Change of Command

When Robin Olds arrived in Vietnam, morale soared.

Robin Olds (SI Photo SI99-42649)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

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