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.
From This Story
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.
That's how it had been going, mission after mission. This one stands out because of the near-collision with a parachuting pilot, but the guns, SAMs, explosions, confusion, and airplanes being shot down were standard. Supported by China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam had armed itself against the U.S. air attacks and by this time had 4,400 anti-aircraft guns and 25 SAM battalions in place.
The mission stands out for another reason. Once we reached the safety of the sea, Fulkerson's wingman, Fitz Fitzgerald, radioed that he was down to 900 pounds of fuel, barely enough in an F-4 to fly a hundred miles, which was just about the distance to the demilitarized zone. Fulkerson had him jettison his auxiliary tanks and head south. We watched fuel spray from the open tank fittings as they slowly tumbled seaward. The tanks hadn't fed; the valves had never opened. We had a pretty good idea why: It was the same reason that Sharp and I had headed north without a wingman.
Since the beginning of August the 8th wing had been directed by the Pentagon to "investigate the desirability of increasing sortie rates per aircraft." The same airplanes that flew day missions were to be reconfigured to fly missions at night, then switched back for daylight attacks the following morning. But switching aircraft back and forth entailed heavy work for maintenance crews. Daylight bombers carried a 370-gallon fuel tank on each wing, plus missiles and bombs. The night birds used a flare dispenser where a wing tank normally went and carried a centerline, 600-gallon fuel tank. Besides up- and downloading tanks at sunup and sundown, the crews had to "refuel, rearm, and repair" aircraft that flew around the clock. The test program was called "Rapid Roger." According to wing records, between August 6, 1966, when Rapid Roger began, and September 22, the "operationally ready" rate for aircraft dropped from 73.8 to 54.3 percent. It's not that the maintenance crews weren't trying. The wing record also shows that extra men and spare parts authorized for the test were never delivered.
After midnight on September 13, an F-4C crashed just after takeoff. During daylight that same day, another crashed after an inflight fire, its cause undetermined. Of the 10 aircraft lost in combat since July, two were airplanes ordered North without wingmen. A MiG got one; a SAM the other. And now Fitzgerald: About 15 minutes after he dropped the useless external tanks--those same pesky tanks that were being disconnected and reconnected continually by overworked mechanics--he dead-sticked his airplane into a dirt strip at Dong Ha, just south of the DMZ. The F-4 went careening off the end, shedding missiles and landing gear. Both men climbed out unharmed.
"We were green beans," Dick Stultz said recently. Stultz was a Phantom backseater with the 555th, and he got to Ubon at about the same time I did. I saw him at a reunion in April, and his memory of that time pretty much matches mine. "You may be trained to be a boxer," he said, "but you don't get in the ring with only the principles of fighting in your head, with no experience in winning and surviving."
Most of the pilots shot down over the past few months had been captains and lieutenants. We had noticed that the full colonels--the guys with experience--seldom flew to Pak Six. And some squadron commanders could find any number of reasons not to fly to Hanoi.
Those of us who were flying missions would get frags--fragmentation orders from the 7th Air Force headquarters in Saigon--the night before we were to go. They'd give you the target you were to hit, the time on target, and the tankers you'd get fuel from. You'd head over to the intelligence office and get every photo they had. Then you'd have all night to think about it.
There were a lot of mornings when I'd wake up tense and sweating, listening to mosquitoes buzzing around in the dark. I'd kill a few and wonder if they could somehow warn each other about this guy that was splatting them. Then I'd stagger into the latrine. Four bare light bulbs hung above the sinks. Gnats were diving at the lights, and the sinks would be covered with thousands of dead bugs.
Two days after Fitzgerald slammed into the dirt at Dong Ha, Rapid Roger was put on hold. The 7th Air Force Commander in Saigon, General William W. Momyer, had seen enough bad reports from our wing commander, Colonel Joseph Wilson, and he suspended it. On September 30, Olds arrived.
We had heard about Olds. He had flown P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings over Europe in World War II and had scored 13 kills in dogfights. We'd also heard that he had been on the general's list some years ago, but had been redlined from promotion. We were curious to meet this resurrected bad boy, and soon after his arrival everybody got the opportunity. He ordered all pilots to come to the main briefing room--the first time we'd all been brought together.
I wouldn't have wanted to address that crowd. We had no respect for leaders because they weren't flying and couldn't talk to us about flying. And we had all the discipline (and about half the maturity) of the Los Angeles Dodgers in a dugout brawl. But the room was quiet. And Olds gave the first version of what J.B. Stone, a captain with the outfit and its savviest tactician, came to call the colonel's "I'm-the-new-guy speech."
Stone, who retired this year from Continental Airlines, can recite the speech today. "He got everybody together and just laid down the rules," Stone says. "After he told us how it was going to be, he'd say, 'I'm the new guy. You know a lot that I don't know, and I'm here to learn from you. But in two or three weeks, I'm gonna be better than all of you. And when I know more about your job than you do, you're in trouble.' "
Over the next few weeks, Olds began flying combat missions with the 433rd. He had flown on the first Air Force jet aerobatic team and was a hell of a pilot. "He was pure business in the cockpit," Dick Stultz says. He continued giving the speech every now and then, always ending it with the challenge I'm gonna be better than you. He also visited the other squadrons and all the maintenance areas. He talked to us in the officers' club. Almost overnight, it seemed, he knew all our names.
"I kept running into Robin in Intelligence," says Stultz. "I was a real map nut. I had a background in geography so I wanted to know everything. And Robin would be in there in the late hours.
