Books – Fighter Pilot

Books are nothing short of Time Machines and teleportation devices. They transport you to the past, give you a tantalising glimpse of the future, or put you into the centre of a fantasy world. The best ones can change your life.

Fighter to the core

The memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds

Fighter Pilot
The memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds
Author: Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Debut: 2010
ISBN: 979-0-312-56023-2

NOTAM: Very few men will turn down a promotion. Fewer still will deliberately sabotage their chances of becoming a General. And I know of almost no one who did both in order to continue facing guns, flak and rockets while colleague after colleague went down in flames. Robin Olds did all these and lived to tell the tale.

By Paul Jansen

That Robin Olds lived a remarkable life is immediately evident to the reader from this book’s Preface. In it, Ed Rasimus, who collaborated with Christina Olds to turn her father notes into a riveting Memoir, reveals that Robin’s friends and followers were quite concerned as he neared the end of his life and procrastinated about writing an autobiography.

General Charles Horner, a former fighter pilot, and the renowned writer Tom Clancy, visited Olds to try to persuade him to let Clancy help him. They were unsuccessful. In the end, faced with congestive heart failure, he agreed to let his daughter Christina, aided by Rasimus, a retired fighter pilot and author, stitch his story together.

The 386 pages compress a life that spanned World War II, the Vietnam War and the bureaucratic battles before, between and after. It tracks a career which started with kills in a propeller plane and continues to kills in a jet. Warrior to the core, Olds fought each fight from the front, or made every effort to face the fire rather than duck behind a desk job.

He was, in short, a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot.

Daughter Christina and author Rasimus worked on the memoirs from the bits and pieces done by Olds, who also pronounced: “Nobody’s going to put words in my mouth…” And so we have the chronicle of a life in the words of the man himself.

Born in Honolulu in 1922, Olds had a fighter pilot for a father, Captain Robert Olds, whom he idolised. Little wonder. Captain Robert Olds’ Air Corps friends were famed for their exploits in World War I and went on to greater things. These were luminaries such as Hap Arnold, the only man to hold five-star General rank in two different US military services and Ira Spaatz, commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe, named by Dwight Eisenhower as one of two American general officers who had contributed the most to the victory in Europe in World War II, and who later, as commander of  the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, directed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Several of these men later helped their friend’s son achieve his own place in history.

Olds was accepted into West Point in 1940, after Hitler had invaded Poland and just before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. His career as a fighter pilot nearly did not take off. His basic flight instructor, “Millitary Bill” was “pompous” and convinced that “no one flew an airplane better or knew more about one” than him. Except that Olds quickly showed a better mastery of the Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer. In response, Military Bill declared that 6’2″, 190-pound Olds was too big for fighters and pigeonholed him for bombers.

Vultee BT-13 Valiant

Olds demonstrated his flying aptitude early, mastering the BT-13 basic trainer, but this drew the ire of his instructor who had told students that no one could match his own skills.

Fortunately for Olds, he found a soul-mate in his bomber instructor, Lieutenant Hacker. One day, the two men took their Beechcraft AT-10 Wichita twin-engined trainer under every bridge on the Hudson River. So impressed with his student was the lieutenant, he managed to get Olds re-assigned to fighters.

Noted Olds later: “I probably owe Hacker my successes and possibly my life, considering the losses suffered by bomber people in the war.”

During this period, Olds also showed his sense of loyalty and integrity. A roommate and close friend, Scat Davis, was washed out of flight training before it began because of  colour-blindness. Said Olds: “I promised him that he’d fly with me throughout my career. I vowed that his name would be painted on every aircraft I flew.”

And it was. From the P-38 Lightnings, P-51 Mustangs, P-80 Shooting Stars, F101 Voodoos, to F4 Phantoms, every aircraft Olds commanded bore the name “Scat”, with Scat XXVII eventually getting a permanent berth in the National Air Force Museum in 1998.

Col Olds poses beside his Phantom F4 jet with two red stars indicating two North Vietnamese MIG "kills". He chalked up a total of four kills before his tour of duty ended.

Col Olds poses beside his Phantom F4 jet with two red stars indicating two North Vietnamese MIG "kills". He chalked up a total of four kills before his tour of duty ended. Picture: US Air Force Museum.

To many who knew him from afar, Olds appeared to lead a charmed life: son of a famed fighter pilot who died a general, husband to Ella Raines, a glamourous Hollywood movie star, father to two daughters, aerial ace in both the piston-engine and jet eras, and general himself.

