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Badass: Robin Olds

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One of the most kickass and rewarding parts of writing a web page about violence and destruction and explosions and semi-historical dick jokes about the Roman Empire is when I get email from active-duty service members telling me how much they're digging the site.  Sure, I'm not exactly performing life-saving brain surgery on underprivileged third-world orphans or improving the quality of human life by brewing endless shots of life-saving espresso at the local Starbucks, but nothing makes me feel quite as awesome as receiving email from badass fighter pilots telling me that they pin my stories on their squadron boards or that their air tactical wing has "Badass Wednesdays" where the C.O. reads stories out loud to his units to pump them up. 

One thing that sticks out to me, however, is this – in roughly every email I have ever received from airmen and pilots of the United States Air Force, one name appears front and center in gigantic italicized red text:  Colonel Robin Olds.  A three-time ace across two wars so balls-out that his moustache has its own chapter on his Wikipedia page, Robin Olds was an old-school blood-and-guts fighter pilot who pulled more Gs on his way to the bathroom than most mortal men ever dared to experience in their entire lives, and he could dogfight his way out of everything from a swirling flak-covered World War II air battle to the virtually-impossible final level of Ikaruga, then go home and sleep with his supermodel pin-up girl wife.  This was a charismatic, hardcore air warrior who knew the importance of keeping his interviews short, his inverted barrel rolls tight, and his machine gun bursts controlled, accurate, and as fatal as a mouthful of napalm.

Born in Honolulu and raised in Virginia, Robin Olds was the son of a well-known American General who had trained combat pilots to blast the hell out of German Fokkers in the skies above the battlefields of World War I, so basically you might say that he never really had a prayer of being anything other than a hardcore dogfighting maniac.  He flew in his first plane – a badass open-cockpit WWI-style biplane – at the age of 8, and by the time he was 17 he was already running across the border to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight the Germans during the earliest days of World War II.  Dad pulled some strings and got Robin's RAF paperwork ripped up, because seriously what the hell, so instead of shipping to England in 1939 Robin Olds enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point and became an All-American Defensive Tackle for their then-still-wildly-successful football team.  Never one to half-ass anything in his life, Olds earned a reputation for being virtually indescribable during the 1940 Army-Navy Game, when he got several teeth busted out of his head while trying to make a tackle, refused to be taken out of the game, and played the entire second half spewing blood out of his mouth like a jacked-up cross between Jack Lambert and one of the zombies from The Walking Dead.    

Well steamrolling running backs and busting out hilarious sack dances overtop of de-cleated opposing QBs was great and all, but even though Olds played well enough to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (an honor he received in 1985), his true passion in life at this time was blowing up Nazis aircraft and sending their pilots hurtling back towards the Vaterland like flaming meteors.  So after he was done with West Point Olds shipped out to England, got familiar with the cockpit of the badass P-38 Lightning fighter plane, and started flying missions over occupied Europe to help support the D-Day operations in Normandy.   

Fact: The P-38 is one of the sweetest-looking fighter planes ever.

Olds scored his first kill on August 14, 1944, when he turned a Focke-Wulf 190 into a fiery German-filled inferno, but it was on a particularly balls-out mission 11 days later that Captain Robin Olds truly made a name for himself as a man that needed to have a special flight suit constructed just to contain his ridiculously-oversized steel testicles.  On that particular mission, Olds's squadron was assigned to escort a flight of B-17s on a bombing run deep inside Germany when suddenly his fighter group came upon a massive formation of over 50 ultra-hardcore German Me-109 fighter aircraft.  Undeterred by staring his own bloody, gruesome death straight in the face, Olds ordered his four-plane element to advance on the German formation, despite the notable problem that he was outnumbered roughly 15-to-1 and .  When the Three and Four man in his formation reported in with "engine trouble" and couldn't get up enough speed to engage the enemy, Robin Olds naturally looked over at his wingman and said, "Ok, you take the 25 on the left, I'll take the 25 on the right."  He throttled up to combat speed, dropped fuel tanks, and prepared to charge head-first into an aerial engagement that would make the Battle of Endor look like a couple of Hello Kitty kites harmlessly bumping into each other on a sunny day in the park. 

Unfortunately, when he dropped his fuel tanks, Robin Olds got a little too excited about the killing and forgot to switch over to internal fuel.   Both engines stalled and died.

He pulled the trigger anyways.

The P-38's quad-linked .50 cals and 20mm cannon barked fire like the Queen of Hell, shredding the fuselage of the lead Me-109 and sending it hurtling into a death spiral. 

Olds credits himself as being the only man to ever record a confirmed kill while in glide mode.

 

"I know it sounds ridiculous for two guys to attack that many airplanes, but I ask anybody who's listening, put yourself in one of those German airplanes.  One of your people screams that he's been hit, he's bailing out.  Every man in that huge gaggle was wondering if there was someone right behind them."

