9 September 1972: Captain Charles Barbin DeBellevue, United States Air Force, a Weapons System Officer flying on F-4D and F-4E Phantom II fighters, became the high-scoring American Ace of the Vietnam War when he and his pilot, Captain John A. Madden, Jr., shot down two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 19¹ fighters of the Không Quân Nhân Dân Việt Nam (Vietnam People’s Air Force), west of Hanoi.
Captain DeBellevue was assigned to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. With Captain Richard S. Ritchie, he had previously shot down four MiG 21 fighters using AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles. Then while flying a combat air patrol in support of Operation Linebacker, he and Captain Madden, aboard F-4D-29-MC Phantom II 66-0267, call sign OLDS 01, used two AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles to destroy the MiG 19s. These were Madden’s first two aerial victories, but for DeBellevue, they were number 5 and 6.
Madden and DeBellevue had fired two AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles at a MiG-21 which was on approach to land at the Phúc Yên Yen air base northwest of Hanoi, but both missiles missed. The MiG was then shot down by gunfire from an F-4E flown by Captain Calvin B. Tibbett and 1st Lieutenant William S. Hargrove (after two of their missiles also missed). The flight of Phantoms was then attacked by MiG 19s. DeBellevue reported:
We acquired the MiGs on radar and positioned as we picked them up visually. We used a slicing low-speed yo-yo to position behind the MiG-19s and started turning hard with them. We fired one AIM-9 missile, which detonated 25 feet from one of the MiG-19s. We then switched the attack to the other MiG-19 and one turn later we fired an AIM-9 at him.
I observed the missile impact the tail of the MiG. The MiG continued normally for the next few seconds, then began a slow roll and spiraled downward, impacting the ground with a large fireball. Our altitude was approximately 1,500 feet at the moment of the MiG’s impact.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Pages 104–105.
The first MiG-19, damaged by the Sidewinder’s close detonation, crashed on the runway at Phuc Yen.
After becoming the war’s highest-scoring American ace, Chuck DeBellevue was sent to Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, for pilot training. He became an aircraft commander of F-4E Phantom IIs. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1998, after 30 years of service.
DeBellevue’s F-4D, 66-0267, was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It was reassembled with parts from other damaged Phantoms and is on display as a “gate guard” at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida.
F-4D-29-MC 66-7463, in which he scored his first and fourth kills with Steve Ritchie, is on display at the United States Air Force Academy. Like DeBellevue, this airplane is also credited with 6 victories. DeBellevue’s F-4E-36-MC, 67-0362, in which he and Ritchie shot down their second and third MiG 21s, was sold to Israel in 1973.
¹ Many VPAF MiG 19s were the Chinese-built Shenyang J-6 variant.
28 August 1972: Captain Richard Stephen Ritchie, United States Air Force, and Weapons System Officer Captain Charles Barbin DeBellevue, leading Buick flight with their McDonnell F-4D Phantom II, shot down a North Vietnamese MiG 21 interceptor. This was Ritchie’s fifth confirmed aerial combat victory, earning him the title of “ace.” [Chuck DeBellevue would later be credited with six kills.]
An official U.S. Air Force history reads:
. . . Ritchie flew the lead aircraft of a MiGCAP flight, with Capt. Charles B. DeBellevue as his WSO, during a Linebacker strike mission. “We acquired a radar lock-on on a MiG 21 that was head-on to us,” Ritchie said.
“We converted to the stern and fired two AIM-7 missiles during the conversion. These missiles were out of parameters and were fired in an attempt to get the MiG to start a turn. As we rolled out behind the MiG, we fired the two remaining AIM-7s. The third missile missed, but the fourth impacted the MiG. The MiG was seen to explode and start tumbling toward the earth. The kill was witnessed by Captain John Madden, aircraft commander in number 3.
“It was an entirely different situation,” Ritchie noted to newsmen. The MiG flew at “a much higher altitude than any of my other MiG kills and at a much greater range. I don’t think the MiG pilot ever really saw us. All he saw were those missiles coming at him and that’s what helped us finally get him.”
The new ace complimented the ground crews who kept the F-4s combat ready: “There’s no way could have done it without them,” he said. In fact, I got my first and fifth MiG in the same plane. Crew Chief Sergeant Reggie Taylor was the first one up the ladder when the plane landed and you just couldn’t believe how happy he was. I think he was more excited than I.”
