg, he played tackle on both offense and defense. In 1942 he was named by ‘Collier’s Weekly’ as its “Lineman of the Year” and by Grantland Rice as “Player of the Year.” Olds was also selected as an All-American as the cadets compiled a 6–3 record, beating most major opponents. In the Army-Navy game of 1942, Olds had both upper front teeth knocked out when he received a forearm blow to the mouth while making a tackle. In 1985 Olds was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Days At West Point

          Olds developed ambivalent feelings about West Point, admiring its dedication to ” Duty, Honor, Country”, but disturbed by the tendency of many tactical officers to distort the purpose of its Honor Code. In March 1943, Olds was braced by an officer upon returning from leave in New York City, and compelled on penalty of an honor violation to admit he had consumed alcohol. The infraction reduced him in rank from cadet captain to cadet private, characterized by Olds in his memoirs as “only the second cadet in the history of West Point to earn that dubious honor.” He walked punishment tours until the day of his graduation in June. The incident left its mark on Olds such that when he became Commandant of Cadets at the Air Force Academy, use of the Honor Code as an instrument for integrity rather than as a tool for petty enforcement of discipline became a point of emphasis in his administration. During his Academy years Olds also acquired a strong contempt for alumni networking, commonly called “ring knocking”, to the degree that he went out of his way to conceal his West Point background.

West Point Military Academy. Picture Source: britannica.com

Curriculum Cut Short Due War

          By an act of Congress on October 1, 1942, during Olds’ second year, the academy began a three-year curriculum for the duration of the war for cadets entering after July 1939. Cadets applying to the Air Corps were classified as Air Cadets, with a modified curriculum that provided flying training but removed military topography and graphics from ground syllabus for pilots. Olds’ class was given an abridged second class course of study until January 19, 1943, when it began an abridged first class course. Olds completed basic and advanced flying training at Stewart Field, New York. 208 cadets including Olds completed the course, while five classmates died in accidents. Olds received his pilot’s wings   on May 30, 1943, and graduated on June 1 as a member of the Class of June 1943, 194th in general merit of 514 graduates.

29 October 1941, the Stewart Field lands were made part of West Point with the exchange of the city’s deed for a U.S. Treasury Department check in the amount of one dollar. Picture Credit: military.wikia.org

World War II. Flying P-38 Lightning – First Kill

          Second Lieutenant Olds completed fighter pilot training at operational training unit on Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Olds was promoted to first Lieutenant on December 1, 1943. Olds logged 650 hours of flying time during training, including 250 hours in the P-38. His unit the 479th fighter group moved to Scotland on May 14, 1944. The 479th began combat on May 26, flying bomber escort missions and attacking transportation targets in occupied France in advance of the invasion of Normandy. Olds flew a new P-38J that he nicknamed Scat II. Olds’ crew chief, T/Sgt. Glen A. Wold, said that he showed an immediate interest in aircraft maintenance and learned emergency servicing under Wold. He also insisted his aircraft be waxed to reduce air resistance and helped his maintenance crew carry out their tasks On July 24 Olds was promoted to Captain and became a flight and later squadron leader. Following a low-level bridge-bombing mission to Montmirail, France, on August 14, Olds shot down his first German aircraft, a pair of Focke-Wulf FW 190s.

Lieutenant Robin Olds with “SCAT II,” a Lockheed P-38J-15-LO Lightning, 43-28707. Picture Sorce: Imperial War Museum

Dead Stick Shoot

          On an escort mission on August 23, his flight was on the far left of the group’s line abreast formation and encountered 40–50 Messerschmitt Bf 109s in a loose formation of three large Vices. Olds turned his flight left and began a ten-minute pursuit in which they climbed to altitude above and behind the Germans. Undetected by the Germans, Olds and his wingman jettisoned their fuel drop tanks and attacked. Just as Olds began firing, both engines of his P-38 quit from fuel exhaustion; in the excitement of the attack he had neglected to switch to his internal fuel tanks. He continued attacking in “dead-stick mode”, hitting his target in the fuselage and shooting off part of its engine cowling. After fatally damaging the Bf 109 he dived away and restarted his engines. Despite battle damage to his own plane, including loss of a side window of its canopy, Olds shot down two during the dogfight and another on the way home to become the first ace of the 479th FG.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Picture Credit: warhistoryonline.com

