Audiobook review: Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds
Imagine for a moment – a flight of P-38s is escorting some bombers over Germany. Suddenly, two of them spot a group of about 50 Me-109s approaching. They break off and drop their external fuel tanks, closing to engage. Just as Robin Olds, flight lead, lines up his four .50 caliber machine guns and 20mm cannon on one of the 109s, his engines sputter out and die.
If you were in that situation, what would you do?
So opens Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, by Olds, his daughter Christina, and Ed Rasimus, an F-105 pilot from Vietnam.
Olds had been approached by several people near the end of his life who inquired about his memoirs, including Tom Clancy and Chuck Horner, who had collaborated on Every Man a Tiger. It was only after he confided to very close friends that they weren’t quite as done as he had let on did he seek assistance from his daughter and Rasimus. He died before the project was complete, and the pair finished it for him.
The book traces his life growing up as the son of an Army Air Corps general officer, when he would spend evenings at home while his father entertained some guys named Mitchell, Spaatz, and a few others. He applied to and entered West Point, intent on becoming a flyer, graduating in 1943, a year ahead of schedule.
From West Point the book continues through his flight training in the west, including P-38 training at the same base my grandfather learned at. He tells of raucous parties, hungover recoveries, and various incendiary events before and during his time in Europe, as well as heartbreaking stories. Once, he spent an afternoon listening to an old man in London tell stories from his life, including how he came upon an original suit of knight’s armor, displayed in the man’s shop window.
The next day, the man, shop, and suit were destroyed by a V-1.
Olds tells all the stories of his air-to-air kills in sharp detail, describing each one, including the three he got the day of the story that opens the book. My favorite one occurs after his transition to the P-51. Higher ups had decided that they needed photos from just before, during, and after a bombing run. They equipped his Mustang with a camera and told him how to use it, which elicited various fighter pilot profanities about incompetence and incontinence in higher echelons of command.
Off he flies, zooming down to the target ahead of the bombers. The first pass isn’t too much trouble, as no one expects anyone with a brain to buzz a target right before the bombs start dropping. He gets away with only a few bullets shot at him, but that presents another problem – now that they’ve seen him fly the route, they know where to shoot if he should be so stupid as to come around again. The problem compounds with each repetition, with added difficulty from having to dodge the bomber attack, which should be landing right around his ears in the midst of buzz two.
Down he comes again, flying past the target to his left. He’s almost past it when the first bombs start dropping – to his right. His immediate right.
Now completely pissed, he abandons the mission and returns to base, landing and taxiing over to his parking spot, where the intel chiefs await him anxiously. He takes his time unstrapping and shutting down the plane, then wanders over and asks nonchalantly “what are you guys doing here?” They demand to know what happened, and he tells them. When they’re done blowing their tops over his refusal to fly the third run past the target to get the post attack shots, he calmly tells them that the final strip of photos would have looked just like the first two, then wanders over to the bar for a drink.
Olds, as you can see, was quite the character. At one point he was on the list for promotion from Colonel to Brigadier General, but knew that promotion would have meant missing out on a combat tour in Vietnam. He had missed Korea, and wanted to be sure to go fly in Southeast Asia, so he did what any self-respecting fighter pilot would have done: he set himself up for failure because it meant more stick time. How?
He put on an airshow without telling his boss, an infraction just bad enough to get him off the promotion list, but not bad enough to get him banned from flying.
His tales of Vietnam are full of personal anecdotes of the intricacies of command, the need for personal involvement with his troops, and a general decay in his marriage to actress Ella Raines. The peaks of the story are his command of Operation Bolo, a completely successful fighter sweep against North Vietnam, and his attack on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
He comes across as a pilot whose story needed to be recorded, both for his personal history and his professional one. He wrote a number of important but ignored papers in his career, criticizing Strategic Air Command, the supply chain, and training methods. His reputation as a renegade officer is offset by his foresight and ability to communicate his opinions, albeit unconvincingly.
The book is written well, and read well by Robertson Dean. Dean does well by varying his voice to communicate different characters, and communicates the emotion Olds writes about just perfectly. He’s now on my short list for top narrators.
But what did Olds do about the German plane he had in his sights just as his engines died? He did what any self-respecting fighter pilot would do – he shot up the German, pulled away to restart his engines, then reengaged, getting two more kills that day and becoming his squadron’s first ace.
He was one fighter pilot who could honestly introduce himself by saying “Hi, I’m Robin Olds, and I’m better than you.”