Review: Fighter Pilot, Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds

Robin Olds
St Martin’s Press, 2010

Robin Olds is a legend in the fighter pilot community, though he may not be recognized outside of it.  Many people may remember, for example, the famous Operation BOLO during Vietnam, which used F-4s to impersonate F-105s and succeeded in destroying a third of the North Vietnamese MiG-21s in a single mission – but few know then-Col Robin Olds was responsible for it.  Fighter Pilot is his story, and it is explicitly delivered as a memoir, rather than an autobiography.  Thus, it is not a detailed birth-to-death retelling of his life, but a first-hand recounting of the things he wishes to convey.  (The book was completed after his 2007 death by his daughter, Christina Olds, and Ed Rasimus, himself a retired fighter pilot.)

The book starts off somewhat slowly, almost as if (despite its status as a “memoir”), Olds (or his co-authors) felt obligated to include some stories from the early parts of his life.  He mentions his early pilot training days and a few significant events briefly, but provides little detail or introspective.  For example, he casually mentions, without further insight, that he attended the Air Corps Tactical School, which would ultimately form the basis for all air doctrine in the Army Air Forces and eventually the independent Air Force.  He also covers his entire training, from his early wartime graduation from West Point through becoming a pilot, in a scant 20 pages.  Some of the lack of detail may be for a very understandable cause: he simply didn’t remember much from those early days.  Another may be more pragmatic: Olds is known for his time in Vietnam, not pilot training.

Unlike some other fighter pilot books, Olds often seems less concerned with intricate details of his dogfighting exploits and more cognizant of strategic matters.  He flew over the beaches of Normandy during the invasion on D-Day, for example, but rather than bemoaning his lack of “action,” he writes a fascinating perspective of the beaches from above.  Much of his discussions on Vietnam deal with how the war was being strategically run, not always his own individual contributions to the tactical effort.  In that respect, Olds’ book sometimes reads more like a well-informed history than a personal story.  In another respect, it may reflect what Olds found important.  For example, he is well-known for shooting down four MiGs in Vietnam (one short of “ace” status); his office chair at the Air Force Academy even had four stars painted on it by cadets.  It seems he is less well-known for shooting down 16 total aircraft (making him a triple-ace) when including his time in World War II.

The book gives the impression that Olds was the definitive fighter pilot, and that many fighter pilot traditions spawn directly from his own conduct and life story.  Some of those claims are likely true, while others may simply be the function of fighter pilot bravado.  Either way, they are an excellent metanarrative on the fighter pilot culture.

The book is a veritable trove of understanding of what it means to be a fighter pilot, at least in the traditional and stereotypical way.  Many fighter pilot ‘urban legends’ originated with Olds (or at least associations with him).  He certainly lived the life:  The morning he was supposed to ship out to England he woke up with his furniture broken and his leg through a wall – and couldn’t remember how he got there.  It was an experience he would seemingly repeat many times throughout his life, without any apparent remorse.  By his account, he intentionally flew an illegal airshow so he would lose his promotion to General and be sent to war.  (It worked.)  The Wall Street Journal, in reviewing this book in April, said this in confirming Olds’ status as a ‘true’ fighter pilot:

Robin Olds’s marriage to actress Ella Raines…was always rocky.  They both drank too much, and by his own account he wasn’t the most faithful of husbands.  Such waywardness is fairly standard for the profession.  The fighter pilot’s job is to shoot planes out of the sky — with human beings inside them.  Doing such work, at the risk of his own life, leaves him drenched with sweat and pumped with adrenaline, which he may exorcise with alcohol and high jinks on a scale that would leave a fraternity boy in awe.

Nothing excuses poor judgment, even being a fighter pilot.  From its inception in the early 20th century, the machismo and stereotype of the fighter pilot lives on, however, as this journalist demonstrates in 2010.

Olds was probably best admired for his “common man” approach to leadership, which is conveyed in his book.  He visited every person in his wing, and reportedly knew every person by name.  He flew high risk missions that others of his rank would not (also known as “leading from the front”).  His brash moustache in Vietnam was grossly out of military protocol but was an inspiration to his admirers (and is traditionally thought to be the inspiration, if not the source, of the fighter pilot traditions of Mustache March and the deployed mustache).  He was politically incorrect and ignored the rules when it made sense to do so.  In just one example, he admits violating Air Force regulations by modifying his wing’s aircraft to carry AIM-9 Sidewinders, instead of the horrificly unreliable AIM-4 Falcons, which ensured his pilots had the ability to accomplish their missions (and come home alive).  (His “unethical” decisions to protect his men and accomplish the mission would make for an interesting discussion for morality in leadership.)

When others wanted aviators court-martialed for their actions, Olds recommended them for Silver Stars.  His no-holds-barred criticism of the conduct of the Vietnam war – even while he was still in the Air Force – made him a hero among the common man, particularly since he brought with him the credibility of a man who had demonstrated an ability to get the job done.  Olds’ unique take on the rules was emulated during the flyover of his funeral.  In a nod to the departure of a great tactical leader, during the missing man formation, #1 (the lead aircraft) pulled to the sky, rather than the traditional pull of #3 (a wingman) .

Even the cover of the book seems to convey Olds’ perspective on his life:  The cover eschews rank and position for only Olds’ name and profession: Fighter Pilot.

In case it bears mentioning, Olds’ life story should not necessarily be taken as a model to emulate.  He is rarely self-critical, and conveys stories in which he is best characterized as a womanizer, a drunk (even into retirement), intentionally profane, and wantonly self-centered.  On occasion he confesses his conduct may not have been ideal, but he rarely, if ever, approaches repentance.  Quite the opposite, he is unapologetically a fighter pilot at heart.  He “warned” his first wife of this, and he admits that his devotion to the military life exceeded that to his marriage, and it was ultimately the cause of its demise (despite lasting 30 years).  After initially finding rest in retirement, he soon became a popular speaker, a career that enabled him to reconnect with old friends and relive his glory days – which, by his own admission, caused the end of his second marriage. 

There is no indication Olds had any time or quarter for any form of religion.  Aside from a wide variety of profane language, scant references to faith include making sure a Catholic Chaplain went home from Vietnam the long way around the globe (retribution for a poor report), and mocking pre-mission prayers by a Chaplain at a B-52 unit.  For a man who killed and had many try to kill him, it appears he thought little of the afterlife, except perhaps a wistful glance to the fighter pilot bar in the sky.

No man is without flaws and, as noted above, Olds was in many ways an admired and respected leader in the Air Force.  Unfortunately, that noble leadership did not necessarily translate to his personal character.  In balancing these shortcomings of character with his leadership virtues, however, it is interesting to note that BrigGen (ret) Robin Olds was chosen as the “class exemplar” for the US Air Force Academy Class of 2011 — this year’s firsties.  (Olds died 14 June 2007, the same month the class of 2011 entered basic training at USAFA.)

It is certainly not a book one should use to figure out “how to be a fighter pilot,” at least not in every sense, nor does it necessarily paint a positive picture of faith in the fighter pilot world.  Still, it is a well-written and telling story of one of the world’s most famous fighter pilots.  Olds’ legend has had an immeasurable impact on the US Air Force’s fighter pilot culture, even beyond his death.  For a Christian, an understanding of that culture can provide a level of expectation and preparation for integrating faith and profession.

 RecommendedFighter Pilot by Robin Olds is highly recommended for any future fighter pilot or those with an interest in the fighter pilot culture.  While it is certainly not a book about faith in the fighter pilot profession, it provides an excellent overview of the fighter pilot worldview, and gives a picture of the culture future fighter pilots will experience.

This book is available at Amazon.