Robin Olds, 84; WWII ace downed MIGs in biggest jet battle of Vietnam War

Times Staff Writer

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, a World War II ace fighter pilot who later commanded an Air Force wing that shot down seven Communist MIGs over North Vietnam in the biggest air battle of the Vietnam War, has died. He was 84.

Olds, a former commandant of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, died of congestive heart failure Thursday at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., according to the Air Force.

Olds was the 44-year-old commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Thailand, when he worked out the details and executed the mission known as Operation Bolo.

In supersonic dogfights over the Red River Delta northwest of Hanoi in January 1967, Olds and his fellow F-4C Phantom pilots shot down seven MIGs without losing an aircraft; Olds personally downed two of the MIGs.


“We outflew, outshot and outfought them,” the Associated Press reported Olds as saying afterward. The fights “lasted no more than 12 to 14 minutes but covered at least 30 miles of that sky,” he said.

Olds, who described the enemy pilots as “very aggressive,” said the first MIG he spotted was “coming right up behind me.”

“I turned to keep him from having a clear shot at me, and as I did I saw two MIGs in front of me. I expended one or two missiles -- maybe more -- at one of them, but he disappeared in clouds below us. Then I sighted another MIG and pulled up over him. I waited until he was right where I wanted him and fell in behind him.”

Olds fired another missile, according to the AP account, and there was a puff of orange smoke as it hit the MIG.

“A complete wing fell off, and the plane fell straight toward the earth,” Olds said. “The happiest part was that they had chosen to tangle with us. That is what we wanted.”

The air battle, the Associated Press reported at the time, “severely dented North Vietnam’s air power.” The battle was recently documented on a History Channel series.

Olds, who flew 152 combat missions during the Vietnam War, later shot down two more MIGs. In 1968, he received the Air Force Cross for his heroism in the destruction of the Doumer Bridge near Hanoi in August 1967.

The son of an Army major general, Olds was born in Honolulu on July 14, 1922, and later lived in the Hampton, Va., area. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was an All-American tackle on the football team, and graduated as a second lieutenant in 1943.


Assigned to the European Theater in 1944, he flew 107 combat missions in the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang and, according to the Air Force, shot down 12 enemy aircraft.

After the war, he was assigned to the first P-80 jet squadron, was a member of the first jet Aerial Acrobatic Demonstration Team and participated in the first dawn-to-dusk transcontinental round-trip flight.

In 1967, Olds was named commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy. In 1971, he became director of aerospace safety in the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. He retired two years later.

Olds was married to movie actress Ella Raines -- they divorced in 1975 -- and to Morgan Olds. He is survived by daughters Christina Olds and Susan Scott-Risner; a granddaughter; and a half brother, Fred Olds.