Born in 1922,Robin Olds was the son of U.S. Army Major General Robert Olds, a World War I instructor pilot and a leading advocate of strategic bombing in the post war Army Air Corps. Robin acquired a strong interest in military aviation at an early age, having regular contact with senior officers that would ultimately lead U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. As a young man he attended West Point, where he distinguished himself as an All American football player. He also began to establish a reputation as something of a maverick, with considerable potential for conflict with higher authority.
Olds graduated from basic pilot training in June, 1943 and was assigned to operational training as a fighter pilot in the P-38 Lightning. In May 1944, Lt. Olds entered combat in Europe, flying the P-38J with the 479th Fighter Group, based at RAF Wattisham, England. His combat skills and leadership qualities were immediately evident, earning him a promotion to Captain and an assignment as Flight Leader. He achieved five aerial victories in the Lightning, becoming an Ace and the top scoring P-38 pilot in the European Theater of Operations. The 479th Fighter Group re-equipped with the P-51D Mustang in September, 1944. Captain Olds was promoted to Major, and appointed Commander of the 434th Fighter Squadron. He added seven more aerial victories to his score while flying the Mustang and ended the war as a “Double Ace” with a total of twelve kills to his credit (along with another dozen destroyed on the ground).
In September, 1966 (age 44) Colonel Olds returned to combat in Southeast Asia, more than 20 years after his last aerial victory. He assumed command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Ubon Air Base in Thailand. The wing was equipped with the F-4C Phantom II, and was actively engaged in strike and combat air patrol (MiGCAP) missions over North Vietnam. The wing had been under-performing, and Col. Olds made immediate changes in leadership and operational practices to create a more aggressive, mission-driven posture for the men and aircraft under his command.
Nguyễn Văn Cốc was born in 1943 in the Bac Giang province of French Indochina north of Hanoi. He had his first birthday the same year Lt. Robin Olds scored his first aerial victory over the Luftwaffe. When he was five years old his father and uncle, both members of the Viet Minh national independence movement, were executed by the French. Seeking refuge from further violence, his mother relocated the family. As a consequence of this move, Cốc spent the rest of his childhood near Chu Air Base, kindling an interest in aviation and military aircraft.
At age 18 Cốc enlisted in the Vietnam People’s Air Force. At this point in his life he had never driven a car, graduating directly from bicycle to aircraft as a mode of transportation. After initial flight training in Haiphong, he trained as a fighter pilot in the Soviet Union for four years. After flying the MiG-17 briefly in North Vietnam, he returned to the Soviet Union to qualify in the MiG-21 fighter/interceptor. In December, 1965 he began flying the MiG-21 operationally with the 921st Fighter Regiment. The pilots of the 921st faced daunting odds as they attempted to blunt the massive American air offensive. They were outnumbered and outclassed in nearly every regard, including aircraft, weapons, training and combat experience. Because their numbers were so few, the VPAF had no “rotation” program like their American counterparts, who were able to go home after 100 combat missions. They were already home and they “flew till they died” (1).
As Rolling Thunder progressed into 1966, conduct of bombing missions over North Vietnam had fallen into a regular and somewhat predictable pattern, with U.S. bomber formations repeatedly using the same routes, timing, radio frequencies and call signs. VPAF leaders devised an effective strategy and tactics to disrupt the U.S. bombing routine and inflict losses on strike aircraft. Most U.S. strike missions were flown by F-105 fighter/bombers. Heavy loads of air-to-ground ordnance severely limited F-105 flight performance and they were vulnerable to attack by faster and more maneuverable interceptors. MiGs flew ground-controlled intercepts (GCI) against U.S. bomber formations, with guidance provided by a network of Soviet-built radar stations and command centers. These installations were “off-limits” to U.S. strike aircraft due to concerns about killing Russian or Chinese advisors. As a consequence, ground controllers were able to position interceptors optimally for “hit-and-run” attacks against the bomber formations while minimizing exposure to threats from U.S. combat air patrols. MiG-17s often engaged in frontal attacks with guns, while MiG-21s generally attacked from the rear to take advantage of their greater speed and heat-seeking missile armament. The MiGs attacked aggressively, usually from multiple directions, and often with devastating effects. Bombers were frequently forced to jettison ordnance prematurely to evade destruction.
