Col Robin Olds

Image: TVR Photography - Tyson Rininger


Robin Olds first flew at the age of eight, in an open cockpit biplane operated by his father.

In 1943, Lieutenant Olds completed fighter pilot training with the 329th Fighter Group, a training unit based at Glendale California.  His initial twin-engine training at Williamns Field in Azizona, in the AT-9, followed by transition fighter training to the Lockheed Forked Tail Devil P-38 Lightning

In early 1944 he became part of the cadre assigned to build up the newly activated 434th FS, based at Lomita California.  Olds logged 650 hours of flying time during training, and on May 3rd 1944, Olds P-38 was loaded aboard the USS Argentina to set sail for Europe. The 479th arrived in Scotland on May 14, 1944.

On May 26, the 479th entered combat for the first time while flying bomber escort missions, and attacking transport targets in occupied France, in preparation for the invasion of Normandy.  

Olds insisted that his aircraft be waxed to help reduce drag and increase its speed.  Although slight, Olds demanded every bit of performance from his P-38. He nicknamed his waxed Lightning Scat II.

July 24th 1944 Olds was promoted to Captain and became a flight and later squadron leader.

On August 14th following a low-level bridge-bombing mission in France, on August 14, Olds shot down his first German aircraft...a pair of FW-190s

On August 25th, 1944, during a mission to Wismar, Olds flight was in a position on the far left of the escorted group's line abreast formation, and encountered 40–50 BF-109s flying north at the same 28,000 ft altitude in a loose formation.

Olds turned his flight left and climbed high, and behind the German aircraft Undetected, Olds and his wingman jettisoned their tanks and commenced their attack.

Just as Olds began firing, both engines of his P-38 died from apparent fuel exhaustion; in the excitement of setting up the attack, Olds had neglected to switch to his internal fuel tanks.

His P-38 now unexpectedly silent, Olds continued his attack "dead-stick" and fatally damaged the Bf 109, then calmly restarted his engines. 

Old's P-38 suffered some damage, including the loss of part of its canopy. Olds continued on his offensive,  and managed to shot down two during the dogfight, and another on the way home.

This now made Olds the first ace of the 479th FG. His combat report for that date concluded:

Still in a shallow dive, I observed another P-38 and an Me 109 going round and round. It seemed that the 38 needed help so I started down. At about 4,000 ft, the Jerry, still way out of my range, turned under me and slightly to the right. I rolled over on my back, following him and gave him an ineffective burst at long range. By this time I was traveling in excess of 500 mph (800 km/h). My left window blew out, scaring the hell out of me. I thought I had been hit by some of the ground fire I had observed in the vicinity. I regained control of the aircraft and pulled out above a wheat field. I tried to contact the flight to get myself recognized, but observed an Me 109 making a pass at me from about seven o'clock high. I broke left as well as my plane could and the Jerry overshot. I straightened out and gave him a burst. He chandelled steeply to the left and I shot some more. He passed right over me and I slipped over in an Immelmann. As I straightened out at the top, I saw the pilot bail out.

Robin Olds claimed 8 kills while flying the P-38 (five of which are sustained by the Air Force Historical Research Agency) and was originally credited as the top-scoring P-38 pilot of the ETO.

 In September  1944, the 479th FG converted to the P-51 Mustang. On his second transition flight, Olds received a dose of humility as the overpowered P-51 threw him into a groundloop after torque threw him off the side of the runway.

Now getting used to his new thoroughbred, Olds managed to shoot down an Fw 190 in his newly named Scat IV Stang on October 6 during a savage battle near Berlin in He completed his first combat tour on November 9, 1944, accruing 270 hours of combat time and six kills

"Anybody who doesn't have fear is an idiot. It's just that you must make the fear work for you. Hell when somebody shot at me, it made me madder than hell, and all I wanted to do was shoot back."

Olds began a his second tour on January 15, 1945. and was promoted to Major on February 9, 1945.  Olds claimed his seventh victory, a BF-109 on February 14th over Germany, and later the same day he managed to down another Bf 109. A third claim for a Fw190 was made that day, but only credited only as a "probable".

Robin Olds final World War II aerial kill occurred on April 7, 1945, when Olds in his trusty Mustang Scat VI led the 479th Fighter Group on a mission escorting B-24s bombing an ammunition dump in Luneberg, Germany. Olds noticed contrails above and to the left of the bombers. Turning to investigate, Olds saw pairs of Me 262s turn and begin their run on the Liberators. After damaging one of the jets in a chase meant to lure the fighter escort away from the bombers, the Mustangs returned to the bomber stream. Olds observed a Bf 109 of Sonderkommando Elbe attack the bombers and shoot down a B-24. Olds pursued the Bf 109 through the formation, and shot it down.