          His personal combat report for that date said: “Still in a shallow dive, I observed a P-51 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 (an aircraft control maneuver where the pilot combines a 180° turn with a climb) steeply to the left and I shot some more. He passed right over me and I slipped over in an Immelmann (sort of Roll-of-the-top) turn. As I straightened out at the top, I saw the pilot bailout.” He made a total of eight claims while flying the P-38 (five of which are sustained by the Air Force Historical Research Agency) and was originally credited as the top-scoring P-38 pilot of the European Theater of Operations.

Me Bf 109. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

P-51 Mustang pilot

          The 479th FG converted to the P-51 Mustang in mid-September. On his second transition flight, at the point of touchdown during landing, Olds learned a lesson in “false confidence” when the powerful torque of the single-engine fighter forced him into ground loop after the Mustang veered off the runway. Olds shot down an Fw 190 in his new “P-51 Scat VI” on October 6 during a savage battle near Berlin in which he was nearly shot down by his own wingman. He completed his first combat tour on November 9, 1944, accruing 270 hours of combat time and six kills.

P-51 D ‘SCAT VI’ Mustang Robin Olds, 434th FS, 479th FG. Image Credit: digitalcombatsimulator.com

Second Tour in Europe

          After returning to the United States for a two-month leave, Olds began a full second tour at Wattisham on January 15, 1945. He was assigned duties as operations officer of the 434th Fighter squadron. Promoted to Major on February 9, 1945, Olds claimed his seventh victory southeast of Magdeburg, Germany, and the same day, downing another Bf 109. On February 14, he claimed three victories, two Bf 109s and an Fw 190, but one of the former was credited only as a “probable”.

Fw 190. Picture Credit: Pinterest

Final WW II Kill

          His final World War II aerial kill occurred on April 7, 1945, when Olds in ‘Scat VI’ led the 479th Fighter Group on a mission escorting B-24s bombing an ammunition dump in  Germany. The engagement marked the only combat appearance of “Sonderkommando Elbe”, a German Air Force squadron formed to ram Allied bombers. Olds noticed contrails popping up above a bank of cirrus clouds, of aircraft flying above and to the left of the bombers. For five minutes these bogeys paralleled the bomber stream while the 479th held station. Turning to investigate, Olds saw pairs of Me 262s  turn towards and dive on the Liberators. After damaging one of the jets in a chase meant to lure the fighter escort away from the bombers, the Mustangs returned to the bomber stream. Olds observed a Bf 109 attack the bombers and shoot down a B-24. Olds pursued the Bf 109 through the formation, and shot it down.

Me 262. Picture Credit: asisbiz.com

Strafing Credits

          Olds achieved the bulk of his strafing credits the following week in attacks on German airdromes on April 13, and an airfield in Austria on April 16, when he destroyed six German planes on the ground. He later reflected on the hazards of such missions: “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 (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 Scat VI 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.”

Command of the Squadron – “Ace on Two Types”

          Olds was given command of his squadron on March 25, less than two years out of West Point and at only 22 years of age. By the end of his combat service he was officially credited with 13 German planes shot down and 11.5 others destroyed on the ground. Olds became an ace on both of his combat tours and was twice awarded the Silver Star, for the mission of August 25 and for the achievements of himself and his squadron during his combined tours. As recognized by the American Fighter Aces Association, Olds was the only pilot to “make ace” in both the P-38 (5 victories) and the P-51 (8 victories).

The inspirational career of fighter pilot Robin Olds is depicted in a new documentary coming to Uflytv. Photo courtesy of Uflytv.

Post WW II Assignments – Professional vs Career Struggle

          Returning to the United States after the war, Olds was assigned at West Point as an assistant football coach for Red Blaik. Apparently resented by many on the staff for his rapid rise in rank and plethora of combat decorations, Olds transferred in February 1946 to the 412th Fighter Group to fly the P-80 Shooting Star. He then began a career-long professional struggle with superiors he viewed as more promotion, than warrior-minded.