This strategy enabled the VPAF to have a substantial negative impact on U.S. bombing operations, despite limited numbers of aircraft and pilots. On 14 December, 1966, flying his first combat mission in the MiG-21 as wingman for his squadron commander, Nguyễn Văn Cốc scored his first aerial victory against an F-105D (2). During the month of December, MiG-21s of the 921st Fighter Regiment downed a total of 14 F-105s without sustaining any losses, and more than one fifth of U.S. strike aircraft jettisoned bomb loads short of their targets (3). Aircraft loss rates and strike mission performance were clearly unacceptable to USAF commanders and the situation demanded immediate corrective action.
OPERATION BOLO: THE DECEPTION PLAN
Corrective action came the following month in the form of “Operation Bolo.” With the consent of Gen. William Momyer, 7th Air Force Commander, Col. Olds and the senior staff of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing conceived and planned an elaborate deception, designed to lure North Vietnamese MiGs into an engagement with a superior force of U.S. fighters. The plan was assigned the code name “Bolo” in reference to the fearsome Filipino edged weapon that is readily concealed, but lethal at close range.
The plan called for a “West Force,” composed of seven flights of F-4Cs from the 8th TFW based at Ubon Air Base, Thailand to simulate an F-105 strike against a target in North Vietnam. The Phantoms of the West Force would employ ingress routes, altitudes, speeds, formations, call signs and communications jargon typical of an F-105 strike package. The F-4s were also equipped with the QRC-160 jamming pod normally carried by the F-105s, enabling them to mimic the Thud’s electronic signature. An “East Force” of seven additional flights of F-4Cs from the 366th TFW, based at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam would cover avenues of escape for the MiGs, including alternate VPAF airfields and routes to sanctuaries in China. Arrival times over target airfields were spaced at intervals to maintain continuous coverage, preventing surviving MiGs from landing and forcing them to exhaust fuel. The plan also called for radar surveillance by EC-121 airborne early warning aircraft, six flights of F-105s to provide SAM suppression, and stand-off radar jamming by EB-66s, escorted by F-104s of the 435th TFS. The plan specified that the target area would be clear of other U.S. aircraft, enabling F-4 crews to engage hostile targets without the positive visual ID normally required by 7th Air Force rules of engagement (1).
OPPOSING AIRCRAFT AND WEAPONS
F-4C Phantom II
The F-4 Phantom II became operational with the U.S. Air Force in 1964. It was a large, multi-role fighter/bomber powered by two afterburning turbojets and operated by two crewmembers, a pilot and weapon systems officer (WSO). It had a top speed of 1,472 mph (Mach 2.23) at 40,000 ft. and a climb rate of 41,300 ft./min. During the Vietnam War, variants of the Phantom became the primary air superiority fighter for both the Air Force and Navy. As the war progressed, the F-4 was also widely employed as a strike fighter and reconnaissance platform by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. In the fighter role, the F-4 had the capability to engage enemy aircraft with long-range, radar guided AIM-7 Sparrow and short-range, heat seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Phantoms could carry as many as 8 missiles when configured for an air-to-air mission. The AIM-7 gave the Phantom a capability to engage enemy aircraft beyond visual range, but this was rarely done in practice due to restrictive rules of engagement. The F-4Cs flown by the 8th TFW were not equipped with an internal gun, but could carry an externally mounted gun pod if required.
MiG-21PFs of the 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force
The MiG-21 (NATO “Fishbed“) was designed as a light weight fighter/interceptor, powered by a single turbojet with afterburner. It was limited in range, but had a top speed of 1,385 mph (Mach 2.05) and a climb rate exceeding 45,000 ft./min. with a combat load. These characteristics were ideally suited to the VPAF requirement for a point defense interceptor, which demanded rapid response and supersonic dash capability within a fairly limited area of operation. It could carry up to three external fuel tanks for missions where extended range and/or loiter time were needed. The MiG-21’s light weight and delta wing configuration gave it a relatively low wing loading and it was generally more maneuverable than its U. S. counterparts. The MiG-21 was operated by a single pilot. It was not armed with an internal gun, but could carry a 23 mm cannon in an externally mounted pod. The MiG-21PF (Fishbed-D) all weather variant was equipped with an air intercept radar and was capable of firing the K-13 (NATO AA-2 Atoll) infrared guided missile at ranges up to 6.5 km (4 miles).
