Change of Command

When Robin Olds arrived in Vietnam, morale soared.

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

(Continued from page 3)

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.

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