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Fighter Pilot: the memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds — book review

11 July 2011

Fighter Pilot: the memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds — book review

Fighter Pilot: the memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds, Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, 2010, ISBN 978-0-312-56023-2, 400 pp.

Fighter Pilot: the memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds by Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, jacket by Rob Grom

Fighter Pilot: the memoirs of legendary ace Robin Olds by Robin Olds with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, jacket by Rob Grom

All people are swept along in history.

A few witness it.

Even fewer make it.

Robin Olds lived a life marked by all three of the above. He had a full life with both good and bad experiences and decisions — leaving a legacy worth keeping for its lessons and its accomplishments. This book is his book, in his own words. Completed by the assisting authors (one, Christina Olds, his eldest daughter) since Robin Olds passed away in the final drafting stages, it offers an insight that is both rare and clear.

Naturally, a book written about a person’s life by that person may have bias in-built. Indeed, a few recently published books go beyond, and further beyond legacy building to legacy invention.

But not this book.

No, this book is a rarity and takes us from flying P-38 Lightnings in WW II to F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War and from leading missions to being buried in a Pentagon sub-basement. It is thoroughly indexed and factually on target with Olds going beyond the simple events and occurrences. Olds gives insight into decisions and tells us more than most history has recorded explaining both the positive and negative aspects of historical figures but not in any muck raking fashion, simply with the understanding that all persons have feet made of clay.

Robin Olds was a military man and so conducts himself accordingly by placing the good with the bad, the intelligent decisions next to the just plain good luck decisions, with equanimity and having the cards fall where they may. The writing is energetic, marked with verve and élan — unsurprising since he was an archetypical fighter pilot. We learn of his combat as well as combat training — ones that protected those in his charge but definitively brought the fight to the enemy. We learn that he was born into America’s military aviation history with his father, a Billy Mitchell advocate, often bringing Carl Spaatz and Eddie Rickenbacker to the house. We learn about a long and later turbulent marriage with Hollywood star Ella Raines which brought two daughters into this world as well as two tragic deaths of sons.

His remarkable feat that stopped MiGs from flying against our aircraft in the Vietnam War (Operation Bolo) for several weeks is described but not elaborated upon or bragged about — just the planning, the facts and the feelings experienced. This is a wonderful characteristic of the author’s writing — the energy of each moment is palpable but not too many words are used, less the energy and the moment be lost.

Another famous mission is described — the strike against the steel mills of Thai Nguyen in March 1967 — but the egress has not been, until this book, with its harrowing description of the escape. He was not above the playing of pranks and considered them an expression of energy, zeal and initiative — it is what fighter pilots exhibit. There are the intentional ones like the “MiG Sweep” and an impromptu air demo with F-101 Voodoos — and he enjoyed unintentional ones like when an F-105 Thunderchief was flown low and supersonic blowing out windows, as well as sending cadets asunder, at a U.S. Air Force academy ceremony (he was not part of that one, though).

Unlike many fighter pilots, he also had appreciation of the courage of bomber as well as recce pilots and this point makes for a segue into his awareness of history. His description of the 6 June 1944 Normandy (D-Day) invasion fleet is moving due to his attunement with history.

Olds took on many battles, both inside and outside of the U.S. Air Force. His insight led to development of better fighter tactics more than once or twice — incredibly the USAF seemed to require re-education on more than one occasion as it became target fixated on nuclear defense and retaliation. Olds foretold the coming of small wars using conventional weapons as well as the USAF’s utter unpreparedness for such combat. He also made a command decision to stop using the Hughes AIM-4 Falcon missile for fighter combat during Vietnam without going through the chain of command, as it was useless in a dynamic fight. This story is a model of excellent leadership; as much as an example of Pentagon war time decisions made with disregard to the impact made to the war fighters or strategic conduct of the war. Olds simply pulls no punches with regard to bravery or foolishness in this memoir. He must have been a great one to converse with over a coffee or more likely a beer or cocktail.

This book is not only a need to read and study with regard to aviation history interests but also one for those who want to improve management and leadership. Olds describes well the constant drag a bureaucracy places upon those who wish to be effective and how it can be overcome, at times, with leadership. His leadership tenets are far better than the material in the books so full of pseudo-psycho babble on the market today.  The nearly three dozen photos are all excellent and help to tell the tale of this unique man, the fighter pilot known as Robin Olds.

If one needs to understand the initiative fighter pilots must have to fly alone over hostile territory then the last few paragraphs of this book will give you an insight like no other insight can.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. shortfinals permalink
    11 July 2011 12:29

    One of the great fighter leaders of WW2, ranking right up there with Quesada, Galland and Tuck. If you flew a P-38 on D-Day, you got ‘the best seat in the house’ when it came to observing the Operation Neptune invasion fleet. Why? Because Allied air chiefs had decided that to reduce ‘blue on blue’ casualties due to really bad aircraft identification by the shipboard gunners, the job of close air cover to the 5,000 plus vessels had better go to an aircraft with a unique shape!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      11 July 2011 21:35

      Right you are. Olds mentioned that exact reasoning for using P-38s as close escort for the D-Day invasion fleet –the Lightning’s profile was like no other aircraft in the war. Though he reports that he was still shot at by some of those ships!

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