DeBellevue, whose total victories rose to four with this day’s kill, commented on the teamwork: “The most important thing is for the crew to work well together,” he said. “They have to know each other. I know what Steve is thinking on a mission and can almost accomplish whatever he wants before he asks. I was telling him everything had to know when he wanted it, and did not waste time giving him useless data.”
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Page 103.
Flown by five different crews, F-4D 66-7463 shot down six enemy fighters from 1 March to 15 October 1972. It is now on display at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
14 July 1922: Brigadier General Robin Olds, United States Air Force, was a fighter pilot and triple ace with 17 official aerial victories in two wars. Robin Olds was born Robert Oldys, Jr., at Luke Field Hospital, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. He was the first son of Captain Robert Oldys, Air Service, United States Army, and Eloise Wichman Nott Oldys. In 1931, the family name was legally changed from Oldys to Olds. As a child, Robert, Jr., was known as “Robin,” a dimunuitive of Robert.
Robin Olds entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on 1 July 1940. During the summer months, he received primary, basic and advanced pilot training. With training at West Point accelerated because of wartime needs, Cadet Olds and his class graduated one year early, 1 June 1943. Olds was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, (number 589 of 620 on the Air Corps list of second lieutenants), and was assigned to fighter training in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning at Williams Field, Arizona. On 1 December 1943, Second Lieutenant Olds was appointed to the rank of First Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.). (His permanent rank remained Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, until after the War.)
On completion of all phases of training, Lieutenant Olds was assigned to the 434th Fighter Squadron, 479th Fighter Group, and deployed to England aboard the former Moore-McCormack Lines passenger liner S.S. Argentina, which had been converted to a troop transport.
The 434th Fighter Squadron was based at RAF Wattisham in East Anglia. First Lieutenant Olds was promoted to Captain (A.U.S.) on 24 July 1944. He became an ace during his first two combat missions, shooting down 2 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters on 14 August 1944 and 3 Messerschmitt Bf 109s on August 23.
The squadron re-equipped with North American P-51 Mustangs and Captain Olds continued to destroy enemy fighters. On 9 February 1945, just 22 years old, he was promoted to Major. On 25 March 1945, Major Olds was placed in command of the 434th Fighter Squadron. Major Olds completed the war with a record of 13 aerial victories,¹ and another 11.5 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He had flown 107 combat missions.
When the United States Air Force was established as a separate military service on 18 September 1947, Major Olds (along with hundreds, if not thousands of other officers) reverted to their permanent rank of First Lieutenant, with his date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1946. Olds retained the temporary rank of Major.
After World War II, Major Olds transitioned to jet fighters with the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star at March Field, near Riverside, California. He flew in an aerobatic demonstration team, and on 1 September 1946, flew a Lockheed P-80A to second place in the Thompson Trophy Race, Jet Division, at Cleveland, Ohio. Olds averaged 514.715 miles per hour (828.354 kilometers per hour) over ten laps around the 30-mile (48.3 kilometers), four pylon course.
While stationed at March Field, Olds met his future wife, actress Ella Wallace Raines (formerly, Mrs. Kenneth William Trout). They married on 6 February 1947 at the West Hollywood Community Church, just south of the Sunset Strip in the West Hollywood area of Los Angeles County, California. Rev. Gordon C. Chapman performed the ceremony. They would have two daughters, Christina and Susan. They divorced 15 November 1976.
In October 1948, Major Olds returned to England as an exchange officer in command of No. 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at RAF Tangmere. He was the first non-Commonwealth officer to command a Royal Air Force squadron. The squadron flew the Gloster Meteor F. Mk.IV jet fighter.
Following the tour with the R.A.F., Olds returned to March Air Force Base as operations officer of the 94th Fighter Squadron, Jet, 1st Fighter-Interceptor Group, which had been equipped with the North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre. Soon after, he was placed in command of the 71st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, another squadron within the 1st Fighter-Interceptor Group.
Olds was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 20 February 1951, and to colonel 15 April 1953. From 8 October 1955 to 10 August 1956 he commanded the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Group based at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany. The group flew the rocket-armed North American Aviation F-86D Sabre. The 86th was inactivated 10 August 1956. Colonel Olds then was assigned as chief of the Weapons Proficiency Center for the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) at Wheelus Air Base, near Tripoli, Libya.
After assignment as Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division, Headquarters USAF, from 1958 to 1962, Colonel Olds attended the National War College, graduating in 1963. From 8 September 1963 to 26 July 1965, Colonel Olds commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, at RAF Bentwaters, England.
