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Robin Olds (SI Photo SI99-42649)

Change of Command

When Robin Olds arrived in Vietnam, morale soared.

At the end of that time, Olds, Captain Walt Radeker, and I had each shot down a MiG. In a fight that took place just east of us, J.B. Stone got another.

Shortly after the operation, the 8th wing historian gathered everybody's thoughts on the mission. Airmen Second Class Donald H. Marquess from the intelligence staff remembered it this way: "It was during the waiting period while the pilots were gone that anticipation could be felt everywhere, from the dining facility to the barracks areas. Hours later, the first flight of birds made traditional victory passes--they were successful! After the first Phantom touched down and started down the taxiway to the ramp, the crowd which had gathered waited with anticipation as the first aircraft passed and Colonel Olds raised his hands and clasped them together. Cheers and clapping rose like nothing ever heard before. When the last plane touched down, there was a silence as figures were being compared, then a yell of 'all safe,' a gasp of air, and the thoughts and sounds of victory were all around."

Seven MiG-21s had been downed with no friendly losses, a single-mission record that stood throughout the war. We were decorated with Distinguished Flying Crosses, and Olds received his third Silver Star. He threw a huge party for the maintenance crews.

After that the parties seemed to go on continuously. Rapid Roger came to a halt at the end of January, and the wing marked the occasion with a wake, held on Groundhog Day, complete with a black casket. Some guys dug a grave outside the ops building and lowered the casket into it, and we all took turns urinating on it.

Olds began sporting a handlebar mustache, and he and his vice commander Chappie James, the first black officer to rise to four-star rank, got new nicknames: "Black Man and Robin." We also referred to Olds, who was all of 44, as "Old Man." We were still wise-asses, but we weren't screw-ups anymore. Olds had turned things around, and not a single member of that wing ever wanted to fail in his eyes.

On a typical evening at the officers' club bar, "Snoopy Versus the Red Baron" would be playing on the jukebox for the sixth time and half the place would be singing along. Olds would be knocking back scotch the way you empty a water glass. He might catch you out of the corner of his eye, and his eyes would lock onto yours so hard somebody'd get hurt if they walked between the two of you. After he had a few drinks, conversation with him was like toying with a cobra. He could turn on the most innocent of comments.

The F-4D Phantom showed up in Ubon in May 1967. Equipped with a lead-computing sight, it was capable of using previously hard-to-aim 20-mm gun pods. It was also configured to carry the Hughes AIM-4D Falcon missile, which turned out to be a pilot's nightmare, instead of the Sidewinder. The Falcon required a complicated series of steps to cool the seeker head before the missile could be fired. Once the pilot started the cooling system, he had approximately one minute to fire the missile--an imprecision intolerable in dogfights, which, as Olds has said, "usually didn't permit the luxury of checking your watch." Olds flew one mission with the new airplane; he was unable to shoot down a MiG after three tries and came home hauling useless missiles. He ordered the entire fleet of D models rewired to use the old Sidewinders.

It was strictly against regulations. The modification required testing--the different armament could change the airplane's center of gravity, and a pylon had to be altered to attach the Sidewinder. But Olds issued a verbal order and told the maintenance chief that he'd take the heat. The maintenance teams, who by that time felt the same way about Olds that the pilots did, made the change. The rewiring for Sidewinders was eventually done Air Force-wide.

Olds shot down three more MiGs that year--two during a vengeful chase after his wingman had been shot down. At the end of August he was placed on the general's list once more and reassigned as Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. He got the promotion this time, and, while he was at the Academy, he went on the lecture circuit. He spoke, perhaps too candidly, about the way the war was being run, and a lot of us have wondered if he stopped at one star because he said exactly what he thought instead of what the Air Force wanted to hear. Olds has said he was dressed down more than once for remarks he made. He's the kind of hero who isn't very popular when his country is at peace but is desperately needed in wartime. I believe if called, Olds could pull it off again. I know a hundred old men who would follow him.

 

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