"The real dynamic was he started asking the same kind of questions we were asking," Stultz remembers. "He recognized that for the level of effort being expended the results were marginal. We had some issues--about how we were going in [to a target] in long strings. Everybody would go in at intervals, and as a result, every gunner would get the opportunity to shoot at every one of us."
Tactics slowly started to shift, and communication among wings and bases started to improve. Strike forces began to get over targets faster. Ron Miller, who flew as Olds' backseater on several missions, remembers one highly coordinated strike of aircraft hitting the Thai Nguyen steel mill, northwest of Hanoi. "All 64 airplanes were on and off the target in two minutes," Miller says. "Our biggest worry was not being hit by flak but running into each other."
By November the wing's operationally ready rate had increased nine percent and losses had dropped dramatically. Then General Momyer announced he was reinstituting the Rapid Roger test program. We could only assume that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's obsession with statistics was behind the move. The most infamous statistics, for which McNamara was later vilified, were body counts. In our case the statistics were sortie rates.
Olds protested, and he was overruled. But he made it clear to us that he didn't care much for statistics. He was after results. He stalked onto the stage of the briefing room one morning with a fistful of papers--decoration requests that flight leaders had filled out for his signature. He said there was a lot of interesting reading in the forms about flak, SAMs, and MiGs, but not very much about targets being destroyed. "Some of you want medals for just showing up," he said and dropped the stack of papers in a trash can.
I thought of Olds last April at a celebration of the Air Force's 50th anniversary. During a presentation on the Gulf war, one speaker praised the "1,600 sorties and 455 missiles fired in the first 24 hours of Desert Storm." Not a single word about targets destroyed.
In one of his many lectures after finishing his tour in Vietnam, Olds said, "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 [the MiGs] 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 what a scrap you had."
Olds could tell stories about any number of missions; he flew 152, 105 of them over North Vietnam. But the one best known for a combination of MiGs and morale is Operation Bolo.
We planned it in a tiny storage room in the rear of the command center at Ubon. Captain J.B. Stone had been working there, assigned by Wilson to evaluate tactics. When Olds arrived, he directed Stone to put together a tactics manual for Southeast Asia. One of the constraints Stone faced was the U.S. policy that prevented us from attacking North Vietnamese airfields, which were in heavily populated areas around Hanoi and Haiphong. Olds decided we'd just have to get the MiGs in the air.
The idea behind Operation Bolo wasn't new: F-4s masquerade as the more vulnerable F-105s, then ambush the MiGs that come after them. The 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon had gotten two MiGs in 1965 with a similar ruse. But Bolo was the first mission to disguise an entire strike force: 28 F-4s from the 8th; 28 from the 366th wing at Da Nang. We were to fly at the same altitude and speed as heavily loaded Thuds, and we were to carry the same QRC-160 radar-jamming pods the Thuds carried, so on North Vietnamese radars, that's exactly what we'd look like.
Olds sold it to Momyer and put Stone in charge of working out the details. Stone brought in Major J.D. Covington, Lieutenant Joe Hicks, and me to help him. It took us two weeks. Olds and Stone spent hours working on timing and routes alone.
Twelve flights would fly directly over the four air bases in and around Hanoi to draw the MiGs up; two flights would head northeast and block the escape route to China. We got six flights of F-105s from Korat and Takhli to attack SAM sites and free us to concentrate on the MiGs. We sent an EC-121 to orbit over the South China Sea to detect MiG launches and listen in on the enemy's communications with the ground.
We had tired of the jumbled code words issued in the daily frags from the 7th Air Force, nonsense like "Rolleye" and "Junetime," which might be friendly aircraft call signs one day and SAM warning codes the next. They were too difficult to use in the heat of battle. So we named our flights after cars: Olds, Ford, Rambler. We named the F-105 flights on the Wild Weasel mission after weapons, such as Carbine. We coded the MiG bases by overlaying a map of the United States on one of North Vietnam and designated Phuc Yen air base in the northwest as Frisco, Gia Lam just south in Hanoi as L.A., and Cat Bi Airfield on the eastern border, Miami. Kep, in the middle, was Chicago. All a flight member need hear over the radio was either a call sign or a location and he would know exactly where the fight was taking place without having to refer to a cumbersome list of codes and translations.
We knew MiGs had only enough fuel for 45 minutes. We scheduled the sweep so that once the MiGs had been flushed out, for the next 55 minutes at least one flight of F-4s would be over each of the four enemy airfields, ready to shoot down MiGs as they tried to land.
Olds, ignoring Rapid Roger's push for sorties, stood the 8th down the last week in December and got ready. On January 2 we put the plan into action. Olds led and I flew on his wing.
Heavy clouds hung over Hanoi. We couldn't see the airfields and SAMs could fire at us through the overcast, but Olds stayed cool. Every command and every maneuver was controlled. Meanwhile, our radars swept the area and showed the sky ominously empty. We had flown to a point north of Hanoi, then headed south toward the city; not until we reversed course at Hanoi to head north again did the MiGs come up.
Ford flight, led by Colonel Daniel "Chappie" James, arrived at about the same time that five MiGs appeared. In the January 13, 1967, issue of Time magazine, Olds described the ensuing dogfight as "a swirling battle that covered a huge part of the sky." We pulled and positioned and launched missiles for what seemed like hours, but the fight really lasted only nine minutes.
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.