Review: Fighter Pilot
9:21 PM on May 18, 2010
Former AvWeek writer Bill Scott offers this review:
Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds
By Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus
St. Martin's Press
The late Brig. Gen. Robin Olds was a bigger-than-life fighter pilot best-known for his out-front leadership and combat exploits during the Vietnam War. His is the face most associated with the air war in Southeast Asia. But, as revealed through his own story in this excellent new book, Olds was a seasoned double ace long before the Vietnam War.
From his birth in 1922, Olds was hard-wired to fly, surrounded by the pioneers of U.S. air power. He was the son of Robert Olds, a World War I fighter pilot, who served as an aide to Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell and achieved the rank of major general in the Army Air Corps. Giants of early military aviation, such as Hap Arnold, Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz and Ira C. Eaker, regularly met at the Olds home to drink and discuss what became the tenets of U.S. airpower.
Ironically, while Robin was destined to be a trailblazer in the fighter community, his father was a key figure in building the U.S. bomber and military air transport forces.
Robin secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled on the football field and was named an All American. During his final months at the Point (1943), pilot training was added to an already accelerated academics, military and physical training schedule. Shortly before Robin graduated, his father and hero died, leaving a gaping hole in the cadet's life. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold pinned pilot wings on Second Lieutenant Olds's uniform and sent him off to advanced flight training.
Olds flew two tours in World War II, distinguishing himself as a natural, skilled combat pilot of both the Lockheed P-38 and North American P-51 fighters. As a 22-year-old major, he commanded the 434th Fighter Sqdn., a salute to his leadership skills, as well.
Although his accounts of aerial battles are gripping, conveying the excitement, anxiety and exhaustion of air combat, Olds also captures the humor, grief, numbing routine and seasoned-warrior insights that also were part of a pilot's life in war-torn Europe. For example, his pithy description of an aerial engagement in the P-38 Lightning bares both his foibles and courage: "Just as I started to squeeze the trigger, both of my engines sputtered, chugged, burped and quit. Good God, I had forgotten to switch to internal tanks after getting rid of the drops! I'm a glider!"
He managed to shoot the German Me-109 already in his sights, then dove to restart both engines, before rejoining the air battle. He notes, "It occurred to me that I was probably the first fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy in the dead-stick mode, but ... there were some forty-nine other bandits out there."
At times, his poetic descriptions reveal a humanity rarely exhibited in public by this swashbuckling, handlebar-mustachioed giant of air power. Reflecting on grueling weeks of air combat that followed the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Olds notes: "We were maturing as warriors, not necessarily as civilized men. ... Those of us who survived those days went on to fly and fight with an appreciation of life that can be known only by those who have been in combat. Laughter was as profound as sadness. Friendships deepened. Every moment of each day felt exactly right, and the edges of time seemed tinged by light."
The European war ended with then-Maj. Robin Olds having logged 107 missions, 12 air-to-air kills, and 11.5 German aircraft destroyed on the ground. He also had formed strong ideas about how fighters could be employed more effectively, and wasn't shy about expounding on those concepts.
Olds was one of the first to fly Lockheed's new P-80, literally teaching himself to fly the jet, after brazenly taking the aircraft aloft without authorization. He later flew the P-80 with an aerobatic team that would evolve into the USAF's Thunderbirds.
Unknown to him at the time, multiple attempts to fly combat in the Korean War were thwarted by his movie-star wife, Ella Raines, and her producer friends, who had considerable political pull in Washington. Staff assignments that bored him almost prompted Olds to leave military service. He was particularly distressed by the Air Force's narrow focus on a nuclear mission at the expense of training and equipping a new generation of pilots for conventional war. It was during those frustrating months and years of Pentagon duty that Olds made a conscious decision to become a patriotic rebel-in-uniform; promotions be damned.
"I began seriously questioning what was really going on, rather than giving blind obedience to the system. My dad and his buddies, after World War I, had fought for air power against all odds—against infantry and artillery generals and battleship admirals. ... I could follow my upbringing or go along with the pack. ... I knew what needed to be done to build a fighting force, and I [was] determined to be the missionary for those concepts."
