Robin Olds: ‘Triple Ace’ and advocate of tactical air power

by Dr. Silvano Wueschner
86th Airlift Wing historian

Brig. Gen. Robin Olds was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot whose combined total of 16 victories in World War II and Vietnam earned him the distinction of a “Triple Ace.”

Most sources chronicling his life portray him as a “larger-than-life hero with a towering personality… an extraordinary man, with extraordinary skills at an extraordinarily critical time of our national history.”

Arguably, he had the traits that are required for the kinds of successes he achieved. He also had a unique upbringing and distinguished himself before he ever entered active duty. 

His father was a major general in the Army Air Corps and at one time an aide to Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell. According to some sources, the stories his father told him about Mitchell played a significant role in him becoming a strong advocate for tactical air power.

His ideas about air power were also shaped from the frequent discussions at the Olds’ house by visitors such as Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, Ira Eaker and Harold George, among others.  Their credence in making air power prevail in future battles, the horror of trench warfare and an endless stalemate led him to believe that air power could play a role in preventing or reducing the number of casualties. 

Olds bought into the notion that airplanes would be able to take the war to the enemy, destroy his infrastructure and wear down his will to fight. Olds took these ideas with him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and ultimately onto active duty.

At West Point, he distinguished himself as a tackle on the academy football team. In 1942, Collier’s Weekly named him Lineman of the Year, sportswriter Grantland Rice named him Player of the Year, and in 1942 he was selected as a member of the 1942 College Football All-America Team. 

He was one of the toughest football players at the time and was inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

Given his athletic prowess and collegiate achievements, it should not have surprised anyone if he had taken the professional athletic direction in life. 

However, Olds had something else in mind. He graduated from West Point and was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1943, at a time when the U.S. became deeply entrenched in the African Theater of War.

Showing the same determination that made him a top athlete on the gridiron, he quickly distinguished himself in war as he became a top fighter pilot and squadron commander by the age of 22. 

He became an “Ace” on his first two combat missions, shooting down two FW-190s on Aug. 14, 1944, and three ME-109s nine days later.

By the end of the war, then a major, Olds had flown 107 combat missions and compiled an impressive record of 13 aerial victories and 11.5 others on the ground. He missed Korean War action due to his participation in a Royal Air Force Exchange

Program beginning in 1948. Between 1955 and 1965 he commanded the

86th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Landstuhl and the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters, in addition to various training assignments.

In 1966, now a 44-year-old colonel, Olds headed to Ubon Royal Thai

Air Force Base where he took command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.  

This assignment saw him engaged in air combat over Vietnam. It was here that the man became a legend. When he arrived at Ubon in 1966, he found a dejected group of pilots.  Olds motivated them by subordinating himself on the flight schedule to junior officers and challenged them to train him correctly, since he would be leading them soon.

He flew 152 combat missions with four confirmed kills, which brought his all-time total to 17 confirmed kills, making him a rare triple ace.  Olds also stood out for the part he played in the conception of Operation Bolo, a plan to lure North Vietnamese MiG-21s into a trap by mimicking an F-105 bombing formation. At the time, the U.S. Air Force was not permitted to bomb North Vietnamese airfields, which meant that enemy fighters could only be destroyed in the air.

On Jan. 2, 1967, Olds led a group of F-4s over Vietnam, utilizing the same route and altitude as an F-105 bomb strike formation. The electronic countermeasure pods of the F-4s were replaced with the electronic jamming pods of F-105 aircraft. This resulted in a false signal, which enticed MiGs to engage the F-4s, believing that they were engaging the slower, less agile F-105s. 

During this “sweep,” Olds shot down 1 Mig-21. At the same time, F-4s from the 366th TFW entered North Vietnamese airspace from the east to prevent the MiGs from escaping to China. 

The F-4s orbited the MiG bases and prevented them from landing. Four days later, Olds repeated the fighter sweep, only this time his group mimicked an F-4 reconnaissance flight and further crippled MiG operations by shooting down two MiG-21s. By all accounts, Operation Bolo turned out to be a critical success.

Olds was a strong advocate of the importance of tactical air power. As a prominent wingman, leader and warrior, Olds is a model air power figure who will be celebrated for generations.

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“Fighting spirit one must have. Even if a man lacks some of the other qualifications, he can often make up for it in fighting spirit.” — Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.