THE AIR BATTLE
Originally scheduled for New Years’ day 1967, Bolo commenced on 2 January after a 24 hour delay due to weather conditions. F-4 flights were identified using radio call signs based on names of contemporary auto manufacturers, including Ford, Olds and Rambler. Leading the Olds flight, Col. Robin Olds arrived first over the target area near Phúc YênAir Base at 1500 local time. After some delay due to overcast, VPAF ground controllers took the bait and directed MiG-21s of the 921st Fighter Regiment to the intercept. Among the pilots dispatched on this mission was Nguyễn Văn Cốc, flying as wingman to a more senior pilot. Expecting to encounter a bomber formation, the MiGs employed familiar tactics, emerging from cloud cover sequentially to approach the formation from multiple directions. Much to their surprise and dismay, they were confronted by deadly Phantoms with a full complement of air-to-air weapons and ready for a stand-up fight. The number 2 aircraft of Olds flight, piloted by Lt. Ralph Wetterhahn, scored the first victory with an AIM-7 Sparrow missile. After several missiles failed to launch or guide, Col. Olds and his WSO, 1st Lt. Charles Clifton, scored a second kill shortly thereafter with an AIM-9 Sidewinder. A third victory was scored with an AIM-9 fired by the flight’s number 4 aircraft, piloted by Capt. Walter Radeker III.
The battle was over in a matter of minutes. Two other flights from the 8th TFW also scored aerial victories over MiG-21s, and the wing claimed a total of seven aircraft destroyed and two probable kills during Operation Bolo with no losses. Among the North Vietnamese aircraft destroyed was the MiG-21 flown by Nguyễn Văn Cốc and another piloted by a future VPAF, ace, Vu Ngọc Đỉnh(4). Both pilots escaped their damaged aircraft and survived. On 6 January, a smaller scale deception, simulating an RF-4C reconnaissance mission, resulted in destruction of two more MiG-21s by Phantoms of the 8th TFW.
AFTERMATH AND LESSONS LEARNED
With the loss of more than half of their operational MiG-21 force, the VPAF ceased intercept operations for several months to recover, re-equip and re-think strategy. In the aftermath of the January debacle, senior North Vietnamese leaders undertook an intensive after-action review, surfacing a number of deficiencies in tactics, pilot training and decision-making within the chain of command. The U.S. Air Force would not have further encounters with MiG-21s until 23 April, 1967 (4). On this occasion, an F-4C of the 366th TFW continued the string of Phantom victories by downing another MiG-21. The revamped VPAF strategy and tactics finally realized results on 30 April 1967, to the detriment of the American 355th TFW, when Nguyễn Văn Cốc and his flight leader both claimed victories over F-105s. Other pilots of their squadron downed three more F-105s, including an F model piloted by Maj. Leo K. Thorsness who was taken prisoner and would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (4).
As might be expected in any protracted conflict, both sides continued to evolve technology, strategy and tactics in pursuit of advantage and in response to initiatives by their adversary. The North Vietnamese continued to exploit the “target-rich environment” presented by U.S. strike missions, claiming to have downed a total of 266 U.S. aircraft with no less than 17 VPAF pilots claiming status as “Ace”. U.S. authorities acknowledge the loss of 89 aircraft in air-to-air engagements, while claiming 195 aerial victories, for a kill ratio of 2.2:1 (5). Only two U.S. pilots qualified as aces, with three additional weapon systems officers achieving five or more victories. The comparatively small number of U.S. aces can be attributed to the relative scarcity of targets for U.S. fighter crews and their shorter terms of service in the theater of operations.
