Born July 14, 1922, in Honolulu, HI, Robin Olds was the son of then-Captain Robert Olds and his wife Eloise. The oldest of four, Olds spent the majority of his childhood at Langley Field in Virginia where his father was stationed as an aide to Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. While there he also associated with key officers in the US Army Air Service such as Major Carl Spaatz. In 1925, Olds accompanied his father to Mitchell's famed court-martial. Dressed in a child-size air service uniform, he watched his father testify on Mitchell's behalf. Five years later, Olds flew for the first time when his father took him aloft.
Deciding on a military career at an early age, Olds attended Hampton High School where he became a standout in football. Declining a series of football scholarships, he elected to take a year of study at Millard Preparatory School in 1939 prior to applying to West Point. Learning of the outbreak of World War II while at Millard, he attempted to leave school and enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This was blocked by his father who forced him to stay at Millard. Completing the course of study, Olds was accepted to West Point and entered the service in July 1940. A football star at West Point, he was named an All-American in 1942 and later was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Learning to Fly
Selecting service in the US Army Air Forces, Olds completed his primary flight training in the summer of 1942 at the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa, OK. Returning north, he passed through advanced training at Stewart Field in New York. Receiving his wings from General Henry "Hap" Arnold, Olds graduated from West Point on June 1, 1943, after completing the academy's accelerated wartime curriculum. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he received an assignment to report to the West Coast for training on P-38 Lightnings. This done, Olds was posted to the 479th Fighter Group's 434th Fighter Squadron with orders for Britain.
Fighting Over Europe
Arriving in Britain in May 1944, Olds' squadron quickly entered combat as part of the Allied air offensive prior to the invasion of Normandy. Dubbing his aircraft Scat II, Olds worked closely with his crew chief to learn about aircraft maintenance. Promoted to captain on July 24, he scored his first two kills the following month when he downed a pair of Focke Wulf Fw 190s during a bombing raid over Montmirail, France. On August 25, during an escort mission to Wismar, Germany, Olds shot down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s to become the squadron's first ace. In mid-September, the 434th began converting to the P-51 Mustang. This required some adjustment on Olds' part as the single-engine Mustang handled differently than the twin-engine Lightning.
After downing a Bf 109 over Berlin, Olds completed his initial combat tour in November and was given two months leave in the United States. Returning to Europe in January 1945, he was promoted to major the following month. On March 25, he received command of the 434th. Slowly increasing his score through the spring, Olds scored his final kill of the conflict on April 7 when he destroyed a Bf 109 during a B-24 Liberator a raid over Lüneburg. With the end of the war in Europe in May, Olds' tally stood at 12 kills as well as 11.5 destroyed on the ground. Returning to the US, Olds was assigned to West Point to serve as an assistant football coach to Earl "Red" Blaik.
Olds' time at West Point proved brief as many older officers resented his rapid rise in rank during the war. In February 1946, Olds obtained a transfer to the 412th Fighter Group and trained on the P-80 Shooting Star. Through the remainder of the year, he flew as part of a jet demonstration team with Lieutenant Colonel John C. "Pappy" Herbst. Seen as a rising star, Olds was selected for a US Air Force-Royal Air Force exchange program in 1948. Traveling to Britain, he commanded No. 1 Squadron at RAF Tangmere and flew the Gloster Meteor. With the end of this assignment in late 1949, Olds became the operations officer for the F-86 Sabre-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron at March Field in California.
Olds next was given command of the Air Defense Command's 71st Fighter Squadron based at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. He remained in this role for much of the Korean War despite repeated requests for combat duty. Increasingly unhappy with the USAF, despite promotions to lieutenant colonel (1951) and colonel (1953), he debated retiring but was talked out of it by his friend Major General Frederic H. Smith, Jr. Shifting to Smith's Eastern Air Defense Command, Olds languished in several staff assignments until receiving an assignment to the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany in 1955. Remaining abroad for three years, he later oversaw the Weapons Proficiency Center at Wheelus Air Base, Libya.
Made Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division at the Pentagon in 1958, Olds produced as series of prophetic papers calling for improved air-to-air combat training and the increased production of conventional munitions. After assisting in generating the funding for the classified SR-71 Blackbird program, Olds attended the National War College in 1962-1963. Following graduation, he commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. During this time, he brought over former Tuskegee Airman Colonel Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. to Britain to serve on his staff. Olds left the 81st in 1965 after forming an aerial demonstration team without command authorization.
After brief service in South Carolina, Olds was given command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. As his new unit flew the F-4 Phantom II, Olds completed an accelerated training course on the aircraft before departing to take part in the Vietnam War. Appointed to instill aggressiveness into the 8th TFW, Olds immediately placed himself on the flight schedule as a rookie pilot upon arriving in Thailand. He encouraged his men to train him well so that he could be an effective leader for them. Later that year, James joined Olds with the 8th TFW and two became known among the men as "Blackman and Robin."
Increasing concerned about F-105 Thunderchief losses to North Vietnamese MiGs during bombing missions, Olds designed Operation Bolo in late 1966. This called for 8th TFW F-4s to mimic F-105 operations in an effort to draw enemy aircraft into combat. Implemented in January 1967, the operation saw American aircraft down seven MiG-21s, with Olds shooting down one. The MiG losses were the highest suffered in one day by the North Vietnamese during the war. A stunning success, Operation Bolo effectively eliminated the MiG threat for most of the spring of 1967. After bagging another MiG-21 on May 4, Olds shot down two MiG-17s on the 20th to raise his total to 16.
Over the next few months, Olds continued to personally lead his men into combat. In an effort to raise morale in the 8th TFW, he began growing a famed handlebar mustache. Copied by his men, they referred to them as "bulletproof mustaches." During this time, he avoided shooting down a fifth MiG as he had been alerted that should he become an ace over Vietnam, he would be relieved of command and brought home to conduct publicity events for the Air Force. On August 11, Olds conducted a strike on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi. For his performance, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Leaving the 8th TFW in September 1967, Olds was made Commandant of Cadets at the US Air Force Academy. Promoted to brigadier general on June 1, 1968, he worked to restore pride in the school after a large cheating scandal had blackened its reputation. In February 1971, Olds became director of aerospace safety in the Office of the Inspector General. That fall, he was sent back to Southeast Asia to report on the combat readiness of USAF units in the region. While there, he toured bases and flew several unauthorized combat missions. Returning to the US, Olds wrote a scathing report in which he offered deep concerns in regard to a lack of air-to-air combat training. The following year, his fears were proven true when the USAF incurred a 1:1 kill-loss ratio during Operation Linebacker.
In an effort to aid the situation, Olds offered to take a reduction in rank to colonel so that he could return to Vietnam. When this offer was refused, he elected to leave the service on June 1, 1973. Retiring to Steamboat Springs, CO, he was active in public affairs. Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001, Olds later died on June 14, 2007. Olds' ashes were interred at the US Air Force Academy.
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