Robin Olds inspects his F-4 before a mission
The brilliantly executed ‘Operation Bolo’ is widely regarded as the most successful air battle of the war in Vietnam. However, was this the plan of a reckless opportunist or was it the result of strong leadership and tactical foresight? Who was the mastermind behind this operation?
Robin Olds was born on 14 July 1922 in Honolulu, Hawaii, and grew up in Virginia in the USA. Being the son of Brigadier General Robert Olds, a seasoned combat pilot of the US Army Air Corps, meant that Robin was familiar with stories of combat and courage from a very young age. As a young man, he excelled at playing American Football, but he was much more determined to become a combat pilot. After graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point, Olds completed his flying training in 1943.
World War II was in full swing when Robin Olds arrived in England in 1944. As a young P-38 Lightning pilot, Olds shot down two FW-190s and three Me-109s during his first two sorties, immediately earning him the title of ‘ace’. Nine months later, he was promoted to Major and given command of a Mustang squadron. Interestingly, Olds named all his aircraft ‘Scat’, throughout his service career. The first ‘Scat’ was his first P-38, whilst his first Mustang, which also happened to be his fifth aircraft, was named ‘Scat V’. Little did he know that the name ‘Scat’ would later appear on F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam. Robin Olds showed tremendous leadership qualities and proved to be an excellent pilot, illustrated by the thirteen air-to-air kills he accumulated during his tour.
After World War II, Olds became a member of the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) first jet aerobatic team. He also gained valuable experience in flying various aircraft types, such as F-86s, P-80s, Gloster Meteors and F-101 Voodoos, in squadrons of the USAF and Royal Air Force. Olds didn’t fight in the Korean War, because he was given the responsibility of commanding a squadron, and eventually two wings, in Europe.
Robin Olds’ views of combat readiness often differed from those of his superiors, making him rather unpopular at times. He insisted that pilots had to be trained in conducting conventional warfare and that they had to be taught the art of dogfighting. The general belief at the time was that nuclear weapons would deter conventional wars and that air-to-air missiles would render dogfighting skills obsolete. Heavy American losses during the initial years of the Vietnam War proved that Robin Olds was right all along.
In 1966, the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, known as the ‘Wolfpack’, gained the leadership of Colonel Robin Olds. By then, he had a reputation of being a maverick, but he soon gained the respect of those who served under his command. He always participated in the toughest and most dangerous missions and inspired his men to the extent that they would follow him into any given situation, regardless of the risks involved.
Colonel Olds noticed that F-4 Phantoms and F105 Thunderchiefs (or ‘Thuds’, as they were called in Vietnam) were flying at predictable speeds and altitudes whilst approaching their target areas. North Vietnamese intelligence analysts would listen in on USAF radio transmissions and were able to recognise and distinguish F-105 and F-4 call signs and flight patterns. MiG-21s would then be scrambled to attack the more vulnerable, bomb-laden Thuds, whilst avoiding the Phantoms that were performing air patrol missions. Generally, North Vietnamese pilots employed ‘hit and run’ tactics – striking quickly from high altitudes and then fleeing from the area at high speeds. This seemingly cowardly tactic proved to be quite effective, and made it very difficult for USAF fighters to shoot down these MiGs.
That is when Olds started planning Operation Bolo. Flights of F-4 phantoms (a flight consisted of 4 phantoms) equipped with F-105 electronic countermeasure pods, would mimic Thud flight patterns. As soon as the MiG interceptors came within range, the Phantoms would surprise them, and shoot them down. On 2 January 1967, the day Operation Bolo was executed, Robin Olds commanded an armada consisting of fourteen flights of F-4s (each armed with eight air-to-air missiles), six flights of F-105s (to suppress enemy air defence systems) and four flights of F-104 Starfighters. Several electronic warfare aircraft were also involved in the operation, whilst search and rescue teams remained on standby. The initial force flew past a large, SAM (Surface to Air Missile) base defended by MiGs, near Hanoi and successfully lured the MiG-21s into the aerial ambush. Ultimately, many of these MiGs were able to escape, once they had overcome the shock of facing powerful Phantoms, rather than the usual gaggle of lumbering Thuds. Nevertheless, Operation Bolo was a tremendous success. The Wolfpack had scored no less than seven MiG-21 kills, without the loss of a single USAF aircraft. Seven kills in one mission is a remarkable achievement for a post World War II engagement. It has to be said though, that the F-4C Phantoms did not have internal cannons and were armed only with notoriously unreliable air-to-air missiles. If the Phantoms had been armed with internal cannons, such as later variants, the kill tally would no doubt have been considerably higher. All the same, Operation Bolo is still regarded as one of the most successful air combat operations in aviation history, with Robin Olds himself shooting down a MiG during the operation.
Operation Bolo was a massive psychological victory, resulting in the USAF gaining air superiority that lasted for quite some time. MiGs were seen less often and USAF bombers and strike aircraft were able to operate more efficiently over North Vietnam. Looking at the big picture, one can see what an incredible achievement this operation was for the maverick mastermind, Robin Olds. It wasn’t just the planning and execution of this one mission that qualified him as a legend. Nor was it his illegal moustache, which was supposed to illustrate his individuality. Robin Olds became a legend because of his courage, foresight, tactical insight and excellent flying skills. More importantly, he recognised the fundamental importance of teamwork and took care of those who served under his command. His Wolfpack pilots were inspired by their flamboyant leader and scored more kills than other USAF squadrons during 1967. At the end of his career in the Vietnam War, Robin Olds had shot down four enemy fighters, one kill short of earning himself the title of ‘double ace’. (i.e. five kills in two separate conflicts)
Return to the USA
Upon his return to the USA, Olds was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and became the Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Later on, he served as the Director of Aerospace Safety in the Air Force Inspection and Safety Centre.
Earlier this year, on June 14, Robin Olds died at the age of 84. He was buried at the U.S. Air Force Academy cemetery where four F-4 Phantoms performed a missing man formation fly-past. According to the U.S. Air Force News Agency, Robin Olds’ awards included numerous medals and decorations, such as the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, British Distinguished Flying Cross, French Croix de Guerre, and at least four more medals of honour that he had earned during the Vietnam War. In a nutshell, Robin Olds was an ace in World War II, an icon in Vietnam and is a legend today.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine - www.africanpilot.co.za
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