During the Vietnam War a US Air Force (USAF) “Wing King” was not expected to fly missions as part of his command assignment, with the result that top leadership was not personally aware what the crews faced on their missions.
In the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), the first wing commander never flew a “tough” mission to Hanoi, or any other Route Pack VI target.
According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Robin Olds grew up amongst military aviators and aircraft — his father was a World War I pursuit pilot, an aide to Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, and commander of the first B-17 squadron. Robin Olds attended West Point, where his characteristic boldness allowed him to excel on the football field — in 1942, he was selected as an All-American tackle. After Olds graduated in 1943, he attended flight training and went to Europe as a P-38 pilot.
Olds stood out as a daring pilot and a natural leader. Within a few months, he shot down five enemy fighters to become the 479th Fighter Group’s first ace. At the very young age of 22, he was promoted to major and given command of the 434th Fighter Squadron. Olds continued his success after the unit converted to P-51s, and he ended the war with 12 victories.
Following World War II, Olds flew in the first P-80 jet demonstration team, followed by command of several operational units, and then staff jobs. Unable to get a combat posting during the Korean War, Olds became determined to get into combat when the Southeast Asia War escalated.
In September 1966, Olds wangled assignment as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. Told he was expected to fill the position as a more “traditional” Wing King, the 44 year old assured everyone he would only man a desk if it had wings. He completed the 14 day checkout syllabus for the F-4 in five days under instruction by Major William L. Kirk, the 4453rd’s standardization and evaluation officer, who had been a pilot in the 81st Wing at Bentwaters. Kirk then accompanied him to Point Mugu missile range for practice firing of AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles before he flew on to Travis Air Force Base for transport to Southeast Asia. Kirk later joined his old CO in Thailand in March 1967.
Rather than take the special treatment reserved for senior officers, Olds flew to his new assignment the way the other aircrew did, on an uncomfortable charter flight. Arriving at Ubon RTAB unannounced and without fanfare, he was unceremoniously dumped from the C-130 Klong Flight in company with several enlisted men and their luggage. On taking command, he changed the process for greeting new troops, with personnel to welcome them and give assistance. When he arrived at the Officer’s Club in his flight suit with patches from ADC, two lieutenants who mistook him for an outsider pounced on him. By the time authority arrived, the three were having a drink at the bar.
When he took command, Robin Olds had not seen combat in over 20 years, and had only a few hours flying the F-4 Phantom. The day following his arrival, he called a meeting of the pilots, where he set the tone for how he would command by putting himself on the flight schedule as a rookie pilot, to be trained by officers junior, challenging them to train him properly because he would soon be leading them, and warning that he would soon be better than any of them.
The crowning achievement for Olds was planning and leading OPERATION BOLO on Jan. 2, 1967, when North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots were tricked into an air battle at a disadvantage. Olds shot down a MiG-21, and his 8th TFW F-4 aircrews shot down six others with no losses.
On May 4, Robin Olds shot down another MiG-21 over Phuc Yen. He recalled:
‘Closing on the F 105 flight from their 7:30 position, I broke the rear flight into the MiGs, called the 105s to break, and maneuvered to obtain a missile firing position on one of the MiG-21’s. I obtained a boresight lock on, interlocks in, went full system, kept the pipper on the MiG, and fired two AIM-7’s in a ripple. One AIM-7 went ballistic. The other guided but passed behind the MiG and did not detonate.
‘Knowing that I was then too close for further AIM-7 firing, I maneuvered to obtain AIM-9 firing parameters. The MiG-21 was maneuvering violently and firing position was difficult to achieve. I snapped two AIM-9’s at the MiG and did not observe either missile. The MiG then reversed and presented the best parameter yet. I achieved a loud growl, tracked, and fired one AIM-9. From the moment of launch, it was obvious that the missile was locked on. It guided straight for the MiG and exploded about 5–10 feet beneath his tailpipe. The MiG then went into a series of frantic turns, some of them so violent that the aircraft snap rolled in the opposite direction. Fire was coming from the tailpipe, but I was not sure whether it was normal afterburner or damage induced.
‘I fired the remaining AIM-9 at one point, but the shot was down toward the ground and the missile did not discriminate. I followed the MiG as he turned southeast and headed for Phuc Yen.’
At this point, Olds ordered his wingman, MiG killer Captain Dick Pascoe in Flamingo 02, to get the escaping enemy fighter:
‘The MiG-21 ceased maneuvering and went in a straight slant for the airfield. I stayed 2,500 feet behind him and observed a brilliant white fire streaming from the left side of his fuselage. It looked like magnesium burning with particles flaking off. I had to break off to the right as I neared Phuc Yen runway at about 2,000 feet, due to a heavy, accurate, 85mm barrage. I lost sight of the MiG at that point. Our number three saw the MiG continue in a straight gentle dive and impact approximately 100 yards south of the runway.’
The kill was Olds’ since Pascoe had not been able to close and fire a missile before the enemy fighter hit the ground.
On May 20, Olds shot down two MiG-17s in what one of his pilots called a “vengeful chase” after they shot down his wingman during a large dogfight, making him a triple ace – 12 in World War II and four in Vietnam. He later stated that after he shot down his fourth MiG, he intentionally avoided shooting down a fifth, despite at least ten opportunities to do so, because he learned that Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown would immediately bring him to the United States for publicity if he became a two war ace. He let his wingmen take any kills he set up until his tour ended. 8th TFW F-4 Phantom II pilot Ralph Wetterhahn recalled, “I think Robin Olds could have been a double MiG ace if he hadn’t done that.”
When the F-4D arrived several months after Operation Bolo, it was equipped with the more “advanced” but far less reliable AIM-4 Falcon rather than the Sidewinder. After missing what should have been an easy kill due to a Falcon malfunction, Olds had all the F-4Ds rewired so they could use Sidewinders. This was eventually done to all F-4Ds.
Robin Olds was awarded a fourth Silver Star for leading a low level bombing strike on Mar. 30, 1967, and the Air Force Cross for an attack on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi on Aug. 11, one of five awarded for that mission. He flew his final mission over North Vietnam on Sep. 23, 1967. His total of 259 combat missions included 107 in World War II and 152 in Southeast Asia, 105 over North Vietnam. His F-4C “Scat XXVII” is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio.
Olds’ call sign in Vietnam was “Wolf.” Tradition in the 8th Fighter Wing is for each wing commander to assume the call sign “Wolf,” with a number to distinguish between particular Wolves.
Olds once described his feelings about air combat:
‘Our basic job over there is to bomb targets, not chase MiGs. If they happen to get in the way, so much the worse for them. However, we liked them because they kept our morale up. All fighter pilots have a love for aerial battle. It’s a great feeling to launch a missile at a MiG, even if the missile misses. At least you feel useful. After the mission you can tell terrible war stories about the scrap you had.’
Going Downtown is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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