P-80 Shooting Star. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

First Jet Aerobatics Team and Demonstration Flights

          In April 1946, he and Lieutenant Colonel John C. “Pappy” herbst formed what he believed was the Air Force’s first jet aerobatics demonstration team. In late May, the 412th was ordered to undertake Project Comet a nine-city transcontinental mass formation flight. Olds and Herbst performed a two-ship aerobatic routine that thrilled the crowds at every stop. In June, Olds was one of four pilots who participated in the first one-day, dawn-to-dusk, transcontinental round trip jet flight from March Field, California to Washington, D.C. The jet demonstration performances with Herbst ended tragically on July 4, 1946, when Herbst crashed at the Del Mar Racetrack after his aircraft stalled during an encore of their routine finale in which the P-80s did a loop while configured to land. Later that same year Olds took second place in the “Thompson Trophy” race (Jet Division) of the Cleveland National Air Races in Ohio. In this first “closed course” jet race, six P-80s competed against each other on a three pylon course 30 miles in length.

USAF/RAF Exchange Program to England

          Olds went to England under the USAF /Royal Air Force (RAF) Exchange Program in 1948. Flying the Gloster Meteor jet fighter, he commanded No.1 Squadron at RAF Station Tangmere between October 20, 1948 and September 25, 1949, becoming the first foreigner to command an RAF unit in peacetime.

Misses Service in Korean War – Wants to Resign

          End of exchange program, on November 15, 1949, Olds returned to become operations officer of the 94th Fighter Squadron flying F-86 Sabres. Later Olds was assigned to command the 71st Fighter Squadron and which was soon joined the Air Defense Command and based in Pennsylvania. As a result, he missed service in the Korean War despite repeated applications for a combat assignment. Discouraged and at odds with the Air Force, in which he was seen as an iconoclast, Olds reportedly was in the process of resigning when he was talked out of it by a mentor, Maj Gen Frederic H.Smith Jr., who brought him to work at Eastern Air Defense Command headquarters in New York.

F-86 Sabres. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Promoted Colonel – Unenthusiastic Staff Appointments

          Olds was promoted to Lt Colonel on February 20, 1951, and Colonel on April 15, 1953, while just thirty years of age and just short of ten years after his graduation from West Point. Olds served unenthusiastically in several staff assignments until returning to flying in 1955. At first on the command staff of the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing, in West Germany. Olds then commanded its Sabre-equipped 86th Fighter-Interceptor Group from October 8, 1955, to August 10, 1956. He then was made chief of the Weapons Proficiency Center in Libya, in charge of all fighter weapons training for the USAF Europe until July 1958.

Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division

          Olds had administrative and staff duty assignments at the Pentagon between 1958 and 1962 as the Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division, Headquarters USAF. In this assignment he prepared a number of papers, iconoclastic at the time, which soon became prophetic, including identifying the need for upgraded conventional munitions (foretelling the “bomb shortage” of the Vietnam War), and the lack of any serious tactical air training in conventional warfare. From November 1959 to March 1960, his section worked intensely to develop a program reducing the entire structure of the ADC with the purpose of generating $6.5 billion for classified funding to develop the SR-71 Blackbird. Following his Pentagon assignment, Olds attended the National War College in Washington D.C. graduating in 1963.

SR-71 Blackbird. Picture Credit: nationalinterest.org

Commander 81st Tactical Fighter Wing – Near Court Martial

          Olds next became commander of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, at RAF Bentwaters, England, an F-101 Voodoo fighter-bomber wing, on September 8, 1963. The 81st TFW was a major combat unit in USAF Europe, having both a tactical nuclear and conventional bombing role supporting NATO. Olds commanded the wing until July 26, 1965. As his Deputy Commander of Operations Olds brought with him Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., whom he had met during his Pentagon assignment and who would go on to become the first African-American 4-star Air Force general. James and Olds worked closely together for a year as a command team and developed both a professional and social relationship which was later renewed in combat. Olds formed a demonstration team for the F-101 using pilots of his wing, without command authorization, and performed at an Air Force open house at Bentwaters. He asserted that his superior at Third Air Force attempted to have him court-martialed, but the commander of USAFE, General Gabriel P. Disosway, instead authorized his removal from command of the 81st TFW, cancellation of a recommended Legion of Merit award, and transfer to the headquarters of the 9th Air Force in South Carolina.

