Brig. Gen. Robin Olds as a colonel, preflighting his F-4C Phantom at Ubon Air

Farewell to one of the great ones

"Downhill skiing is the closest thing to flying a fighter that I know."

This opinion-quoted to the best of my recollection because it's been 36 years since I heard it-was expressed by Brigadier General Robin Olds, a triple-ace fighter pilot with 13 kills during World War II and four during the Vietnam War, who was the Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs from 1967 to 1971.  When I heard Olds say this, I remember thinking, "Wow, so that's what it's like to fly fighters." The rub, I realized later, was that he had said skiing was "the closest thing." The real thing is much, much different.

While downhill skiing is more accessible than fighters for most people, pilots and non-pilots alike have several other ways to experience flying fighters vicariously. At the Paris Air Show in June, for example, Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi exhibited a non-motion simulator that showed what it is like to fly its Su-35 fighter. (You can watch this, and see a MiG 29OVT flying over Paris on For a few dollars more, you can fly real MiG and Sukhoi fighters over Moscow. Here in the U.S., you can be a fighter pilot for a day at Air Combat USA and fly a Siai Marchetti SF.260 or an Extra 300L in a dogfight against another customer.

Or, if you prefer to do your flying with wheels on the ground, you can strap yourself into a 479-hp Ferrari F430, as Nigel Moll did and describes in this month's rendition of "Low-level Flying" (see "Ferrari F430"). Coincidentally, Moll mentions the SF.260 in his article as the other speed machine he decided he wanted for himself after his first experience in it.

A coincidence of a different sort brought me into the home of General Olds and his wife, former actress Ella Raines, where I heard him make the aforementioned observation about skiing back in 1971. My squadron mates and I had received an invitation to dinner for the simple reason that our squadron commander, Dan Devine- who happened to be my roommate-was dating Christina Olds, one of the couple's two daughters. (They eventually married, but later divorced.)

I had been to their home on the Academy grounds once before, on Halloween night, when Dan drove me there in his yellow Corvette to go "trick or beering." Mrs. Olds liked my hunchback-of-Notre-Dame costume but thought I needed better makeup. So she led me upstairs to the master bedroom and her makeup table. How could I refuse? Besides being a real Hollywood actress, she was the Commandant's wife. While Dan and Olds sat downstairs drinking beer, I sat ill at ease in the general's bedroom as his wife carefully added dark shadows around my eyes and bruises to my cheeks.

During the time I was at the Academy, Olds was definitely the most admired and respected of its Commandants-by the cadets, if not by the bigger brass. You could not help but admire his skill as a fighter pilot and commander. His swagger and outspokenness impressed us all the more. His size alone commanded attention. Over six feet tall with an athletic build, he had been All-American tackle at West Point.

I recall him addressing the cadet wing-some 3,000 of us-soon after his arrival in December 1967. Without notes or podium, he regaled us with stories of his career. He had been promoted quickly through the officer ranks to colonel-so quickly, he said, that he could not remember ever being a lieutenant colonel. But his tell-it-like-it-is attitude had stymied his promotion to brigadier general, a rank he achieved only because the position of commandant required it. He had no allusions of being promoted higher, and retired just two years after leaving the Academy, following a tour as Air Force Director of Safety-an over-and-out sidestep assignment if ever there was one.

But Olds did know how to motivate his troops. His advice for passing the pilots' annual eye exam-memorize the eye chart-had us all clapping and laughing when he recited the chart verbatim and then asked, "Do you want to hear it backwards, too?" He then proceeded to recite it that way. After an hour of listening to straight talk from Olds, there wasn't a cadet in the room who didn't want to be his wingman. We thought the world of the guy and would unobtrusively tarry by his car, a pristine MG with the steering wheel on the right-his own low-level flyer-just to catch a glimpse of him. We called that car the "Oldsmobile."

My memories of General Olds were triggered by news reports of his death on June 14, of congestive heart failure at age 84, in his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. His daughter Christina cared for him during his last three months. At his funeral at the Air Force Academy on June 30, Brigadier General Robert Titus, also a fighter pilot, described Olds as "the best aerial combat leader who ever lived."

Retired General Ralph Eberhart, who was a cadet wing commander when Olds was Commandant, said, "He was an exciting and, yes, electrifying leader. And it is true that the whole cadet wing wore paper handlebar mustaches to greet him. He was thrilled."

The next time you're in ski country, look up at the sky for a moment before pushing off down the mountain. Then think of Robin Olds, the old fighter jock, doing the same thing and loving every second of it.

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