Robin Olds returned to combat as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in September 1966. Flying the McDonnell F-4C Phantom II, Colonel Olds scored victories over two Vietnam Peoples Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s and two MiG-21s, bringing his official score to 17 ² aerial victories. ³ He was the only Air Force fighter ace with victories in both World War II and the Vietnam War. (There have been rumors that he actually shot down seven MiGs, but credited those to other pilots to avoid being pulled out of combat and sent back to the United States.)
For his actions during the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge, 11 August 1967, Colonel Olds was awarded the Air Force Cross. He flew 152 combat missions during the Vietnam War. His final combat mission was on 23 September 1967.
On 1 June 1968, Robin Olds was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and assigned as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy. In February 1971, he was appointed Director of Aerospace Safety in the Office of the Inspector General at Norton Air Force Base, near San Bernardino, California. He retired from the Air Force 31 May 1973.
During his military career, Brigadier General Robin Olds had been awarded the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters (four awards), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters (six awards), Air Medal with 39 oak leaf clusters (40 awards), Air Force Commendation Medal, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross of the United Kingdom, the Croix de Guerre (France), and the Republic of Vietnam’s Distinguished Service Medal, Air Gallantry Medal with Gold Wings, Air Service Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
In 1978, Robin Olds married his second wife, Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett. They were divorced in 1993.
Brigadier General Robin Olds passed away 14 June 2007 at the age of 84 years. He is buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Note: Thanks to Ms. Christina Olds and Lieutenant Colonel R. Medley Gatewood, U.S. Air Force (Retired), for correcting a number of errors in the previous version of this article.
¹ Source: Air Force News Agency
³ Under the rules in effect at the time, a pilot and WSO shared credit for an enemy aircraft destroyed, with each being credited 0.5 kills. Colonel Olds was officially credited with 2.0 kills. The rules were changed in 1971, retroactive to 1965. This gave Olds an official score of 4.0. —Source: To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam 1966–1973, by Wayne Thompson. Air Force History Office, 2000. Chapter 4 at Page 11.
4 May 1967: Colonel Robin Olds, United States Air Force, commanding the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Ubon RTAFB, shot down his second enemy airplane during the Vietnam War.
Colonel Olds had flown Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American P-51 Mustang fighters during World War II. He is officially credited with shooting down 12 enemy airplanes over Europe and destroying 11.5 on the ground. On 2 January 1967, he had destroyed a MiG-21 near Hanoi, North Vietnam, while flying a McDonnell F-4C Phantom II. He was the first U.S. Air Force fighter ace to shoot down enemy aircraft during both World War II and the Vietnam War.
A description of the air battle follows:
On 4 May, the 8th TFW provided two flights of Phantoms for MiGCAP for five F-105 flights of the 355th TFW which were on a strike mission. Col. Olds, 8th Wing commander, led the rear flight, flying with 1st Lt. William D. Lafever. The other F-4 flight was sandwiched midway in the strike force. MiG warnings crackled on Olds’ radio just before his wingman sighted two MiG-21s at 11 o’clock, attacking the last of the Thunderchief flights. Colonel Olds’ account picks up the encounter at this point:
“The MiGs were at my 10 o’clock position and closing on Drill [the F-105 flight] from their 7:30 position. I broke the rear flight into the MiGs, called the F-105s to break, and maneuvered to obtain a missile firing position on one of the MiG-21s. I obtained a boresight lock-on, interlocks in, went full system, kept the pipper on the MiG, and fired two AIM-7s in a ripple. One AIM-7 went ballistic. The other guided but passed behind the MiG and did not detonate. Knowing I was too close for further AIM-7 firing, I maneuvered to obtain AIM-9 firing parameters. The MiG-21 was maneuvering violently and firing position was difficult to achieve. I snapped two AIM-9s at the MiG and did not observe either missile. The MiG then reversed and presented the best parameter yet. I achieved a loud growl, tracked, and fired one AIM-9. From the moment of launch it was obvious that the missile was locked on. It guided straight for the MiG and exploded about 5–10 feet beneath his tailpipe.
