American Warrior

Fighter Pilot:
The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds

By Robin Olds,
with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus
St. Martin’s, $26.99, 400 pp.

It’s hard to imagine a life story more overdue for the full book treatment than that of Robin Olds, one of the great American warriors of the 20th century.

His career ran the gamut of the development of modern air war and makes one heck of a story. If you enjoyed Chuck Yeager’s autobiography in the slightest, Fighter Pilot is about to become one of your all time favorite books.

It’s not just that Olds had an extraordinary career as a near-triple ace flying P-38s and P-51s in World War II, then finished his combat flying days as the top fighter pilot of the Vietnam War.  The story of Olds’ larger-than life reads like the plot of an overreaching TV miniseries based on one of those fat Herman Wouk novels where the hero is involved in an impossible amount of history.

An All-American football player at West Point, Olds assumed command of his WWII squadron in Europe after a mere nine months of service. He was  part of the first jet demo team, placed second in the Thompson Trophy Race, was the only American ever to command an RAF squadron, had more kills than any other Air Force pilot in Vietnam, commanded the Air Force Academy, told LBJ off on Vietnam and married movie star Ella Raines, whose most famous role was costarring in Tall in the Saddle with John Wayne (who probably would have been the ideal choice to play the flamboyant and oversized fighter pilot in a film bio).

Olds lusted for combat, pulling every string to get into the fight and chafing when he missed out. He would hate his commander in the 1950s for decades until he found out it was his wife’s lobbying, not his CO, that kept him out of the Korea War. As the commander of the famed Wolfpack in Vietnam, Olds was told that once he either became an ace or logged 100 missions, he was going to be taken out of combat and sent on a PR tour; as a result, he began flying off the books and setting up his wingmen to log the kills.

How much did Olds long to be a fighter pilot?  When he was assigned to flight training in 1942, the base finance office had to seek the young second lieutenant out.  He was happy flying for room and board; it never occurred to him he would be paid money to fly.

Like biographies of such great fighter pilots as Robert Johnson, Dick Bong and Douglas Bader, Olds’ is filled with great air combat stories. The one that stood out for me, however, was a tale of an air-to-ground attack.  While Olds’ squadron was still flying P-38s, it was assigned to take out a bridge in Holland. Although separated from his mates in bad weather, Olds completed the mission and took out the bridge. The rest of the squadron never found the target.

Olds finished his career as a brigadier general, but he was perhaps the least promotion-oriented officer in the Army and later Air Force. Several times, he refers to himself as being “threatened” with a promotion, and he dreaded the idea of flying a desk.

Furthermore, Olds was a maverick who was impatient with bureaucracy, especially if it kept him out of the air or got between him and the enemy. When he was assigned to a jet squadron after the war, he was not slotted for flying time. Without even being checked out in the plane, he walked onto the tarmac, bluffed his way into an F-80 Shooting Star and learned to fly it on his own before anyone realized what he had done.

In Vietnam, Olds bucked the system constantly, fighting for effective tactics and effective weapons. He constantly lobbied to put guns on his F-4 Phantom jets — which the desk jockeys had dumped because they thought the old days of dogfighting were over. Then, when the Pentagon changed from the very effective Sidewinder missile to the Sparrow (which malfunctioned about as often as early WWII torpedoes), Olds had his planes refitted against regulations to carry the older missile.

But there were two things he was powerless to change: the targets selected by Washington and the rules of engagement.  Thus, his men went on missions to take out power plants that powered the factories they weren’t allowed to bomb, and they engaged MiGs only under proscribed circumstances.

He confesses in the book that his famed RAF-style mustache was not a style choice but his little act of rebellion, a “middle finger I couldn’t raise in PR photographs” to the brass that was choking the war effort with all its restrictions on targets and tactics.

Perhaps the most maddening example of how the pencil-pushers cost American lives and hindered the war effort came when Olds found out that intelligence learned the North Vietnamese did not fire SAMs below a certain altitude but never shared that with American pilots so they would operate at the right altitude.  Another time, after a mission in which Olds lost six pilots, he found that intelligence knew MiGs had been practicing a certain tactic for weeks but never notified him. When he demanded to know why, he was told, “It’s too sensitive. It’s classified.” That very nearly earned a cowed intel geek a beating.

But despite his heroism in combat, Olds came to the public’s attention mostly because of his outspoken nature when he was forced to return home to do his victory roll publicity tour as America’s top (near) ace.

When President Johnson asked Olds about what to do about Vietnam, he didn’t give the standard rah-rah pap usually delivered to the commander-in-chief; instead, he offered a detailed list of the targets being neglected and the tactics not being employed.

He ended by telling a startled LBJ, “It’s simple sir, and with all due respect, the way to end this war is to just win the damned thing!”  Then he went out and told a hostile and combative press corps the same thing.

Olds never finished his manuscript before his death in 2007. He had tinkered with it for years, however, and left his daughter Christina plenty of material to work with.  She partnered with author Ed Rasimus — an F-105 pilot whose Vietnam air combat memoirs are classics in their own right — to complete this superb memoir.  Olds’ unforgettable voice comes through loud and clear on every page of Fighter Pilot.

And regardless of the book’s unique perspective, breadth of scope and historical value, Olds’ voice is what makes this book one of the greatest pilot memoirs ever published.

  • Rifleman

    Well done, thanks for this. I'll be adding it to my aviation collection, which is mostly on the piston age. They're saying the same stupid things today about the dogfighting days being over, and air superiority fighters no longer being needed. That's as ridiculous as it always has been, especially since we're buying such small quantities of aircraft. The basics of aerial warfare don't change, missiles run out and the surviving enemy still must be stopped, or the strike aircraft defended.

    Another great fighter pilot memoir is James A. Goodson's "Tumult in the Clouds."

    • Edward Dunn

      I agree. I think buy 189 F-22 is far too few airplanes to buy.

  • Alex Kovnat

    I had the privilege of meeting Robin Olds just once, at the Experimental Aircraft Association annual fly in and convention (said event usually referred to as "Oshkosh", after the town in Wisconsin where its held every year near the end of July) in 2005. What a shame he couldn't have been with us longer. I have also met, through the years, Chuck Yeager, Joe Foss, Francis Gabreski, and even one of the great German aces, Gunther Rall. Except for Chuck Yeager, they're all gone now. Kind of sad. But then, time marches on.

    • Stephen_Brady

      I envy you, Alex! They were all great men …

  • AL__
  • TipofTXTeaParty

    Definitely added to my reading list!

  • jemc50

    Robin Olds, a Great American.

  • Ed Rasimus

    Thanks for the kind words. Robin was everything you said he was and more. It was a privilege to have known him and to have had the opportunity to make the book happen.

    • DavidForsmark

      No, thank YOU for a great book (another great book, that is) and your service as well!

  • Jack

    I loved Robin Olds and had the privilege of flying with him, however he was not the top Mig killer of the air war over North Vietnam. Steve Richie and Randy Cunningham along with Cunningahm's weapons system's officer got more kills. Robin could have had and perhaps really did have more kills than he got credit for. There may never be another Warrior like him.

    • DavidForsmark

      They were Navy, that's why I said Olds was the top Air Force pilot. And he was tops when he left Vietnam… and I avoid mention of Cunningham as much as possible.

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