A pair of F-101Bs. Picture Credit: U.S. Air Force via historynet.com

Command in Thailand – Vietnam War- “Blackman and Robin”

          On September 30, 1966, Olds took command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. A lack of aggressiveness and sense of purpose in the wing had led to the change in command (Olds’ predecessor had flown only 12 missions during the 10 months the wing had been in combat). The 44-year-old colonel also set the tone for his command stint by immediately placing himself on the flight schedule as a rookie pilot under officers junior to himself, then challenging them to train him properly because he would soon be leading them. Olds’ vice commander was Col. Vermont Garrison, an ace in both World War II and Korea, and in December Olds brought in Daniel James Jr., to replace an ineffective deputy commander for operations, creating arguably the strongest and most effective tactical command triumvirate of the Vietnam War. The Olds-James combination became popularly nicknamed “Blackman and Robin”. James was named 8th TFW Vice Commander in June 1967, succeeding Garrison, who had completed his tour.  Olds took to the air war over North Vietnam in an F-4C Phantom he nicknamed “Scat XXVII”, in keeping with his previous combat aircraft that all carried the “Scat” name.

Colonel Robin Olds, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, with SCAT XXVII, his McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, 64-0829, at Ubon RTAFB, May 1967. Picture Source: thisdayinaviation.com

MiG Killer – Operation Bolo

          After suggesting the idea to 7th Air Force commander, himself a former commander of the 8th TFW, Olds was directed to plan a mission designed to draw the North Vietnamese MiG 21s into an aerial trap, called “Operation Bolo”. Multirole fighters flew a mission along flight paths typically used by the U.S. bombers during Rolling Thunder. The ruse drew an attack by Vietnamese MiG 21s. This worked and MiGs started getting shot up. In October 1966, strike force F-105 Thunderchiefs were equipped with QRC-160 radar jamming pods whose effectiveness virtually ended their losses to SAMs. As a result, SAM attacks shifted to the Phantoms, which were unprotected because of a shortage of pods. To protect the F-4s, they would penetration to the edge of SAM coverage. MiG interceptions increased as a result, primarily by MiG-21s using high-speed hit-and-run tactics against bomb-laden F-105 formations. The Bolo plan was to equip the F-4s with jamming pods, using the call signs and communications code-words of the F-105 wings, and flying their flight profiles through northwest Vietnam, and entice the MiG-21s into intercepting Phantoms configured for air-to-air combat. The first mission was flown 0n January 2, 1967. The bogus strike force began arriving over the target area, five-minute intervals separating the flights of F-4s. Leading the first flight, Olds overflew the primary MiG-21 base at Phúc Yên and was on a second pass when GCI controlled MiGs finally began popping up through the cloud base. The F-4s claimed seven MiG-21s destroyed, almost half of the 16 then in service with the VPAF without loss to USAF aircraft. Olds himself shot down one of the seven, for which he and the other aircrew were awarded Silver Stars. Follow-up interceptions over the next two days by MiGs against RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft led to a similar mission on a smaller scale on January 6, with another two MiG-21s shot down. VPAF fighter activity diminished to almost nothing for 10 weeks thereafter.

Col Robin Olds painting a victory star on his F 4 Phantom II on May 4, 1967 after shooting a MiG 21. Picture Credit: Pinterest.

More Kills for Olds – “Triple Ace”

          On May 4, Olds destroyed another MiG-21 over Phúc Yên. Two weeks later, on May 20, he destroyed two MiG 17s in what one of his pilots described as a “vengeful chase” after they shot down his wingman during a large dogfight, bringing his total to 16 confirmed kills (12 in World War II and four in Vietnam) and making him a triple ace. Olds states that following the shoot down of his fourth MiG, he intentionally avoided shooting down a fifth, even though he had at least ten opportunities to do so, because he had learned in the middle of June that Seventh Air Force, at the direction of Secretary of the Air Force, would immediately relieve him of command to return to the United States as a publicity asset if he did. He was awarded a fourth Silver Star for leading a three-aircraft low-level bombing strike on March 30, 1967, and the Air Force Cross for an attack on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi on August 11, one of five awarded to Air Force pilots for that mission.