At only 22 years of age, Olds was given command of his squadron on March 25, less than two years out of West Point. Awarded the Silver Star, and achieving Ace status on both of his combat tours. In his 107 combat missions in the ETO in World War II, Olds was officially credited with 12 German aircraft shot down and 11.5 destroyed on the ground.

Returning to the United States after the war, Olds transferred to the 412th FG at March Field California, to fly the jet powered P-80 Shooting Star, where he and Lieutenant Colonel John C "Pappy" Herbst formed what he believed was the Air Force's first jet aerobatic performance team.

Olds even managed to take second place in the Thomson Trophy Race (Jet Division) of the Cleveland National Air Races "closed course" jet race, on a three pylon course 30 miles in length.

He then went to England under the U.S. Air Force/Royal Air Force Exchange Program in 1948. Flying the Gloster Meteor jet fighter, he commanded No. 1 Squadron between October 20, 1948 and September 25, 1949, the first foreigner to command an RAF unit during peacetime. Following his exchange assignment, he returned to March AFB on November 15, 1949 to become operations officer of the 94th Fighter Squadron of the 1st FG, flying F-86A Sabres

Olds was then assigned to command the 71st FS, and based in Pennsylvania. As a result, he missed service in the Korean War despite repeated applications for a combat assignment.  This did not sit well with him and was seriously considering resigning.

Robin Olds was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on February 20, 1951, and then Colonel on the 15th of April, 1953, while just thirty years of age, Olds served unenthusiastically in several staff assignments until finally returning to flying in 1955

Becoming commander of the 81st TFW at RAF Brentwaters, England, an F-101 Voodoo fighter-bomber wing, on September 8, 1963. Olds commanded the wing until July 26, 1965. As his Deputy Commander of Operations Olds brought with him Colonel Daniel Chappie James Jr whom he had met during his Pentagon assignment and who would go on to become the first African-American 4-star Air Force general. James and Olds worked closely together as a command team and developed both a professional and social relationship which was later renewed in combat.

In September 1966, Olds was assigned to command an F-4C Phantom wing in Southeast Asia. Col. James who was now Deputy Commander of Operations with the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing arranged for Olds to be checked out in the Phantom, where he managed to complete the 14-step syllabus in just five days.

On September 30, 1966, Olds took command of the 8th Tactical Fight Wing based at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. The now 44-year-old colonel immediately placing himself on the flight schedule as a rookie pilot under officers junior to himself, then challenging them to train him properly because he would soon be leading them. Thus setting the tone for the kind of command Olds brought to the 8th.  In December Olds brought in his old friend Colonel Daniel Chappie James Jr , creating arguably the most effective tactical command of the Vietnam War. The Olds-James combination became popularly nicknamed "Blackman and Robin".

Scheduling himself as a rookie pilot, Olds took to the air over North Vietnam in an F-4C Phantom he nicknamed none other than "Scat XXVII"

During his command over North Vietnam, Col Robin Olds realized that the F-105 and F-4 formations used the same approaches time after time, and the SIGINT analysts in Hanoi became expert in identifying the more vulnerable F-105 "Thuds" from the F-4 Phantoms, from their radio frequencies and call signs.

Olds cleverly decided to fly his Phantom F-4s using the same routes, altitude, and call signs as the the time the lured MiGs realize anything, it will be far too late. They called it Operation “Bolo"

January 2 1967. In the first hours of the evening 14 flights of F-4C Phantom of the 8th TFW (4 aircraft each) took off from Ubon RTAFB in Thailand towards the VPAF airfields around Hanoi, pretending to be F-105s. An eastern force of 366th TFW F-4s covered the possible MiG withdrawal routes. Olds commanded the first flight. The assigned call signs derived from American cars of the period: "Ford," "Rambler," and of course..."Olds," for the CO's flight.

The first MiG-21s seemed paralyzed when they realized that they were not engaging F-105s, but F-4s. The first kill of that day was scored by “Olds 02” -1st Lt. Ralph Wetterhahn- followed seconds later by Captain Walter Radeker, who claimed another MiG-21. Initially Colonel Olds was not so lucky, as his own account shows:

“The battle started when the MiGs began to get out of the cloud cover. Unfortunately for me, the first one appeared in my ‘six o’clock’. I think it was more a accident than a planned tactic. As a matter of fact, in the next few minutes other many MiGs started to exit from the clouds from different positions.

