I just finished reading Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, edited by his daughter Christina along with Ed Rasimus. When my daughter Kim sent it to me for Father’s Day, she had no idea that I had a long association with General Olds.
In the fall of 1967, I was beginning my second year as a cadet at the Air Force Academy. Then Colonel Olds arrived at USAFA to become the commandant of cadets. He took over from BGen Ted Seith, a well respected bomber pilot. Olds brought the swagger and bravado of a fighter pilot to the cadet wing. The change was palpable. General Olds would remain commandant for the remainder of my schooling, nearly three years.
Robin Olds, who died four years ago at age 85, lived a story-book life. He really was “larger than life.” His father Robert was an aviation pioneer from the WW I era so the boy grew up in the company of airpower greats like Hap Arnold, Billy Mitchell, and Tooey Spaatz. Naturally he wanted to follow in their footsteps.
That led 18 year old Robin to West Point in the summer of 1940. Because of the war, his class would graduate a year early in June 1943 and by that time, he had earned his pilot wings during summer training. He also played football, earning All American honors in 1942 as a tackle (he played at 6’2”, 205). Years later, he would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The reason Olds attended West Point was to obtain a regular commission and become a fighter pilot which he accomplished. His first fighter was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The P-38 flew primarily in the Pacific theater, but Olds’ group, the 479th went to England to join the 8th Air Force. He became an ace (5 enemy kills) in the P-38 before his group transitioned to the better P-51 Mustang. Olds ended the war in Europe with 13 air-to-air kills, 12 by ground strafing, the rank of major (at age 22) and command of a fighter squadron. He was well on his way to a remarkable career.
Robin Olds came of age in the golden age of aviation brought about by so much wartime innovation. Consequently, he flew dozens of different fighters during a time when new aircraft were introduced yearly. One of the most interesting things about this book is his detailed description of the flying characteristics of so many aircraft. For example, there is a great description of the problem of compressibility in the P-38 where the shock wave in a high speed dive renders the tail elevator inoperative. The only way to recover from the dive is for the aircraft to slow down sufficiently to regain control of the elevator. Robin was able to recover from this mistake. How many did not?
Returning from England, Olds was an early entry into the new technology of jets, qualifying to fly the P-80 Shooting Star. At an early air show featuring jet fighters, Robin met Hollywood siren Ella Raines. A year later they married, beginning a tempestuous 29 year relationship. In truth, they never reconciled their differences. Ella was a movie star and her husband, a hard-nosed fighter pilot. It was not a match made in heaven. Love does not always conquer all.
Robin continued his career, flying fighters and leading units and men. Ella would follow him some times, consenting to live in Washington, New York or London while her husband flew in Germany, England and North Africa. Two daughters were caught in the middle of their parent’s troubles.
When Olds was sent to the Pentagon, he was a caged tiger. Suffice it to say that he made just as many enemies as he did friends. After serving as wing commander at RAF Bentwaters in England, he arrived at Ubon, Thailand to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in the fall of 1966. For a year, Olds led the Wolfpack into tough battles against the North Vietnamese. He flew 152 combat missions over the north, knocking down four MiGs with missiles from his F-4C Phantom II. His reward for the brutal year was a general’s star and command of the Academy’s cadet wing.
I learned a lot of things from General Olds, among them leadership by example. Robin led his men from the front. (Trust me; he would do more than sneer at anyone who suggests that you can lead from behind.) He believed that you should not ask anyone to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.
Robin Olds was an imposing man; after all, he was a tackle. He spoke with a raspy voice. He was a heavy drinker, but I observed that more of the whiskey in his glass would be poured over the head of some unsuspecting fellow than actually down his throat. At age 85, it wasn’t his liver that gave out but rather, his heart.
Fighter pilots are amazing, Type A personalities. They charge head-long into the fray, modern day knights of the air. They are masters of their machine. They live life on the edge. Robin Olds was a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot, the leader of the pack. I’ve met many unforgettable men over the years, and Robin Olds was at the head of the list.
Col Boyles. thank you for your service, sir. I met General Olds many years after he retired. He was truly “a lion in winter,” probably in his early to middle 70s? He used to occasionally come down from his home in the mountains to hold a talk at AFA gatherings up at USAFA. He was a great raconteur and had obviously devoted much of his life to considering the requirements of national security. His talks were more like group discussions sometimes. He’d throw out a challenge and try to get people to fight, in a friendly manner, with him. The man exuded charisma. You couldn’t help but like him! He was a completely comfortable in his own skin and immensely bright. He had both a mischievous wit and a truly welcoming bonhomie. We’d often end up in a group at what was then the Air Force Academy Officer’s Club bar, or once I think at the Old Mission Inn just outside the South gate, at the end of the evening. He’d simultaneously be both the center of attention, and “just one of the guys.” I loved the man. Robin Olds was a once in a generation combat leader and a truly remarkable individual. The world is a lesser place without him in it.