Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds
Robin Olds was many things to many people. To his West Point football coach, he was an All American destined for the National College Football Hall of Fame. To his P-38 and P-51 wartime squadrons in WWII, he was the aggressive fighter pilot who made double ace and became their commander in nine short months. For the pioneers of the jet age, he was the wingman on the first jet demo team, a racer in the Thompson Trophy race, and the only U.S. exchange officer to command a RAF squadron. In the tabloid press, he was the dashing flying hero who married the glamorous movie star. For the current crop of fighter pilots, he is best known as the leader of the F-4 Wolfpack battling over North Vietnam. For cadets at the Air Force Academy, he was a role model and mentor. He was all of those things and more.
This is the story of Robin Olds in his own words and gleaned from the family and friends of his lifetime. Here’s the talent and learning, the passion and leadership, the love, and disappointments of his life. Few men have written on the tablets of aviation history with such a broad and indelible brush. Olds was a classic hero with vices as well as virtues, a life writ large that impacted many.
About the Author
Book Club Session
Fighter Pilot by Robin Olds with Christina Olds
23 February 2022
57 in attendance
Opening Remarks by Gen Mike Holmes, (USAF, Ret.): Chairman of the Board, Air Force Historical Foundation
- Gen Arnold established the charter of the Air Force Historical Society to maintain and publicize the history of the Air Force.
- Projects in honor of the 75th Air Force Birthday in 2022 include publishing “75 Great Airmen” and an oral history.
- Introduces Christina Olds, the author of Fighter Pilot, as the first in the 2022 Book Club honoring Air Force heritage.
Ms. Christina Olds: It is an honor to be the first book in this series. Thank you for supporting my Dad and his legacy. I’m sure he would be humbled to know this is happening in his honor. He liked to be out in the world and visiting with his guys. He said that he felt bad for not writing it himself, but I always knew I would end up writing it. I spent 10-16 hours a day for a year and a half writing it, and it was truly a labor of love. I think his legacy and influence is valuable for our Airmen around the world. I visit places, and his picture is up somewhere in the squadron. I am so grateful to see his legacy in this way. There is no better man to honor.
Question & Answer Session
1. This book is an obvious labor of love; it reads like a love letter. How important was it for you to get this story right and pull together all of these stories from friends and make it authentic?
There are several answers. Traveling with him around the world, he was always surrounded by pilots. They would take me aside and ask me to please get him to write his book. He started making notes around 1985. He would mail me edits, and I would mark them up, make suggestions, and send them back. Pretty early on I knew I would end up writing it. He didn’t want to sit still.
His legacy as a father, fighter pilot, and friend was so enormous – I wanted to get the whole picture of him captured in a book people could relate to. He was so humble. He wrote his notes in the third person – describing who he was with and the other guys in the flight. He didn’t feel it was right to put so much of himself into the story – he wanted to tell the stories of others. I restarted as an autobiography and from the first person to make it more relatable after initial engagements with the publisher.
I started at WWII, and what he said it was like, and put myself in his perspective. He said he trusted and let me, I’m glad He let me do it. It was an honor to get this done for him.
2. Your father flew some of the greatest fighter aircraft in our Air Force’s history: the P-51, P-38, and the F-4 among them. Which was his favorite fighter to fly?
Each one he was flying was his favorite at the time. Each one he jumped into he loved. He had a terrific love for the P-51 Mustang in WWII. And for the F-4. He was incredibly frustrated by not having guns, and always remarked that he could have shot down more if he had been given a gun.
Despite that, the F-4 was probably his overall favorite because it was the Aircraft during his Command af the 8TFW.
Gen Holmes: If he loved all his airplanes, was his time at 8TFW with the Wolfpack his favorite time in the Air Force?
Probably – listening to him and as an observer. He loved his men and they loved him. The time was intense, scary, dangerous, and important. He loved his time there. I think more importantly, the photograph on the cover of the book – being picked up by his young officers – sat on the mantle of the fireplace in his home. His sense of pride and connection with his men was so profound, why it’s the cover of the book. That to my dad was his favorite moment, even more than flying, being lifted up by his men. He said this was the finest moment of his life due to the sense of accomplishment and time with the men. He was never prouder. This was his favorite moment even more than flying the jet. He loved that more than all the jets combined.
3. That leads to my next question: your father is known as a “Fighter Pilot’s Fighter Pilot,” yet he seemed, in your book, to relish his staff officer assignments. In Chapter 16, “The Phantom and the War,” the second and third pages provide an excellent strategic assessment of the state of the Vietnam War. It appears he learned a great deal from his staff tours and took advantage of them. Is this an accurate assessment?
