Triple ace and Air Force brigadier general Robin Olds, considered among the best fighter pilots of all time, died June 14 at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He was 84 and suffered from congestive heart failure.
A flamboyant aviation legend, Olds was a fighter pilot both in World War II and Vietnam. He shot down a total of 17 enemy aircraft in the two wars. In addition, he is credited with 11 German airplanes destroyed on the ground during World War II.
Flying P-38s and, later, P-51s, he shot down 13 German aircraft in World War II, making him a double ace. Returning to combat 22 years later, he shot down four MiGs over Vietnam, including two on one day, making him a triple ace. (A pilot becomes an ace with five kills.) He flew 259 missions in two wars without being shot down or wounded.
As commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, Thailand, during the Vietnam war, Olds – then a colonel – planned and led Operation Bolo, an imaginative and daring strike against North Vietnamese airpower on Jan. 2, 1967. It was the most decisive air victory at that point in the war. The deceptive operation used the flight path and radio signals of a bomber squadron to lure the North Vietnamese into thinking they would be attacking vulnerable bombers. Instead, they encountered a swarm of nimble F-4 Phantom fighters, led by Olds. In the ensuing fight, Olds shot down a MiG-21 and the pilots under his command downed six more. There were no U.S. losses. It was in May of the same year that Olds shot down the three MiGs that made him a triple ace.
Olds often bucked the military system and ignored rules that he considered silly, including one that barred the rakish handlebar moustache that he affected during his Vietnam deployment. While leading a fighter wing stationed in Germany, in the mid-1960s, he was removed from his command and threatened with a court martial for organizing a high-performance jet aerobatic team in violation of Air Force policy.
Olds was born in Honolulu in 1922, when his father was stationed there. His mother died when he was 4 and he was raised by his father, Army Air Corps Major General Robert Olds, a World War I pilot who helped develop the concept of strategic bombing in the 1930s. The younger Olds attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was an All-American tackle on the Army football team. He was assigned to the first jet squadron, flying P-80s, in 1946 and took second place in the Thompson Trophy Race (jet division) the same year. In 1948 he became the first foreigner to command a Royal Air Force squadron, the elite Fighter Squadron No. 1, during an exchange tour. After his Vietnam tour he became Commandant of Cadets at the Air Force Academy and was director of safety for the entire Air Force at the time of his retirement in 1973.
Olds’ honors included the Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit, six Distinguished Flying Crosses and 40 Air Medals.
— By Thomas F. Norton