I was lucky. The flight behind me saw the MiG and tried to divert its attention. I broke to the left, sharply enough to get away of his line of fire, hoping that my wingman would take care of him. Meanwhile another MiG came out of the clouds, turning widely about my ’11 o’clock’ at a distance of 2,000 yards. He went into the clouds again and I tried to follow.”

Olds fired two Sparrows and one Sidewinder at this MiG, but the enemy pilot showed his quality, avoiding all three missiles, entering the clouds, and escaping “Wolf Pack” leader.

A third enemy plane appeared in my ‘10 o’clock’, from the left to the right: in simple words, almost in the opposite direction. The first MiG zoomed away and I engaged the afterburner to get in an attack position against this new enemy. I reared up my aircraft in a 45 degree angle, inside his turn. He was turning to the left, so I pulled the stick and barrel-rolled to the right.

Thanks to this maneuver, I found myself above him, half upside down. I held it until the MiG finished his turn, calculating the time so that, if I could keep on turning behind him, I would get on his tail, with a deflection angle of 20 degrees, at a distance of 1,500 yards. That was exactly what happened. He never saw me. Behind and lower than him, I could clearly see his silhouette against the sun when I launched two Sidewinders. One of them impacted and tore apart his right wing.”

In a few minutes, the pilots of the “Olds” flight claimed to have shot down three MiG-21s without suffering any losses of their own.

Using his creative use of equipping F-4s with jamming pods, using the call signs and communications codewords of the F-105 wings, Olds singlehandedly prompted VPAF pilots and strategists, as well as Soviet tacticians, for the duration of the war, to re-evaluate the tactics and deployment of the MiG-21.

Olds went on to fly 152 combat missions over Southeast Asia, and a total of 4 confirmed MiG kills over North Vietnam.

On May 4, Olds destroyed another MiG-21 over Phúc Yên. Two weeks later, on May 20, he destroyed two MiG-17s in what one of his pilots described as a "vengeful chase" after they shot down his wingman during a large fur ball bringing his total to 16 confirmed kills between his service in Ww2 and over Vietnam, thus making him a triple ace. Olds stated that following his fourth MiG kill, he intentionally avoided shooting down a fifth, even though he had multiple opportunities to do so for the simple reason that he had learned that the Secretary of the Air Force would immediately relieve him of command to return to the United States as a publicity asset if he did. So Olds made sure not to get that fifth kill.  

"It got more exciting with each war. I mean the planes were going faster than hell when I was flying a Mustang, but by the time I got to Nam, it scared the piss out of a lot of guys just to fly the damn jets at full speed. Let alone do it in combat."

He was awarded a fourth Silver Star for leading a three-aircraft low-level bombing strike on March 30, 1967, and the Air Force Cross for an attack on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi on August 11.

Col Robin Olds flew his final combat mission over North Vietnam on September 23, 1967, where his Phantom Scat XXVII (F-4C-24-MC 64-0829) was retired from operational service and placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio 

Aside from being known as one of the greatest fighter pilots in aviation history, Robin Olds was also known for his decidedly non-regulation handle bar "bulletproof" moustache that he used as "a gesture of defiance. The kids on base loved it. Most everybody grew a moustache " Olds started growing the moustache in the wake of Operation Bolo and let it continue to grow beyond regulation length because "It became the middle finger I couldn't raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles...with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war"





  • Alexander Natale

    Great article on Col. Olds, really enjoyed it. Thank You.

  • James W. Anderson

    I served with the 388TFW based in Thailand during Col. Old’s tour…he was indeed a legend among airmen in SE Asia. I was is ECM (electronic warfare), assigned to the unit responsible for POD implementation

  • Ernest Hendrickson

    To avoid being sent back as a news item Col. Olds stopped shooting N. Vietnam’s planes, allowing his wing man to shoot. Why? Because had 4 kills and found out that if he got 5 he woulda been recalled for publicity purposes. AND he flew about 168 missions, hiding the fact he was far far over the 100 mission limit. He coulda scored 21 plus kills but passed it up to continue commanding his squadron. A true great American hero!!! Putting it mildly!!!

  • Ed Shaw

    Col. Olds was a brilliant leader of men, an exemplary fighter pilot, and an inspiration to all future fighter pilots. He was literally bigger than life. As an Air Force veteran, I always admired his style. Best mustache in any branch of the service! RIP Col. Olds.

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