Some pilots seem born for combat. They thrive on a steady dose of danger. Robin Olds was one of those. Olds was the commander of the U.S. Air Force 8th Tactical Fighter Wing during the second year of an air campaign called Rolling Thunder, the first sustained U.S. air assault on North Vietnam. I remember him as a disciplined, professional officer, but he was also a fierce fighter who bristled at, and frequently outmaneuvered, the political constraints that kept his wing from doing damage to the enemy.
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Olds retired as a brigadier general in 1973. I visited him recently in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he's working on a book about his life and military career. I guess I wanted to reassure myself that he was real, not a hero we'd invented to rescue us from the cynicism of that war. I found a 75-year-old expert skier (and still hard drinker) who knew by name every ski instructor, ticket taker, waiter, and shop owner in Steamboat Springs and took the time to talk to every one, just as he had done with every member of the 8th wing 30 years before. On one ski run, a teenage snowboarder nearly creamed a little girl, and Olds went berserk. The snowboarder took off with that old dogfighter hot on his tail, going flat out. My memory of Robin Olds had been accurate after all.
I was a 24-year-old first lieutenant when I met him. I was with the 555th Fighter Squadron--the Triple Nickel--stationed at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, flying F-4C Phantom IIs on combat missions to North Vietnam. During the three months prior to Olds' arrival, the wing had lost an entire squadron's worth of airplanes. Twenty-two pilots were dead or missing. Getting to the magic number to finish a combat tour--100 missions over North Vietnam--seemed impossible.
Rolling Thunder was begun in 1965 to break the communists' will and drive them to the bargaining table by destroying the factories and transportation systems that were supplying the Viet Cong in the South. The intensity of enemy resistance in the area around Hanoi called Route Package VI--which we shortened to "Pak Six"--made us pay dearly for that goal. And we weren't even sure we were succeeding. But in late 1966, we flew to Pak Six whenever the weather allowed. In September alone, U.S. air forces flew 12,000 sorties to the north. I remember September 20 in particular for so many reasons that have to do with living and dying: My second son was born, and the sky was clear over Hanoi.
We were already airborne and headed east when first light touched the South China Sea. After mid-air refueling, Captain "Bull" Fulkerson wheeled our flight of three toward the Vietnam coast and sandwiched us between two formations of F-105 Thunderchiefs. Our F-4s were more maneuverable and carried four AIM-7 Sparrow and four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles in addition to four 750-pound M-117 bombs. Our primary mission was to protect the heavily loaded Thuds from any MiGs that might attack. If none came up, we would bomb a bridge near Hanoi.
The reason we had only three aircraft in our formation was that our unit didn't have enough flyable airplanes to send up the customary four. So my backseater--an affable Texan, Lieutenant Jerry Sharp--and I had no wingman. If we were bounced we'd be on our own, unprotected by another pilot detailed to spot surface-to-air missiles and keep enemy fighters off our tail.
Fulkerson spread the formation out. The sun was well above the horizon now, and light splashed across the green hills to the west. Fulkerson gave the command to arm our weapons--"Set 'em up hot"--and I immediately felt a pounding in my chest. I flipped the switches that turned on the missiles' systems and set the bomb fuzes and intervals. As we neared anti-aircraft artillery emplacements, Fulkerson ordered us to keep it moving. We started weaving left, then right, never flying in a straight line for more than five seconds so the gunners would have difficulty tracking us. We were doing 650 mph as we surged over the coastline north of the Red River delta.
Minutes after we crossed the coast, clusters of black puffs began to dot the sky. The 85-millimeter guns had opened up. One of the Thud pilots called out that he had been hit. I saw the damaged plane ahead, clawing upward in a steep turn back toward the coast. Just then Sharp bellowed from the backseat, "SAM! SAM! SAM!" Off at our eleven o'clock a surface-to-air missile left its launch pad in an eruption of flame and smoke. I shoved the throttles all the way and felt my spine press deep into the seat back as the afterburners ignited and we pushed over to gain speed. Seconds later, the first stage of the SAM dropped away and the warhead stage arced over, coming down at us, then veering toward the stricken Thud above us. Over the radio I called to him to eject, but the SAM detonated right on top of his aircraft. Debris boiled out of the inferno.
I rolled into a dive. It looked clear between patches of exploding flak, so I made one adjustment and concentrated on the bombsight, setting the bright red pipper below a small bridge. At that point, any bridge was fine with me. At 4,000 feet, Sharp yelled "Pickle!" and I pressed the bomb button and felt a rumble as the four bombs kicked clear of the rack.
Radio chatter had become an insane jumble of overlapping transmissions. I had lost sight of Fulkerson, so as I pulled the nose up through the horizon, I turned for the coast. A burst of flak rippled near my left wing. My knees were shaking so hard I took my feet off the rudder pedals and placed them flat on the floorboards. When I caught sight of Fulkerson, he was well out in front. Then I saw something closer, dead ahead--a white blur. I was doing 720 mph, but I swung left and barely missed the parachute. The F-105 pilot! He had survived flak and a SAM, and then I had nearly skewered him.