Editor's Note: In this War Stories Web exclusive, senior producer Martin Hinton reflects on interviewing Air Force legend Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, who passed away at age 84, on June 16.
This weekend, watch "War Stories with Oliver North" for a special airing of "The Fighter Aces" on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
Some might say that when I met Brig. Gen. Robin Olds he was past his prime. He didn’t ski anymore, and he didn’t fly. He was north of 80, but for me, it was like meeting a legend. Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods; in my eyes they have nothing on Robin Olds. You see, when I was a boy, my childhood dream was to be a fighter pilot.
I met Olds at his home in Steamboat, Colo. and he was every part a fighter pilot. I was interviewing him for an episode of War Stories titled “Fighter Aces.” Tall and handsome, his eyes pierced through me as though he was looking for danger. I could only imagine this was the look on his face as he scanned the skies over Europe during World War II.
As the crew set up the lights and dressed the background, Olds and I talked about his life. He's the child of an aviation legend, a standout athlete, and a West Point graduate — to say the least, his story was impressive.
As our conversation carried on, I realized Olds didn't just look the part of a fighter pilot; he was a fighter pilot through and through. It was in his DNA. His brash and strong exterior was matched by a true gift for words and a powerful intellect that found my mind racing to keep up with his memories and thoughts. The image of him as a hard drinking daredevil pilot is probably fair, but it was matched by his absolutely poetic descriptions of flight. He offered this recollection of one night flight across America:
"Towns and cities are like jewels thrown out on a velvet cloth. You're all by yourself, and right over your head, through the canopy, are the stars. There are times like that when you really don't want to land. It seeps totally into your soul …"
He also defied the image of a solitary knight stalking the skies by the way he led his men. In Vietnam, his second war, he commanded a fighter wing flying from Ubon, Thailand. When he got there, he was amazed by what he found. No one was ready for the job at hand. Air Force training was focused on the nuclear threat from Russia, but Vietnam was a conventional war and his pilots needed to learn fast or die. He led from the front putting himself in the sky along side his men. He faced the dangers they faced.
After shooting down his 4th North Vietnamese MiG, the generals told him that he would be coming home if he became an ace again. He was told that having him as a POW would be too big a propaganda coup for the enemy. Olds thought this absurd and subsequently never got a fifth kill. When I asked about this his eyes twinkled and he simply said, "I could have gotten a few more, but nothing seemed to work." Olds was almost certainly an ace in Vietnam, but being an ace mattered far less than leading his men and getting them home safe.
He also earned their respect on the ground. At the time, Air Force regulations required the helmets that pilots wore to be white. This was absurd. Who can hide if they get shot down wearing a bright, white helmet? As a result helmets were camouflaged to match the jungles below their flight path. That gave a pilot who was forced to eject a slightly better chance of hiding out and coming home alive.
On one afternoon, a rear echelon colonel came forward to “inspect” the airfield. Upon visiting the supply area were flight helmets were stored, he discovered that they did not meet regulations. After chewing out the supply NCOs, this full bird colonel went to the Officers Club for a drink. Olds, hearing about this encounter, tracked the visiting officer down. Olds then set about explaining that the helmets would become white again the day your “sorry [colorful terms redacted for family viewing]” spent a few days wearing one in a North Vietnamese jungle. The helmets stayed green and that colonel found other places to justify his existence.
In two wars, separated by 23 years, Olds flew 259 combat missions and is credited with a final tally of 17 kills. His other decorations include the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross with four oak leaf clusters, and an Air Medal with 39 oak leaf clusters.
Stories like that flowed one after the other: He was a simply a pleasure. After the interview, we ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant he frequented. Following the meal, we posed for a picture together. That photo is one of my prized possessions. It hangs on my kitchen wall and I look at it every day. Standing next to Olds is probably as close as I came to being a fighter pilot. But it will do. Me and a hero — a hero of mine and America's.
Martin Hinton is a senior producer for "War Stories with Oliver North," which airs on weekends on the FOX News Channel.
Martin Hinton is Executive Producer for the Fox News Reporting Specials and Documentary Unit as well as Political Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @MartinFHinton.