But his memoirs show that things did not come easy for Olds. He related the many close calls he had while tackling German fighters and anti-aircraft guns, as he operated out of Britain, and the friends he lost. Later, he faced North Vietnamese MIGs and surface to air missiles in the fight to save South Vietnam from the Communist North. The anecdotes are at times white-knuckling, but also peppered with some grim humour.

After one mission in a Phantom F4 over North Vietnam, Olds was almost out of fuel by the time he rendezvoused with a KC-135 tanker for air-to-air refueling over central Laos. He had just 400 lbs, enough for about 4 minutes in his plane. After taking on only 2,000 lbs, he gave way to his men who each loaded up the full 4,500 lbs of fuel needed to get them home. Then Olds slipped his plane under the tanker again, as he was back down to just 300 lbs, and wanted to take a full load too.

To Old’s horror, the tanker pilot pulled back the fuel boom and declared he was headed home as he was low on fuel himself. Olds knew that the tanker pilot had more than enough to get back safely and practically begged him for fuel. When this was unsuccessful, Olds threw in the gauntlet.

‘Finally, I said: “OK, I have a couple of Sidewinders left. I’m going to drop back behind you, and before I punch out, I’m going to pull the trigger. Put your parachutes on!” There was a moment’s hesitation before the boom came down with a twang. The boomer thudded it home and began pumping fuel just as my left engine flamed out.’

Robin Olds checks the Sidewinder on his Phantom F4 during the Vietnam War

Robin Olds did everything he could to stay in the fighter cockpit, including sabotaging his promotion to Brigadier General. Copyright: US Air Force Museum.

Such behaviour did not endear Olds to the brass. But this did not stop him from doing things his way, from sporting a prominent non-military moustache to going over the heads of his immediate supervisors when he thought it necessary.

His rule-breaking was not random. For instance, in 1963, while he was wing commander of a USAF unit stationed at the Royal Air Force base in Brentwaters, England, he learned from a friend that his name was on a list of officers to be promoted to General. Worried that the promotion would mean he would no longer be allowed on the front line, he came up with a plan to do something bad enough to get noticed, but not enough to get court-martialled. He quietly put together an aerobatic team of F101 Voodoo jet fighter aircraft pilots and led them during an Open House Day in Britain. This was the first time the Voodoos were ever put to such use and the press lapped it up.

Predictably, Olds’ boss put him on the mat, telling him that he was NEVER going to be promoted; that a recommendation for a medal was being withdrawn; and that Olds would be sent to the hostilities developing in Southeast Asia. It was everything that Olds dreamed for.

Olds was a leader in the true sense of the word. When he arrived at the US unit he was to command at the Royal Thai Air Force Vase in Ubon, he found a demoralised team with commanders who avoided going on missions against the North Vietnamese, and unacceptable casulaties. Although he was a known WWII ace, it had been more than 20 years since he was in a shooting war. He called a meeting and informed his new subordinates that he would start flying with them and learning from the lowest-ranking pilot. Then, after absorbing everything that man could teach him, he would follow the next in line. He warned them that “once I know more about your job than you do, look out”.

This way, he showed them respect, earned their grudging respect in turn, and then proved his mettle by subsequently leading them into battle from the front. This changed only after the air force became concerned that his capture by the North would be a major propaganda victory and told him to cease leading missions. So Olds followed the letter of the order rather than the spirit and continued flying behind another “leader”. So obsessed was he with fighting that he stopped recording the missions he flew in order to avoid hitting the magical “100″ which would result in him being sent back to the United States.

The book does a good job of putting us in the thick of things and does not attempt to deal with deep analyses of global strategies. For the latter, a reader will have to look elsewhere. Instead, “Fighter Pilot” is a focused look at the joys and travails of one man who wanted little more than the chance to fly fighters. It also covers the difficulties he faced outside the cockpit and the military bases. Olds obviously suffered the then undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome we now know afflicts many of those who go through war. His marriage to Raines disintegrated and a second bride also broke up with him.

Despite his rapid rise during WWII, which saw him become a Major at age 22 and get credited for shooting down 12 German planes, knocking off four North Vietnamese MIGs later, and developing techniques and strategies for aerial combat, among other achievements, he never rose higher than brigadier general.

Olds put some of the blame for this on Raines, who never wanted to play the role of air force wife, saying: “Within the social structure of the military, her attitude and lack of support would doom any future chance of a highly visible post on the Joint Chiefs.”

Sadly, autobiographies sometime soften the harsh light of reality. The Wikipedia entry for Olds points the finger elsewhere: “His inability to rise higher as a general officer is attributed to both his maverick views and his penchant for drinking.”

Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.

NEXT: Boyd – Unsung hero 

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