Silver Star Medal. Image Credit:  afpc.af.mil

The Final Mission and Flying Summary

          He flew his final combat mission over North Vietnam on September 23, 1967. His 259 total combat missions included 107 in World War II and 152 in Southeast Asia, 105 of those over North Vietnam. Scat XXVII (F-4C-24-MC 64-0829) was retired from operational service and placed on display at the National Museum of the USAF, Wright-Patterson AF Base, Ohio.

“Wolfpack” aviators of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing carry their commanding officer, Colonel Robin Olds, following his return from his last combat mission over North Vietnam, on 23 September 1967. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Olds’ Mustache – Showing The Middle Finger

          Olds was known for the extravagantly waxed (non-regulation) handlenar moustache he began sporting in Vietnam. It was a common superstition among airmen to grow a “bulletproof mustache”, but Olds also used his as “a gesture of defiance. The kids on the base loved it. Almost everybody grew a mustache.” Olds started the mustache in the wake of the success of Operation Bolo and let it grow beyond regulation length because “It became the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with his higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.” Returning home, however, marked the end of this flamboyance. When he reported to his first interview with USAF Air Chief, General John McConnell walked up to him, stuck a finger under his nose and said, “Take it off.” Olds replied, “Yes, sir.”

Olds Mustache. Picture Source: thisdayinaviation.com

          For his part, Olds was not upset with the order, recalling: “To tell the truth, I wasn’t all that fond of the damned thing by then, but it had become a symbol for the men of the 8th Wing. I knew McConnell understood. During his visits to Ubon over the past year he had never referred to my breach of military standards, just seemed rather amused at the variety of ‘staches sported by many of the troops. (It) was the most direct order I had received in twenty-four years of service.” The incident with the mustache is given credit as the impetus for a new Air Force tradition, “Mustache March”, in which, every March, aircrew, aircraft maintainers, and other airmen worldwide show solidarity by a symbolic, albeit good-natured “protest” for one month against Air Force facial hair regulations, to honor Air Force legend Robin Olds.

Dog Fight Advocate – But No Gun Pods

          We weren’t allowed to dogfight. Very little attention was paid to strafing, dive-bombing, rocketry, stuff like that. It was thought to be unnecessary. Yet every confrontation America faced in the Cold War years was a ‘bombs and bullets’ situation, raging under an uneasy nuclear standoff.  “The Vietnam War” proved the need to teach tactical warfare and have fighter pilots. It caught us unprepared because we weren’t allowed to learn it or practice it in training.

          Olds often lamented the lack of an internal gun in the F-4C he flew during his tour in Vietnam, but would not allow his fighters to be equipped with the gun pods then available. While he knew that he would be capable of effectively using them, he was also aware that none of his pilots were trained in the use of a gun or dog fighting. He also reasoned that the drag of the pod would both degrade the performance characteristics of the F-4 while not gaining it any advantage against the more maneuverable MiG-17s and MiG-21s, result in unnecessary losses strafing worthless targets, and reduce the number of bombs carried by the Phantoms, the delivery of which was the 8th’s primary mission.

Olds’ MiG scoreboard on splitter vane of a McDonnell F-4C Phantom II. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

TV Episodes

          Operation Bolo, and Olds’ P-38 dogfights were recreated using computer animation in the episode “Air Ambush”, of The History Channel “Dogfights” series, first telecast on November 10, 2006. His fourth MiG kill in Vietnam was recreated in the season 2 episode “No Room For Error”. Olds, then 84 years old, appeared as a commentator.