His leadership skills led to a number of operational commands, where he honed those ideas and backed them with action, often behind the backs of generals. Although eventually proven correct, he constantly was swimming upstream against conventional wisdom into the 1960s. On one occasion, Olds recounts, USAF's four-star director of operations "claimed we didn't need bombs and bullets and conventional training programs for fighter pilots. ... Then he looked right at me and ... told me to get it through my head and understand we would never fight a conventional war again. Never!"
Later, as the war in Vietnam was heating up, it looked like Olds again would be grounded and shackled to a desk, thanks to his pending promotion to brigadier general. True to form, Olds managed to "screw up" just enough to get his promotion orders ripped to pieces and, eventually, sent to Southeast Asia.
He took over as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, located at Upon AB, Thailand, on Sept. 30, 1966. Although the wing's morale was dismal at best, Olds quickly whipped the unit into shape, declaring that he would "lead from the front" by flying combat missions in the F-4 Phantom. At the time, his F-4s were flying fighter-escort for F-105 Thunderchiefs, but rarely even spotted an enemy aircraft in the air. He wasn't impressed by tactics of the day, either.
"I had never seen such a gaggle as a Pack VI strike package. ... [T]hat business of going in at low altitude, jinking and weaving, pulling three negative and four positive g's at 4,500 ft., going like the hammers of hell in flights of four, in trail, was perhaps one of the dumbest things I had ever seen," he wrote. "Our tactics were going to have to change...."
Whenever the F-4s weren't along, F-105s were being attacked and shot down by North Vietnamese MiG fighters. Olds and a few bright junior officers devised a clever plan to trick the Vietnamese into sending up their MiGs, thinking they would ambush yet another unescorted group of "Thud" fighter-bombers.
Olds's book details myriad preparations for "Operation Bolo," one of the air war's most successful missions. Emulating a flight of F-105s, right down to speeds, call signs and radio calls, dozens of F-4s succeeded in suckering a flock of MiGs into a trap that decimated the Russian-built fighters. Bolo's F-4s downed seven MiGs, including one kill by Olds. It was a turning point for the air war in Southeast Asia (SEA).
Olds, indeed, led from the front, ultimately flying 152 combat missions in the SEA region. He shot down four MiGs, boosting his career total to 16 air-to-air kills. Accounts of those missions, which took the lives of numerous 8th TFW "Wolfpack" pilots and weapon systems officers (backseaters), are as descriptive as any written about the Vietnam air war.
After returning to the states, Olds served as the Air Force Academy's commandant of cadets and was promoted to brigadier general in 1968. His outspoken manner and blistering indictments of USAF air combat tactics and training ensured he didn't receive a second star. He retired in 1973, but continued to write attention-getting papers and to speak about air power.
The book ends with Olds recounting the vagaries of an aging warrior, revealing a grouchy sense of humor: His daughter, Christine, "nags me to take my medicine, keep my oxygen on, eat her cooking. What's wrong with frozen macaroni and cheese? There's some in the freezer; been there for years. ...Where are my glasses? Oh s***, sitting on them again."
His description of a recurring dream about a fighter pilot's final flight in an F-4 Phantom will cause even the crustiest airman to choke up. Brig. Gen. Robin Olds died of congestive heart failure on June 14, 2007, and was buried at the U.S. Air Force Academy cemetery.
Today's fighter pilots are told they'll be replaced by bomb-laden unmanned aircraft flown by "operators" sitting in air-conditioned cubicles halfway around the world from battlefields. Because their careers can be snuffed in a heartbeat by a single politically incorrect quip, or by an alcohol-induced antic, pilots now go to the gym instead of the club. And senior officers who decide which pilots get promoted comb personnel records for graduate degrees instead of demonstrated bombing skills; for program-management kudos rather than flying ability and air medals; for squeaky-clean command tours versus air combat leadership.
Many of those officers may fly and labor in silence, but each yearns to fly wing on a real leader, a commander and fighter pilot's fighter pilot, a warrior like Robin Olds.