North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilot recalls when his two wingmen were shot down by USAF F-4Cs acting as RF-4Cs in a new tactic devised by Robin Olds four days after Operation Bolo

Operation Bolo: how Robin Olds F-4s disguised as F-105s shot down 7 North Vietnamese MiG-21s in 12 minutes

By Dario Leone
Dec 31 2023
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The F-4 Phantom II

The F-4 Phantom II is one of the most important fighter aircraft of the jet era. Begun as a derivative of the McDonnell F3H Demon in 1953, the Phantom II evolved over the next two years into a significant new design. It incorporated a second crew station for a dedicated radar intercept officer, two General Electric J79 afterburning turbojets, and an all-missile armament in the form of four radar-guided Sparrow missiles. The result was a world-class fighter with exceptional performance.

Following first flight in May 1958, the F-4 was selected by the US Navy as a fleet defense interceptor. Soon, its remarkable capabilities led to adoption by the Air Force and Marine Corps as well.

The US Air Force (USAF) first version, the F-4C, made its first flight in May 1963, and production deliveries began six months later.

In 1965 the USAF sent its first F-4Cs to Southeast Asia, where they flew air-to-air missions against North Vietnamese fighters as well as attacking ground targets.

Operation Bolo: how Robin Olds F-4 Phantom IIs disguising as F-105s shot down 7 North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters During a 12-minute engagement
A US Air Force McDonnell F-4C-19-MC Phantom II fighter (s/n 63-7589) from the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, rolls out on takeoff from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, circa 1967. It is configured for the MiGCAP escort role with AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles under the fuselage, and AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and extra fuel tanks under the wings.

Robin Olds

The first USAF pilot to score four combat victories with F-4s in Southeast Asia was Col. Robin Olds, a World War II ace. Thanks to its boldness, courage and leadership he gained widespread fame and respect as the aggressive commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) during the Southeast Asia War.

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.

Operation Bolo: how Robin Olds F-4 Phantom IIs disguising as F-105s shot down 7 North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters During a 12-minute engagement
Col. Robin Olds with his F-4C SCAT XXVII. Olds named all his aircraft after his West Point roommate Scat Davis, who could not become a military pilot due to poor eyesight.

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.

Robin Olds and Operation Bolo

In the fall of 1966, Olds took command of the 8th TFW at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. Olds’ charisma and courage endeared him to his people, and under his leadership, the “Wolfpack” became the USAF’s top MiG-killing wing in Southeast Asia. He also played a key role in the creation of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which improved coordination between USAF wings in Southeast Asia and became a lasting fraternal organization.

Olds led from the front – he shared the same risks as his aircrews by flying on the most dangerous missions. He received many decorations for his audacity in combat, including the Air Force Cross for a mission in August 1967, when he led a strike force against the heavily defended Paul Doumer Bridge in North Vietnam.

North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighter
VPAF MiG-21 deploying its braking chute while landing after a mission.

The crowning achievement for Olds was planning and leading Operation Bolo, when North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots were tricked into an air battle at a disadvantage.

In late 1966, the USAF was not permitted to bomb North Vietnamese airfields and could only destroy enemy fighters in the air. Complicating the problem, enemy MiGs focused on bomb-laden F-105s and only initiated combat when they had a clear advantage. Col. Robin Olds, and 8th TFW ‘s tactics officer, Capt. John “J.B.” Stone, devised a masterful plan to lure and trap North Vietnamese MiG-21s by mimicking an F-105 bombing formation.

Robin Olds F-4s shoot down Half of VPAF operational force during Operation Bolo

On Jan. 2, 1967, 8th TFW F-4s entered North Vietnam from the west using the same route, altitude, and formation as an F-105 bomb strike. They also carried and operated electronic jamming pods used by F-105s. The North Vietnamese took the bait, and the MiGs came up to intercept what they thought was an F-105 strike. At the same time, 366th TFW F-4s came into North Vietnam from the east to block the MiGs’ escape to China and to orbit their bases, preventing the MiGs from landing.

Operation Bolo
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Despite some problems caused by the overcast weather, Operation Bolo was triumphantly successful. During the 12-minute engagement, Olds shot down a MiG-21, and his 8th TFW F-4 aircrews shot down six others – about half of Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) operational force – with no USAF losses.

Four days later, another ruse, this time mimicking an F-4 reconnaissance flight, shot down two more MiG-21s. These crippling losses greatly reduced MiG activity for several months.

Olds returned from Southeast Asia in December 1967. Promoted to brigadier general in 1968, he became the commandant of cadets at the US Air Force Academy, and he retired from active duty in 1973.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

F-4 model
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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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