Innovative Leadership: Robin Olds and Operation BOLO

  • Published
  • By Mr. Christopher McCune
  • 460th Space Wing Historian

Note: This article is the first in a monthly series for 2017, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the US Air Force by recognizing notable events and persons in Air Force history

In the pantheon of US Air Force icons, there are few who match Brigadier General Robin Olds in the popular imagination of today’s Airmen.  The son of an important figure in Air Force history in his own right, Major General Robert Olds, Robin’s life and military career combined equal parts personal dash with an intense dedication to wringing the absolute best out of his troops that he possibly could.  A 1943 graduate of West Point, Olds achieved triple ace status by shooting down 16 planes in World War II and Vietnam, married Hollywood actress Ella Raines, served as commandant of the US Air Force Academy, and even played football well enough at West Point to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

However, Olds became a legend for his creative, take-charge style and the esprit de corps he cultivated with those who served under him, particularly during his time as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing from September 1966 to September 1967.  Arriving on station at Ubon Royal Air Base, Thailand, he implemented the leadership philosophy he had learned at the feet of his father:

  “Know the mission, what is expected of you and your people…make sure they know the buck stops with you, that you’ll shoulder the blame when things go wrong.  Correct without revenge or anger.  Recognize accomplishment.  Reward accordingly.  Foster spirit through self-pride, not slogans, and never at the expense of another unit…Respect the talents of your people.  Have the courage to delegate responsibility and give the authority to go with it.”

  Olds’ dedication to empowering his troops manifested itself early on, when he discovered his pilots creating a tactics manual from intelligence and mission reports, an effort that the previous commander had not been aware.  “Go for it guys, I’m right with you!” he told them.  But perhaps the most famous example of Olds’ flair and warrior ethos was Operation BOLO, which took place on 2 January 1967.  First conceived by Olds and Captain J.B. Stone, BOLO’s fame lies in its sheer audacity as a tactical ruse.  Combat losses of F-105s to the more agile MiG-17s and MiG-21s along bombing routes to North Vietnam had become particularly heavy by late 1966, but the MiGs tended to disengage when confronted with F-4 fighters.  In response, Olds and his operations team developed a plan to launch seven separate flights of F-4s towards the North Vietnamese air base at Phuc Yen, using the call signs, formations, and flight routes of the F-105s, in order to lure the MiG pilots into a trap; the planes even had the F-105s’ signal jammers equipped in order to replicate their defensive counter-measures.  The ruse proved to be wildly successful—although reports differ, at least five and as many as seven MiG-21s were destroyed in one engagement, including one by Olds himself.  Four days later, another two planes were shot down.  These losses hamstrung the North Vietnamese Air Force to such an extent that another MiG engagement did not take place until mid-March 1967.

Today, Airmen across the Air Force continue to revere General Olds for his no-nonsense, proactive leadership and willingness to lay his reputation on the line for those who served under him.  His most notorious contribution to Air Force culture is “Mustache March,” when Airmen across the service grow their own “bulletproof mustache” in mimicry of the flamboyant, waxed version that Olds grew following Operation BOLO—which he later shaved off upon receiving a direct order to do so from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General John McConnell. 

 For more information, read Olds’ autobiography Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, and To Hanoi and Back: The USAF and North Vietnam, 1966-1973, by Wayne Thompson.