“The MiG then went into a series of frantic turns, some of them so violent that the aircraft snap-rolled in the opposite direction. Fire was coming from the tailpipe, but I was not sure whether it was normal afterburner or damage-induced. I fired the remaining AIM-9 at one point, but the shot was down toward the ground and did not discriminate. I followed the MiG as he turned southeast and headed for Phuc Yen. The aircraft ceased maneuvering and went in a straight slant for the airfield. I stayed 2,500 feet behind him and observed brilliant white fire streaming from the left side of his fuselage. It looked like magnesium burning with particles flaking off. I had to break off to the right as I neared Phuc Yen runway at about 2,000 feet, due to heavy, accurate, 85-mm barrage. I lost sight of the MiG at that point. Our number 3 saw the MiG continue in a straight gentle dive and impact approximately 100 yards south of the runway.”
Colonel Olds then took his flight to the target area and covered the last of the 355th TFW strike aircraft as they came off the target. Leading his flight to Hoa Lac airfield and dodging two SAMs on the way, he found five MiG-17s over that airfield.
“We went around with them at altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 feet, right over the aerodrome,” Olds reported. The F-4s ran low on fuel before any real engagements occurred, however, and were forced to break off the encounter.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 51–53.
During this mission, Colonel Olds and Lieutenant Lefever flew McDonnell F-4C-21-MC Phantom II serial number 63-7668.
26 April 1966: Major Paul J. Gilmore, aircraft commander, and First Lieutenant William T. Smith, pilot, flying McDonnell F-4C-23-MC Phantom II 64-0752, shot down the first Vietnam People’s Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 during the Vietnam War.
“. . . on 26 April, Maj. Paul J. Gilmore, in the front seat of the lead F-4C, and 1st Lt. William T. Smith in the back, downed the first MiG-21 of the war. They were part of a flight of three F-4s flying escort for two RB-66s. Launching from Da Nang, they rendezvoused with the RB-66s and proceeded north to the Red River, where one RB-66 and one F-4 split off for a separate mission. Gilmore, flying the other F-4, and the other RB-66 proceeded north east of Hanoi. Almost at once they spotted two or three MiGs coming high in the 2 o’clock position and closing rapidly. Gilmore and his wingman jettisoned their external tanks, lit their afterburners, and broke into a hard left descending turn while the RB-66 departed the area.
“Gilmore pulled out of his vertical reversal at 12,000 feet[3,657.6 meters], with his wingman flying a tight wing position. They pulled up after the MiGs, which were in afterburner, heading northwest at 30,000 feet[9,144 meters].
“The second MiG was descending very slowly, trailing white vapor toward the east. The F-4 aircrews lost sight of this aircraft as they closed rapidly on the first, which was making gentle clearing turns as he climbed away. Gilmore had several boresight lock-ons but was out of range for a good Sparrow shot. At a range of 3,000 feet [915 meters], Gilmore fired one Sidewinder with a good tone; he then maneuvered to the left to gain more separation and as a result did not see his first missile track.
“Later, Gilmore reported that he had not realized that he had scored a victory with his first missile: ‘My wingman, flying cover for me, told me later the MiG pilot had ejected after I fired the first missile. I didn’t realize I’d hit him the first time. My wingman wondered why I kept after him as I had hit him the first time and the pilot ejected.’ Because of radio difficulties, his wingman could not inform Gilmore of his success.
“After his maneuver to gain separation, Gilmore pulled up behind the pilotless MiG-21 again and fired another Sidewinder without effect. He again rolled left, pulled up, and fired his third Sidewinder at a range of 3,000 feet. ‘After missing [he thought] twice,’ Gilmore later told a newsman, ‘I was quite disgusted. I started talking to myself. Then I got my gunsights on him and fired a third time. I observed the missile go directly in his tailpipe and explode his tail.’
“The two F-4 aircrews then descended to watch the debris impact. As Gilmore commenced his pull-up he spotted another MiG-21 tracking his wingman and called for a defensive split. He broke to the left and down while his wingman broke to the right and up.
“When Gilmore emerged from the roll, he sighted the MiG ahead, in afterburner and climbing away. He rolled in behind this aircraft and climbed in afterburner until he was directly behind. He fired his fourth Sidewinder, but the range was too short and the missile passed over the MiG’s left wing. Because of low fuel reserves, both F-4s then left the battle area. The 6-minute aerial battle was Gilmore’s first encounter with an enemy plane ‘after twelve years in the tactical fighter business.’ “
—Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 27–29.
According to Vietnam Peoples’ Air Force records, a fighter was lost 26 April 1966, though it is described as a MiG-17. The pilot, First Lieutenant Tràn Vặn Triém, ejected after being hit by friendly fire.
The Phantom II flown by Gilmore and Smith on that date was written off 6 August 1967.