PASSING THE TORCH
As commander of the 8th TFW, Col. Olds remained active in the air, flying a total of 152 combat missions, 105 of them over North Vietnam. He went on to destroy three more MiGs in combat, making him a “triple ace” with a total of 16 aerial victories during his illustrious career. Col. Olds also distinguished himself in executing hazardous, low-level strike missions against heavily defended targets, earning the Air Force Cross for leading a strike against the infamous Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi. Among his other decorations are the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, four Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, six Distinguished Flying Crosses and 40 Air Medals.
Col. Olds relinquished command of the 8th TFW in September, 1967 and was reassigned to duty at the United States Air Force Academy where he served for three years as Commandant of Cadets. He was promoted to Brigadier General in June, 1968 and spent the last years of his Air Force career as Director of Aerospace Safety. Throughout the remainder of his career, Gen. Olds was a strong and vocal advocate for strengthening Air Force pilot training in air combat skills. His intense advocacy and openly confrontational style often brought him into conflict with senior leaders. He retired from the Air Force in 1973.
While 2 January, 1967 was a bad day for Capt. Nguyễn Văn Cốc, he was not finished defending the skies of his homeland. Due to some good fortune, and excellent Soviet ejection seats, he and at least four of his comrades of the 921st Fighter Regiment survived to fight another day. Capt. Cốc returned to active duty with his regiment and went on to become the highest scoring fighter ace of the Vietnam War, with seven victories against US Air Force and Navy combat aircraft. Among his victims were three F-4s, three F-105s and a single F-102. Two of the Phantoms downed by Capt. Cốc were F-4Ds of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the same unit that inflicted the January 1967 disaster on the Sao Do Regiment. He was also credited with shooting down several AQM-34 unmanned drones. All of his air-to-air victories were achieved with the K-13 infrared guided missile.
With the halt of U.S. bombing in October, 1968, Cốc assumed a role as flight instructor, imparting the benefit of his combat experience to fighter pilots in training. Among the beneficiaries of his tutelage was Nguyễn Đức Soát who would also become an Ace flying the MiG-21, with five aerial victories to his credit. In 1969, Nguyễn Văn Cốc was awarded the prestigious Huy Hiệumedal for each of his aerial victories and was recognized as a Hero of the Vietnamese People’s Armed Forces. After the war, he remained in the Vietnamese National Air Force, retiring in 2002 as Chief Inspector with the rank of Lieutenant General (6).
In some respects, these two men stood in striking contrast to one-another. At age 44, Col. Olds was a seasoned combat veteran, approaching the end of his career and seizing one last opportunity to apply his considerable talents as a fighter pilot. Capt. Nguyễn Văn Cốc went to war as an inexperienced but aggressive and highly motivated rookie, anxious to prove himself in combat. On further reflection, however, it appears that these men had a great deal in common, and that their differences are largely generational and cultural. Robin Olds was a member of America’s “Greatest Generation,” raised during the Great Depression. When his nation was threatened by axis aggression, he went to war as a volunteer and fulfilled his obligation with courage and skill. Nguyễn Văn Cốc was also raised in a time of adversity, during the French occupation of Indochina, and volunteered at an early age to risk his life in defense of his homeland. Both men acquired a compelling desire to fly at an early age and pursued their careers as military aviators with zeal and commitment. Their skills as pilots and combat leaders distinguished them among their peers, and they met the challenge from their adversaries with courage, tenacity and resilience. Both men were patriots, and repeatedly demonstrated willingness to put their lives on the line in defense of the values they held dear. These two fine aviators were held in high regard by their peers and have earned the respect and admiration of the nations they served.
1. Zampini, Diego. North Vietnamese Aces, Acepilots.com, 2002 (updated 2012)
2. Boniface, Roger. MiGs over North Vietnam, Stackpole Military History Series, 2008
3. Davies, Peter E. F-105 Thunderchief MiG Killers of the Vietnam War, Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 107, 2014
4. Toperczer, Istvan. MiG-21 Units of the Vietnam War, Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 29, 2001
5. Boyne, Walter J. Air Warfare: an International Encyclopedia: A-L (2002 edition)
6. Toperczer, Istvan. MiG Aces of the Vietnam War, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2015
The above article was written by Lyon Air Museum Docent Jeff Erickson