He did, but prefacing that, he was a real student of history. He was very well read, and studied combat history deeply. He studied everything deeply. He went into combat with the ideas of how things should look. Staff jobs suited him because he was studious. His staff jobs instructed him greatly also as he paid very close attention to anything. He never failed to memorize what he needed to. He hated desks, and got in a lot of trouble, but he learned about people, because when you’re a fighter pilot flying with other fighter pilots, that’s all you know. Staff jobs show you how the support world lives and breathes, and how personalities and requirements mesh together – or don’t mesh together – in order to get a mission done. He loved people. He learned and saw first hand the advice he was given after WWII, that there were four personalities: the ‘me first,’ the ‘me too,’ the deadwood, and the dedicated. Focus on being the dedicated.
4. Who inspired your father? Who did he look up to?
Definitely his father. Eddie Rickenbacker and his fellow fighter pilots gave him a special twinkle in his eyes. But I’m not sure I’ve heard him speak that way of other people.
5. What do you think the impact of his ability to connect with people, how important was that, that personal connection?
Above and beyond his skill as a fighter pilot, his skill as a leader is why he is so loved. I hear stories repeatedly about how his pilots or crews loved him. He had a way of making the person he was speaking to feel like the most important person in the world. At night at Ubon (Thailand), he’d bring a six pack to the crews and ask about their families. They could just talk to him and tell him what they needed. It engenders trust. He was funny – always telling jokes! He had a rare personality for a warrior – it was in this sweet, personable, and gentle man. It was a magical thing you don’t see in most people, I think this is why he’s so beloved.
6. Christina, what was it like for YOU growing up in the 1960s and 70s with a well-known military father – those were anti-military times, so was that ever hard for you?
I never ever broke contact with my father. My sister had a more difficult time with that. Growing up in the places I did, having a close relationship with my father, I never got the personal anti-war thing even though I attended a very liberal college. I never felt the need to argue with people – I understood both sides. My father was risking his life, doing what he was told to do and supposed to do. Yet in America people did not understand what the people on the lines were up against. But it was a lovely time with my Dad when he came home, and our bond continued to grow.
7. Having been promoted to BG, he was sent to the Academy to promote enthusiasm. How did he assess that time in his career?
At the time of the news, he was at Ubon as a fighter pilot. He wanted to stay with his men, and wondered what a “grizzled old fighter pilot” could do for those kids. His challenge was really with the superintendent and the dean, and the upper officers who were trying to keep the Academy as a total learning institution. When he got there, all the kids had stick on moustaches, and four stars for his MiG kills painted on his chair. His job as commandant was responsible for physical, military, and academic training. He loved it – it took about a month before he got into it. Then we found him out in the field working out with them – in Jack’s Valley, climbing a wall in the gym, or running around the field house. He became a big kid while he was with them. He loved it so much he spoke to me about how much he missed it. Robin was such an influence on their lives, they say that there were more generals out of that USAFA class than ever before or since.
8. I know from your book that your father’s father died before you were born, but from what you know about him, how would his personality have compared with your dad’s.
I’ve researched my grandfather a lot, and I’m still working on a book about him – it’s going to take a while longer. He was far more serious and very exacting as an officer. Comparing the two is almost impossible since I did not know them both. But I think my father was more fun loving and enjoyed pranks. My grandfather was incredibly serious, everything was right on time, and his staff was held to the highest standards. My Dad always said I would have loved him, but I heard he was quite strict.
9. Christina, what was the most difficult obstacle, if any, you had authoring the book? What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing your Dad’s story?
First of all, the most enjoyable was knowing I was getting it done for him. Not only had I promised him I would do it, so many people were waiting for his stories. Although it was tremendously hard work, it was immersive and I felt full of life and committed to what I was doing. The challenge was the same. It was the hours I was putting in. It was the deadline I had given my editor – I should have never done that! Ha. But I’m glad I did because I got it done (11 months). I’d do it all over again for him.
10. In the book you talk about Robin’s crew chief on his -51… Bill had the opportunity to show your dad and his WWII airplane crew chief around the Udvar-Hazy Center museum in Virginia a few years ago. I have forgotten his crew chief’s name but it appeared they were life-long friends. Do you have any stories about their relationship through the years?
He was so close to all the members of the 434th squadron throughout his life, and they had reunions as often as possible. Glen (his crew chief) did all his nose art, and wrote “SCAT” on all his aircraft. You can imagine the times they had together over in England where 21 pilots went over and only 9 came home.
11. Christina, I was fortunate to have attended the academy while he was the Commadant. Even more fortunate to be able to experience an orientation flight in the T33 with your Dad. On that flight he briefed me that his family was up skiing and we were going to fly by and say hello. I’ve always wondered if you saw his “low” pass?