Air Force Academy 1967–71

          After relinquishing command of the 8th TFW on September 23, 1967, Olds reported for duty to the USAF Academy Colorado, in December 1967. He served as commandant of cadets for three years and sought to restore morale in the wake of a major cheating scandal. Olds was promoted to Brigadier General on June 1, 1968, with seniority dating from May 28.

Brigadier General Robin Olds’ next assignment was as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Picture Source: thisdayinaviation.com

Director of Aerospace Safety

          In February 1971 he began his last duty assignment as director of aerospace safety in the Office of the Inspector General, Headquarters USAF, and after December 1971 as part of the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center, a newly activated separate operating agency. Olds oversaw the creation of policies, standards, and procedures for Air Force accident prevention programs, and dealt with work safety education, workplace accident investigation and analysis, and safety inspections

1971 Inspector General tour

          Air Force Inspector General and Olds’ West Point classmate Lt Gen Louis L. Wilson Jr. sent Olds to Southeast Asia in the autumn of 1971 to determine the state of readiness of Air Force pilots. Olds toured USAF bases in Thailand (flying several unauthorized combat missions in the process) and brought back a blunt assessment. Air Force pilots, he reported to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen John D.Ryan (a former Strategic Air Command (SAC) general and bomber pilot often at odds with the tactical fighter community), who Olds thought “…couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.” Olds wrote “there is a systemic lack of interest by the USAF in air-to-air combat training for fighter crews. He warned that losses would be severe in any resumption of aerial combat”. Olds recalled that Ryan expressed surprise at this assessment and reflected his disagreement.

At Oval Office with Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). Picture Source: firstaerosquadron.com

Leaves Air Force When Refused another Tour to Vietnam

          When Operation Linebacker began in May 1972, American fighter jets returned to the offense in the skies over North Vietnam for the first time in nearly four years. Navy and Marine Corps fighters, reaped the benefits of their TOPGUN program, immediately enjoyed considerable success. In contrast by June, as Olds had predicted, the Air Force’s fighter community was struggling with a nearly 1:1 kill-loss ratio. To the new Inspector General, Olds offered to take a voluntary reduction in rank to colonel so he could return to operational command and straighten out the situation. Olds decided to leave the Air Force when the offer was refused (he was offered another inspection tour instead) and he retired on June 1, 1973.

Brigadier General Robin Olds retired as the director of aerospace safety in the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center. Picture Credit: af.mil

Awards and Decorations

          Olds’ awards and decorations included, USAF Command pilot badge, Air Force Cross, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster, Silver Star with three oak leaf cluster, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor device and silver oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with four silver oak leaf cluster, Vietnam Air Gallantry Cross, among many others.

Robin Olds – WWII and Vietnam ACE. Image Credit: duotechservices.com

Air Force Cross citation

          Colonel Robin Olds, U.S. Air Force, Date Of Action: August 11, 1967 read ” The President of the United States of America, …….takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Colonel Robin Olds (AFSN: 0-26046), United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force while serving as Strike Mission Commander in the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, against the Paul Doumer Bridge, a major north-south transportation link on Hanoi’s Red River in North Vietnam, on 11 August 1967. On that date, Colonel Olds led his strike force of eight F-4C aircraft against a key railroad and highway bridge in North Vietnam. Despite intense, accurately directed fire, multiple surface-to-air missile attacks on his force, and continuous harassment by MiG fighters defending the target, Colonel Olds, with undaunted determination, indomitable courage, and professional skill, led his force through to help destroy this significant bridge. As a result the flow of war materials into this area was appreciably reduced. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Colonel Olds reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

Olds married Hollywood actress (and pin-up girl) Ella Raines in Beverly Hills on February 6, 1947. Picture Credit: Pinterest

Personal Life – Marriage to Hollywood Actress

          Olds was briefly a stepbrother of the famous author Gore Vidal after Olds’ father married for the fourth time in June 1942, to Nina Gore Auchincloss. His father died of pneumonia on April 28, 1943, after hospitalization at the age of 46, just prior to Olds’ graduation from West Point. In 1946, while based at March Field, Olds met Hollywood actress (and pin-up girl) Ella Raines on a blind date in Palm Springs. They married in Beverly Hills on February 6, 1947, and had three children. Most of their 29-year marriage, marked by frequent extended separations and difficult homecomings, was turbulent because of a clash of lifestyles, particularly her refusal to ever live in government housing on military bases. Robin Olds and Ella Raines separated in 1975 and divorced in 1976. Robin married Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett in January 1978, and they divorced after fifteen years of marriage.  

