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Robin Olds, 84, colorful ace pilot of WWII, Vietnam

Wolfpack pilots of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing swept Colonel Robin Olds away from his F-4 Phantom II aircraft following his return from his 100th combat mission over North Vietnam, on September 23, 1967. He led the Wolfpack through a year when it amassed 24 MiG victories, the greatest aerial combat record of an F-4 Wing in the Vietnam War. Wolfpack pilots of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing swept Colonel Robin Olds away from his F-4 Phantom II aircraft following his return from his 100th combat mission over North Vietnam, on September 23, 1967. He led the Wolfpack through a year when it amassed 24 MiG victories, the greatest aerial combat record of an F-4 Wing in the Vietnam War. (file 1967/afp)

WASHINGTON -- Robin Olds, an Air Force brigadier general who was a flamboyant legend of military aviation as a fighter pilot in World War II and Vietnam, died Thursday at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He had congestive heart failure after recent bouts with prostate and lung cancer. He was 84.

Mr. Olds, whose father was a World War I fighter pilot and a key planner of early bombing tactics, aimed for the air from youth. After graduating in 1943 from the US Military Academy at West Point , where he was an All-America football player, he immediately earned his wings as a fighter pilot in World War II.

Flying P-38 Lightnings and later P-51 Mustangs, he shot down 13 German aircraft, becoming a double ace. (A pilot becomes an ace by downing five enemy aircraft.)

He had to wait 22 years to return to combat.

Mr. Olds, who often bucked the military system and ignored rules that he considered silly, grew a rakish handlebar mustache in Vietnam in disregard of Air Force standards.

He also planned and executed Operation Bolo, a daring strike against North Vietnamese MiGs on Jan. 2, 1967, that was the most decisive US air victory at that point in the war.

As commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, Thailand, Mr. Olds, then a colonel, devised the deceptive maneuver using the flight path and radio signals of a bomber squadron. North Vietnamese troops, expecting to attack a lumbering group of bombers, instead encountered swarms of nimble F-4 Phantom II fighters, with Mr. Olds in the cockpit of the lead airplane.

In the ensuing dogfight, Mr. Olds shot down a MiG-21, and the pilots under his command downed six other Vietnamese aircraft without losing a single US plane.

In May 1967, Mr. Olds shot down three more MiGs, including two in one day. In all, his total was 17 in two wars, making him a triple ace. He also destroyed 11 German airplanes on the ground during World War II.

When he returned to the United States after his Vietnam tour, Mr. Olds, still sporting his waxed mustache, was ushered into the office of the Air Force chief of staff, John McConnell.

"I walked briskly through the door, stopped, and snapped a salute," Mr. Olds later recalled. "He walked up to me, stuck a finger under my nose and said, 'Take it off!' And I said, 'Yes, sir!' And that was the end of that."

Mr. Olds was born in Honolulu on July 14, 1922. His mother died when he was 4, and he was brought up by his father, Army Air Corps Major Robert Olds, a World War I pilot who helped develop the concept of strategic bombing in the 1930s.

Major Olds died in 1943, not long after marrying his third wife, Nina Gore Auchincloss, the mother of author Gore Vidal.

Robin Olds, at 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds, was a stalwart tackle on the Army football team and was named All-America in 1942.

He was a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

In 1946, a year before the Air Force was officially formed, he joined the country's first military jet squadron and was wingman on the Air Force's first jet acrobatic team. In 1948, he was the first foreigner to command an elite fighter unit of Britain's Royal Air Force.

In the mid-1960s, while leading a fighter wing in Europe, he was removed from his command and threatened with a court-martial after organizing a high-performance show unit in violation of Air Force policy.

Mr. Olds was well liked by the troops he commanded. Because his flight crews during the Vietnam War were assigned to 24-hour combat duty, he required that all services at his air base in Thailand be available around the clock as well.

After his Vietnam tour, Mr. Olds spent three years as a popular commandant of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. In 1972, while inspecting Air Force bases in Southeast Asia, he surreptitiously flew in combat in Vietnam.

In 259 missions in two wars, he was never shot down or wounded.

When Mr. Olds retired in 1973, his honors included the Air Force Cross (second to the Medal of Honor), a Distinguished Service Medal, four Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, six Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 40 Air Medals.

He appeared in November 2006 as a commentator on the History Channel's series "Dogfights," describing Operation Bolo and his air battles in World War II.

In 1947, he married actress Ella Raines. They were separated in 1975 but were not divorced. She died in 1988.

A later marriage to Morgan Olds ended in divorce.

Mr. Olds leaves two daughters from his first marriage, Christina Olds of Vail, Colo., and Susan Scott-Risner of North Bend, Wash.; a half-brother, retired Navy Captain Frederick Olds of Virginia Beach, Va.; and a granddaughter.

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