Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book: Fighter Pilot -- January 23, 2011

Robin Olds was the son of Robert Olds, a World War I aviation instructor and squadron leader, who went on to become one of Billy Mitchell's Boys and he developed the original operating procedures for the B-17. Robert Olds and his friends who visited the house to sing, Hap Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker and others, all had a major influence on young Robin.

Robin went to West Point and joined one of the classes which passed through in an accelerated fashion because of World War II. He went on to fly P-38s, then transitioned to P-51s. He became an ace during the war.

After the war, he became one of the early pilots of the P-80 Shooting Star. I was interested by his comments about how the Army Air Force seemed to have no idea how to use it tactically, and how he tried to get his superiors to think about that. He received an exchange posting with the RAF and flew Gloster Meteors. He was impressed by the way the RAF used radar and ground controllers to fly in all kinds of weather, another thing that the Army Air Force did not do much.

He married actress Ella Raines. I thought a photo of her would be more interesting than the cover of the book. (update 24-January-2011: I should mention that the cover of the book is actually a good one -- a photo of Olds being carried on the shoulders of his men after his last combat mission in Vietnam. He said he was trying not to cry.) Olds spent many pages in the book talking about the dynamics of their relationship, through good times and many bad times. This is not common in military autobiographies. Olds learned twenty years after the fact that his wife had pulled strings in Washington to prevent his being sent to the Korean War.

I thought the most interesting part of the book was the section on Olds' service during the Vietnam War. He found the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in great disarray and applied many lessons he had learned over the years to make them a cohesive unit, and to raise the morale of the groups with which they had to cooperate. One thing Olds did was to fly his F-4 Phantom on a regular basis. He revived the fighter sweep to reverse losses to North Vietnamese MIGs.

After his return, he made many politically bad but truthful statements to President Johnson, the Air Force Chief of Staff, and the press. Somehow he wound up serving a year as Commandant of the Air Force Academy, where he again had to deal with poor morale.

The final part of his book, after his retirement, gets poetic about flying.

I enjoyed reading the book and I am happy that General Olds' friends and families harassed him to work on it, and I am happy that his daughter Christina and his friend Ed Rasimus were able to assemble it from his unfinished writings.

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