I have an entire collection of biographies and memoirs so I am no stranger to the genre. But it is rare, extremely rare, for me to be moved by one of these works. Inspired often, motivated sometimes, but rarely moved. Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Fighter Ace Robin Olds is a story that moved me. I finished the book in the wee hours last night and I felt like I couldn’t get to my computer fast enough today to write about it.
Before I go further though, I need to admit a certain bias – for me, like many of us who flew fighters in the USAF, Robin Olds holds a god-like status. A triple ace with victories in World War II and Vietnam, Olds is regarded not only as a superb fighter pilot, but also as a superlative leader. As the commander of the 8th Fighter Wing, “The Wolfpack,” during the Vietnam War, Olds is widely considered the best wing commander in that conflict. As a commander who led from the front, Olds helped to develop the tactics for and then led the aircraft of Operation Bolo, a day of air-to-air missions where Olds’ F-4s masqueraded as bomb-laden F-105s and lured several North Vietnamese MiG-21s into the air. At the end of the day, 7 MiGs were shot down with no friendly losses. The tactics and leadership acumen Olds displayed in Operation Bolo have yet to see their equal in any modern air operation and are still discussed with respect and awe by modern-day fighter pilots. When I arrived as a freshman or “doolie” at the USAF Academy in the summer of 1978, Olds’ tenure as Commandant of Cadets still resonated with the Cadet Wing even though he had left the Academy in early 1971. When I served in the 8th Fighter Wing, flying the F-16 at Kunsan AB, ROK in 1994-1995, the pride that Olds had instilled in the wing nearly thirty years before still resonated as well. He is truly one of the giants of the USAF. People forget the names of USAF Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of USAF Major Commands and Numbered Air Forces. But no one forgets Robin Olds.
Olds’ memoirs are superbly written and extremely readable. Told from a first person perspective in a manner that is filled with Olds’ personality, the book is damn hard to put down. The story of how the book was written is nearly as engaging as the story itself. Ed Rasimus, a retired F-4 and F-105 driver and award-winning author, pleaded with Olds to help write his memoirs while Robin was still alive but Olds was somewhat defiant, insisting that “no one will put words in my mouth.” While Olds was in his final months, he and his daughter Christina went through his records and files and Christina listened to her father narrate the record of his life. After his passing, Christina arranged her records in chronological order, spoke with some of Olds’ contemporaries to fill in the gaps and flesh out the narrative and then began writing. After she completed each chapter, she passed it to Ed Rasimus and Ed would reword, rephrase, verify, add technical detail and make the language more masculine. I should mention here that Rasimus certainly knows from whence he speaks. He flew 250 combat missions over Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star. The result of Christina Olds’ and Ed Rasimus’ diligent work is a wonderfully told tale of a truly impressive life.
If there is ONE book you read on Fighter Pilots/Fighter Pilot history – this should be it.