The two P-38s accelerated, diving into the 50-plane formation, firing in every direction like wildmen.  Olds's wingman capped two more aircraft while Olds got his engines back on-line and dove down at the enemy.  However, during the fight, Olds took one dive a little too steep, his controls locked up on him, and he only narrowly avoided crashing nose-first into a wheat field by cranking a hard-ass turn so ridiculously-dangerous that the G-force of the turn shattered the cockpit window out of his aircraft.  This lack of a windshield of course didn't stop him from shooting down another Me-109 – some asshole dove down to finish Olds off, but he banked left hard, slammed on the air brakes, let the German shoot past him, then rammed a 20mm cannon round up his tailpipe.  This would be his fifth kill of the war, making Captain Olds the first fighter ace from his squadron.

He'd fly dozens more missions in P-38s and P-51, spending the later years of the war shooting down Me-109s, taking his propeller plane up against Me-262 jet fighters, and performing dangerous strafing runs on German airfields.  He'd finish the war with 12 air-to-air kills, making him a two-time fighter ace, and an additional 11.5 fighters destroyed on the ground.

Despite his unquestioned badassitude as a combat pilot, a series of mustache-related problems with authority and repeated insubordination kept Olds's jackass superiors from sending him out to blow the shit out of Commies in the Korean War, so when his numerous requests to transfer to combat duty were denied Robin Olds joined the air demonstration team, serving as a stunt pilot to help promote the USAF, and went on a joint NATO mission that resulted in him becoming the first foreigner to ever command an RAF unit in peacetime.

He also went out and married Ella Raines, the famous pin-up girl and Hollywood actress who used to co-star in movies with guys like John Wayne.

 

Finally, 23 years after kicking ass in World War II, Robin Olds got to return to combat duty, this time in the skies above the canopy jungle of North Vietnam.  As one of the only USAF pilots with live-fire dogfighting experience, Colonel Olds was assigned to command the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.  He instantly became beloved by his men, not only because he taught them badass shit like how to shove missiles down the throats of Commie bastards, but by assigning flight leaders by skill rather than rank.  In fact, despite being the Commanding Officer of the entire Wing, Olds himself wore a rankless flight suit and routinely flew as the Number Two man and allowed a subordinate officer to command the mission.

Well at the time Robin showed up, the USAF had a bit of a problem.  They'd been sending F-105s and other heavy fighter-bombers into North Vietnam to blow up the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but those suckers were getting eaten alive by hardcore, ultra-fast Soviet-built MiG-21 fighters that routinely popped up from the cloud cover, smoked the American planes with well-placed air-to-air missiles, then ducked back below the clouds before anybody knew what the hell just ballknocked them.  If the Americans were going to stop taking heavy losses to Vietnamese fighters, they needed to do something about it.

And Colonel Olds had a plan.

 

Olds's plan was known as Operation Bolo, named after a badass Filipino fighting knife.  The idea was simple – you take a team of F-4 Phantom jet fighters, have them fly in the same formation and the same speed as the slower, less-maneuverable F-105s, and try to trick the MiGs into picking on someone their own size.  Olds set up his men with the same radio frequencies and callsigns, flew the same bombing run the F-105s were running, and basically tried to walk straight-on into a Vietnamese ambush in the hopes that he might somehow survive and take a couple of the enemy with him.

What resulted was the biggest air battle of the Vietnam War.

On January 2, 1967, Olds and three other F-4s made their fake run, and were greeted by a swarm of MiG-21s flying up out of the clouds after them, missiles armed and locked.  With the enemy trying desperately to get a lock on him, Olds climbed and banked hard, buying his wingman  time to drop behind the MiGs and open fire with air-to-air sidewinder missiles.  Suddenly aware that they were facing fighters instead of bombers, the Vietnamese scrambled more MiGs from the airfield, and they dove into the fray just as the second element of Olds's ambush arrived on the scene and throttled headlong into the raging battlefield. 

 

So in the skies just outside Hanoi, North Vietnam, dozens of MiG-21s and F-4s dove in and out of the clouds, with the world's two most advanced fighter jets ripping missiles and cannons at each other in a furious frenzy of air-to-air combat.  During the carnage Robin Olds personally took out one of the enemy by executing a ridiculously-tough loop-de-loop vector roll, pulling crazy Gs, dropping in right behind the enemy bandit and blowing him out of the sky with a Sidewinder missile.  With surface-to-air missiles the size of telephone poles rocketing up through the cloud cover at him, Olds banked and dove through the fray, wasting everything in sight as the Americans took advantage of their surprise and cut a trail of explosions through the NVA Air Force.  In just thirteen minutes of combat, seven MiGs were killed – roughly half of North Vietnam's MiG-21 fleet – and the Americans hauled back to their base in Thailand with zero casualties.   For his actions in the skies, and his planning of the mission, Olds received his third Silver Star.  He'd go on to fly 100 combat missions in 'Nam, recording three more MiG kills in the process, bringing his career total to 17.

After the war, this three-time ace served with the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon, telling them to drop the nuclear strategic bombing thing and adapt the surgical strike air superiority strategy the U.S. employs today, then served as Commandant of the Air Force Academy for four years.  He retired in 1973, continued to be active in Air Force operations, and passed away in 2007.

 

Ben Thompson is the writer and creator of badassoftheweek.com and author of the books Badass, Badass: Birth of a Legend, and Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Penthouse, and The American Mustache Institute, and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with one quarter.

Links:

NY Times Obit

US Air Force Bio

USAF Academy Bio

Air Force Magazine

About.com

Wikipedia