Hollywood Actress, Wife, Ella Raines. Picture Source: Universal Pictures

Retired Life – Alcohol

          After his retirement at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Olds pursued his love of skiing and served on the city’s planning commission. He was active in public speaking, making 21 events as late in his life as 2005 and 13 in 2006. Olds’ fondness for alcohol was well known. John Darrell Sherwood, in his book “Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience”, posits that Olds’ heavy drinking hurt his post-Vietnam career. On July 12, 2001, Olds was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and resisting arrest near his home in Steamboat Springs. Olds, briefly hospitalized during the incident for facial cuts, pleaded guilty in return for charges of weaving and felony vehicular eluding being dropped. Olds was placed on one year probation, and ordered to pay almost $900 in fines and costs, attend an alcohol education course, and perform 72 hours of community service.

L to R: National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinees Joe Kittinger, Dick Rutan and Robin Olds shared the experience of being combat fighters in Vietnam. Picture Credit: airportjournals.com

National Aviation Hall of Fame

          Days later, on July 21, 2001, Olds was enshrined at Dayton, Ohio, in the National Aviation Hall of Fame Class of 2001, along with test pilot Joe H, Engle of Marine Corps, and ace Marion E, Carl, and Albert Lee Ueltschi. He became the only person enshrined in both the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Book by his daughter Christina Olds

Moves On – Class Exemplar

          In March 2007 Olds was hospitalized in Colorado for complications of Stage 4 prostate cancer. On the evening of June 14, 2007 he died from congestive heart failure in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a month before his 85th birthday. He was honored with a flyover and services at the UAF Academy, where his ashes are housed, on June 30, 2007. Olds is remembered as the Class Exemplar of the Academy Class of 2011, which had begun Basic Cadet Training, the first step towards becoming Air Force officers, two days before Olds’ funeral. Cadets choose a class exemplar who becomes the class’ honorary namesake. The exemplar is typically a deceased former member of the Air Force or Army Air Force, with a few notable exceptions like the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong. The tradition began with the Class of 2000. The selection of the class exemplar is celebrated with a class-wide dinner.

Picture Credit: af.mil

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

4 thoughts on ““Triple Ace” American Fighter Pilot “Robin Olds” – World War II and Vietnam War

  1. I am so glad you wrote on Robin Olds. I have been a great admirer of Robin Olds for many years, for reasons that made him so credible with the people he commanded. He whipped his wing into a well-oiled fighting machine by making sure that his pilots trained hard, were aggressive and he personally participated and led from the front. He did it till the day he handed over, at age 45 and 25 years of service.

    For years and years, whilst in service, I have always been an advocate of combat pilots being aggressive and well trained. One cannot train lambs in peacetime and expect them to perform like tigers in war. Robin Olds fell foul of the hierarchy on just these counts, in addition to alcohol. Robin Olds came out of WWII at age 23 in the rank of a Major (in 3 years) flying P-51s. Then entered the Viet Nam war (having missed the Korean conflict) almost 20 years later in the rank of a Colonel (which he held for 15 years) at age 43 flying F-4s. That takes considerable doing.

    Many years ago, when I was flying long haul with Jet Airways on the A 330, I had an ex-USAF colleague of mine flying the B-777 (with Jet Airways). He sported a mustache exactly like Robin Olds. One evening in one of the bars I told him so. He had tears in his eyes and he said to me that I was the first guy he had come across in civil aviation who had recognized the mustache. Apparently, as a young Lieutenant, in 1967, he joined the same base as Robin Olds and grew that mustache which he sported (and still does).

    He (Robin Olds) enjoyed huge credibility with his juniors, and that counts for everything. The picture of him being carried on the shoulders after his last mission says everything.

    Keep them coming Chopsy.

    Liked by 1 person

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