A decorated Steamboat Springs veteran will soon join the likes of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong and Charles Lindbergh in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Retired Brigadier Gen. Robin Olds, a World War II ace and legendary pilot in the Vietnam War, will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame on July 21 at the site of the hall in Dayton, Ohio.
"It's quite unexpected," said Olds, as he sat below the dozen or more medals hanging on the wall of his Steamboat home. "I feel it's quite an honor. My name will be among some pretty wonderful Americans. It's humbling to know I'll be there."
To get an idea of the honor, "Dayton is to aviation, what Cooperstown is to baseball," said Ron Kaplan, deputy director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Kaplan has seen many heroes enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but even he is impressed with Olds' history.
Born to a World War I pilot, flying was in Olds' blood.
Olds graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. in just three years.
At 23, he became a major in what was then the Army Air Corps. He flew 107 combat missions in World War II and shot down 13 German planes. He destroyed another 11 1/2 on the ground.
"He had a stellar career at West Point, and went on to become a WW II ace in two different fighter aircraft, which is an achievement in itself,"
Ace status is achieved when a pilot shoots down five or more planes. Olds accomplished this feat flying P-38Js and then again in P-51 Mustangs. His planes were nicknamed Scat after Olds' West Point roommate who couldn't fly because of bad eyesight.
"I told him I'd take him with me on every mission," Olds said. "I used up six airplanes in WWII."
Pointing to a photo of planes flying over a small English village, Olds told the story of how his squadron provided support for the D-Day Invasion.
"Those aircraft are taking off after dawn, down to the Normandy coast to relieve our squadron," Olds said.
Olds remembered there were arguments at headquarters as squadron leaders cursed and fought over who would get to escort the invasion.
"Needless to say, I was very persuasive," he said. "My squadron and two others covered the beaches. If you can imagine seeing a steady stream of 5,000 ships...
"Our job was in case the Luftwaffe showed up. To our disappointment they never did."
After World War II, Olds became the first American to command a squadron of jets in the Royal Air Force in England.
When Korea came around, his repeated requests to see combat were denied.
"I put my name on every list," he said.
At the time, Olds' wife was an actress and was performing in a series for television. Olds thinks that had something to do with his inability to fly in Korea.
"The backers of her TV show didn't want her away. Her producers asked the Pentagon to put me on a do-not-send list," Olds said.
Instead, Olds began pushing the military to use fighter planes for precision bombing of strategic targets. Traditionalists who continued to support raids of large bombers flown in formation dismissed the strategy.
But Olds saw first-hand the "hell and flak" big bombers went through in WWII while trying to hit their targets.
"They could hit a big city, but very few would hit a rail yard or factory," Olds said.
"I could have taken a fighter force to do the same job," he said, explaining that fighter jets could maneuver more easily through defense forces, destroy targets and suffer fewer losses.
"My idea was thought of as ridiculous at the time, but that's how we do it now," he said.
"It was a lesson bitterly learned in Korea with the B-29. They got mauled and shot up."
Olds is credited with helping to establish the first jet aerobatics team, a prelude to such groups as the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy's Blue Angels.
It was Olds' aerobatics that landed him in hot water and led to his being sent to fight in Vietnam, which is how he preferred it.
Olds learned he was going to be made a general in 1965. Olds said he wasn't interested in the promotion, knowing it would land him behind a desk and ruin his chances of seeing combat.
"I was a colonel. I didn't want to be a damn general. Generals don't fight," he said.
So, Olds said he "pulled a trick that made my boss in Europe very unhappy." Olds took a few of his jets and put on an "acrobatic demonstration." The problem was, Olds didn't inform his boss. The stunt got him what he wanted a tour in Vietnam, he said. Kaplan said the presence of Olds and other veteran combat pilots in Vietnam helped save the lives of younger pilots fighting for the first time. He said, after World War II, pilots were not being trained sufficiently in air-to-air combat or given much practical guidance on evading air defenses.
"A lot of young pilots were relying too much on electronic equipment," Kaplan explained.
"In the meantime, you're being shot at by anti-aircraft guns, and enemy Migs are coming at you. Olds was able to teach these younger pilots the real world scenario on how to complete their missions without getting blasted out of the sky."
Turning a wing around
In September of 1966, Olds took over command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, Thailand, where losses had been heavy. Olds turned those losses around and ended up flying 152 combat missions in Vietnam during his one-year tenure as wing commander.
He remembers the pilots being skeptical of the old WWII ace, who hadn't fought in 22 years. Olds turned the pilots' cynicism around, saying he would fly "tail-end charlie," the spot usually reserved for the lowest lieutenant.
"I told them they need to teach me and I would work my way up," he smiled.
The young pilots soon found the then 44-year-old ace could fly rings around most pilots.
The 8th Fighter Wing soon cut its losses dramatically. One of Olds' proudest achievements was the fact he only lost one aircrew over Hanoi between April and August of 1967.
"That's where the toughest targets were," he said.
Olds beamed with pride while discussing his troops, noting that more than 65 men from that 8th Tactical Fighter Wing went on to become generals in the Air Force.
Officially, Olds shot down four Migs during his 152 combat missions, one shy of ace status. But it's almost certain Olds shot down more.
"In June of '67 I heard a rumor that if I got five Migs, they would send me home for PR purposes," Olds said. "I said 'Fine, I'm not going to get you any more Migs,'" Olds told the Pentagon.
"Let's just say I was in many more fights after that. And I'll just let it go at that."
Olds was determined to stay on for his one-year tour, admitting he feared that the next wing commander wouldn't be good enough for his men.
After the war, Olds got his promotion to brigadier general and became Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1968, eventually retiring to Steamboat Springs in 1973. Here, his home is a museum to his 30-year career: the medals, including a Silver Star and Air Force Cross hang on the wall, along with photos, including one showing him with President Lyndon Johnson.
Awards and pictures line the walls along with the famous print depicting Olds' Phantom Strike on the Thai Nguyen Steel Mills while flying without much of his right wing. The Hall of Fame may be a crowning achievement to a stunning career, but Olds said his most cherished honor already hangs on his wall in Steamboat two simple plaques with sergeant stripes.
"Those were given to me from the top ranking NCOs (non-commissioned officers) of the wing I commanded," he said. "You can't ask for a better honor. To have earned the respect of your troops and have them recognize it, is not only an honor but quite unique."