Ah yes. I do remember seeing an aircraft or two come over while I was skiing. Also in Jackson Hole, I remember hearing a roar where all of a sudden an F-4 came screaming over the trees, low over the lake, and over the canyon on the other side. He was just saying hi! He loved doing that.
He buzzed my mother’s film set, and the horses went running. Dust filled all the cameras…it was quite a scandal, but that never stopped him!
12. Your father longed to fly combat in the Korean War, but his wife secretly pulled strings to prevent him from being sent to Korea. Tell us about his reaction to that.
Of course he wanted to go badly and fly combat again. For most of his life he blamed his Squadron Commander! He was very upset and angry about that, but never found out about that until the mid 1980s. Lawrence Rockefeller went to the Pentagon and had his orders pulled.
13. As a junior officer, in light of today’s current geopolitical challenges, what do you think Gen Olds would want to tell members or assure them of under his command today?
I can only imagine, the climate is completely different. As a commanding officer he would be all about the mission, teamwork, and the men and women pulling together to giving their all to accomplish the mission. His highest priority would be to go accomplish the mission safely, taking care of each other at the same time.
14. As an Intel professional, I was pleased to see how much your father relied on his wing intelligence team to drive the Wing’s tactics. The 8th was one of the first Wing’s to move from low-level ingress to medium altitude, above the AAA. This was part of the “homework” he put in as a Commander and warrior. Was he always this detailed oriented? And where did that discipline come from?
I think it started in childhood as a tremendous reader. He read everything that was put in front of him and dove deep into the things that fascinated him. He also dove deep into maps. I have many of his books, and he was very aware of the information that went in front of him. This is why he had a hard time at Ubon, and because their intel wasn’t really together at the beginning. It prompted him to pull all the guys together in a tactics conference to figure out what was really happening. As a student of all things, he learned everything he could about things that fascinated him, and that carried through into his appreciation of intel.
15. Operation BOLO is one of the most famous operations in Air Force history, and is covered in excellent detail in your book. Did your father see this as his greatest wartime accomplishment?
They came up with the idea in the officer’s club one night trying to figure out how to get the MiGs up. Looking for Trojan Horses to get them airborne. This started the discussion about disguising the F-4s as F-105s. What an operation that turned out to be.
16. In the book Robin came close to buying an old suit of armor, but was not able to get it due to a bombing. Did he ever obtain a suit of armor later in life.
No. But he was always teary eyed telling this story – because of the shopkeeper, and how quickly life can be taken. It spoke to how terrible the bombings in London were at the time. He never got any armor, anything else would have been less.
17. My grandfather and mom were both in the RAF during WW2. Your dad’s admiration of the English people was very evident in your book. This, along with the wonderful descriptions of his visits to London warmed my heart – his admiration for the people.
He loved the English people immensely. His favorite book as a child was the Knights of the Roundtable, and this influenced his sense of honor tremendously. England was definitely his favorite place. Sitting in the Eagle Pub with him at Cambridge, he looked completely at home. He looked this way everywhere he went. We visited the No. 1 Squadron RAF bar at Scotland, and they still have his diaries.
18. Your father superbly walked the tight rope of breaking rules without getting into serious trouble. Do you think he recognized this as a unique talent of his or would he encourage others to push the boundaries and follow in that path?
He always encouraged people to push boundaries. One of the great things about him is he was as serious as he was playful. Whether it was mud wrestling at the O Club, three legged races, or costumes, he believed that life was so serious and difficult at times it was important to know how to play and when to be silly. It gives us a sense of their personalities.
19. What’s the best story that didn’t make the book and why?
Nooooo. There are too many! Oh no. I cannot possibly pick one. I have over two dozen stories from USAFA guys, and I feel bad that I had to edit that chapter down. There are so many great ones. And when I travel, everywhere I go there I hear more stories.
Here’s one: He’s 84, I’m living with him – there is a bill from the Lowry AFB O-Club for $627. Each month this bill came. He said to “ignore it.” Or “No honey, don’t pay it, it’s ridiculous. I don’t need to pay it, it was their fault.” It came from a reunion a few years back – and the guys were drinking, singing, telling stories, and it went really late. The club turned off the lights and the heat trying to get the guys to leave. They got really cold. So they dragged the furniture outside and had a bonfire to stay warm and keep going. The bill was for the furniture! (She paid it) He loved to sing, and he had a beautiful voice.
20. What words of wisdom do you think your father would have for Airmen serving now, in 2022?
I think it would be the same as always. Obey your commander. Tend to and accomplish the mission. Take care of each other to the best of your ability. Bring the team home safely.