Robin Olds, 84, Fighter Ace and Hero of Big Vietnam Battle, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
The New York Times
Published: June 20, 2007
Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, a World War II fighter ace who became an aviation legend by commanding the Air Force wing that shot down seven MIGs over North Vietnam in the biggest air battle of the Vietnam War, died last Thursday at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He was 84.
Col. Robin Olds of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing with subordinate officers on returning from his 100th mission over North Vietnam.
The Air Force said the cause was congestive heart failure. He had earlier been treated for prostate cancer.
General Olds, who in the course of a long career flew 65 kinds of military planes, almost perfectly filled the role of hotshot flier. Piloting P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs, he shot down 12 planes during World War II. In Vietnam, he led the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing, which scored 24 such kills, an unsurpassed total for that conflict.
In all, he downed 16 enemy aircraft in the two wars, making him a triple ace. (Five kills are needed to become an ace.) And when he could not wrangle a combat assignment in the Korean War, he participated in transcontinental jet races and flew with the Air Force’s first aerobatic demonstration team.
Adding to his glamorous image, General Olds was a former all-American football player at West Point and the husband of a movie star, Ella Raines. In a gesture of individuality, he grew an enormous, meticulously waxed handlebar mustache. And even as a commanding officer, he made a point of placing himself on the flight schedule as a rookie pilot under officers his junior.
But his greatest moment came on Jan. 2, 1967, when, as a colonel, he created an aerial trap for enemy MIGs. Called Operation Bolo, the trap entailed use of radar-jamming devices and other tactics to make faster, more maneuverable F-4s appear to be the slower F-105s used for bombing missions. When the MIGs responded by attacking what seemed to be F-105s, the F-4s downed seven of them.
“The MIGs reacted as we had hoped,” Colonel Olds, who had led the mission himself, told a news conference in Saigon shortly afterward. “To make a wonderfully long story short, they lost.”
The New York Times that May called him “everybody’s choice as the hottest pilot of the Vietnam War,” and last year the History Channel televised a computer animation, complete with his commentary, of his big Vietnam battle.
General Olds went on to serve in many countries and positions, including assignments to Air Force headquarters and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1967 to 1971, he was commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy.
At a time when the Air Force was focused on nuclear strategy, General Olds argued for strengthening conventional warfare capabilities. “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,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, said in a statement after General Olds’s death.
Robin Olds was born on July 14, 1922, in Honolulu. His mother, Eloise, died when he was 4. His father, Maj. Gen. Robert Olds, a World War I combat pilot who helped devise the United States’ air-power strategy, reared him as a single parent.
Robin first flew at age 8 in an open-cockpit biplane operated by his father. At 12, he vowed to attend West Point, where he hoped to play football and begin the path to becoming a military aviator. He did win admission, and played for the renowned coach Red Blaik, compiling so stellar a record as a tackle on both offense and defense that in 1985 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
He was commissioned on June 1, 1943, and completed his pilot training later that year. He was assigned to the European theater, where he flew 107 missions and was credited with destruction of 11 ˝ aircraft on the ground — another pilot assisted in destroying one of them — in addition to the dozen he shot from the sky.
After World War II, General Olds became one of the first Air Force pilots to fly jets. But partly because his manner of defiant individualism was a thorn in the side of superiors, he was unsuccessful in efforts to be assigned to Korea, and did not return to combat for 22 years.
General Olds received many medals, including the Air Force Cross, the branch’s second-highest decoration. He pointed out on occasion that he had never received a Purple Heart, but he did come close.
In March 1967, he led a strike against a steelworks in North Vietnam. He was flying so low, he said in an interview that year, that it seemed the gunners on roofs were shooting down at him. An enemy round tore a hole the size of a basketball in his right wing, but the fire went out and he made it home.
For a brief time his father was married to Nina Gore Auchincloss, making General Olds a stepbrother of the writer Gore Vidal. His first wife, Miss Raines, a favorite pinup girl of the era, died in 1988. A later marriage, to Morgan Olds, ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters, Christina Olds of Vail, Colo., and Susan Scott-Risner of North Bend, Wash.; a half-brother, Fred Olds of Virginia Beach; and a granddaughter, Jennifer Newman of Santa Monica, Calif.
General Olds once said his magnificent mustache represented his defiance. It lasted until, as a colonel, he went to Washington after his service in Vietnam to meet the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John P. McConnell. General McConnell stuck a finger under Colonel Olds’s nose and commanded, “Take it off.”