Robin Olds: So Much More than a Consummate Warrior

Robin Olds is generally regarded as the definitive icon of the 20th century Air Force. But beyond etching his place into airpower history as an elite practitioner and institutional contrarian, Olds was a leader, intellectual, and mentor of the first order.

A good friend of mine was doing some research recently and found himself leafing through the papers of retired Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier. You might recall that Schwalier was the commander at the center of controversy surrounding the Khobar Towers bombing. His scapegoating by the Clinton Administration triggered the resignation of Gen. Ronald Fogleman, whose integrity prevented him from continuing as the Air Force’s Chief of Staff in the face of what he viewed as excessive headwinds made intolerable by the injustice of the Khobar fiasco. 

Turns out that as a Major in 1981, Schwalier had researched and written a paper for Air Command and Staff College. The report, titled “The Tactical Flight Commander — Developing Warriors,” was designed to give guidance to flight commanders, identifying personal qualities and leadership traits essential to success in the role. As part of his research, Schwalier reached out to several prominent leaders in the airpower community to ask their insights on the role of Flight Commander.

Among the names on that roster was someone whose powerful blend of stalwart leadership and warrior acumen made him a favorite among squadron-level operators at the time. Someone with whom fighter pilots in particular heavily identified. That someone was none other than retired Brig. Gen. Robin Olds.

The late Olds responded in a way consistent with his reputation. He sent Schwalier a five-page handwritten letter absolutely dripping with leadership. Olds not only helped Schwalier with his original question, but gave him some incredible bonus material: singular insight into systemic problems with the institutional Air Force and the timeless struggle of airmen and leaders in finding fulfilling roles in a bureaucratic morass that seems to only grudgingly tolerate its dual status as a combat organization. Olds’ words, brilliantly luminous in 1981, ring just as true in 2015.

Here’s a transcription of his response (I’ve included captures of the actual pages at the end of this article):

30 Nov 1981

Dear Major Schwalier,

Your question, or better request, is provocative, to say the least.  I have thought much since receiving your Oct 21 letter, and the more I consider your topic, the more difficult it becomes to frame a reasonable or even useful response.  I’ll try to boil down my thoughts, hoping something useful may distill.

First, let me get some negatives in perspective.  In my view, current Air Force philosophy and practice have all but eliminated any meaningful role playable by an officer placed in a so-called position of command.  Authority has evaporated, sucked up to the rarified heights of “they,” who are somehow felt to exist in the echelons above.  For your information, “they” do not exist.  Neither is there any “he” fulfilling that role.  Authority is expressed through the medium of committee consensus, leadership has become a watered down adherence to the principles of camp counsellorship, with a 90% emphasis on avoiding any action that may in any way be questioned by any one of hundreds of piss ants on the administrative ladder above.  In fact, leadership (and I use that term with contempt) has become a process of looking busy as hell while doing nothing, avoiding personal commitment, and above all, making no decision without prior approval.

Historical example: as a 22 year old Major, commanding a squadron in 1945, I was responsible for and empowered to:  pay the troops; feed them; house them; train them; clothe them; promote; demote; reward; punish; maintain their personnel files, etc.  When I retired as a BG in 1973, I possessed not one of those authorities or responsibilities.  Get the drift?

And you ask the importance of a flight commander.  I am tempted to say NONE.  But that is not true, for in spite of the system, in spite of the executive and administrative castration, a man instinctively looks to a system of military authority in a military situation or system.  If that authority is waffled or watered, he still looks to those appointed to the military echelons to do their best under the circumstances.  A man (a nation for that matter) wants, demands, leadership.  So today’s flight leader/commander leads and commands by example, by appeal to basic instinct, and by light footed avoidance of error, like walking a tightrope.  He has responsibility, for sure.  But he does not have authority, or freedom of discretion/interpretation.  Unfortunately, in some units he really isn’t given much voice.  Yet he functions, and if he is successful (perhaps a better word is “effective”) it is greatly to his credit for having done so under the prevailing circumstances.

Another thought.  All else to the contrary, two basic demands are faced by the Flight Commander.  One is PEACE, the other is WAR.  It has been my experience, in the fighter business I hasten to add, that the man who may excel under the one is not necessarily worth a damn under the other.  Many examples come to mind.  I do not (and did not) condemn one man or the other, rather I accepted the challenge of recognizing the difference and choosing accordingly.

I hope some of this makes sense.


Robin Olds

P.S. For your information, there is no such thing as HQ, USAF.  The highest echelon is a faceless entity, composed of thousands of diverse individuals loosely arranged by a system of interlocking committees and headed by an individual technically labeled the “Chief of Staff.”  Note he is not called the Commander.  By law, he cannot be.  By nature he is forced to be the consummate bureaucrat, fighting for the all mighty dollar, serving as a buffer between Sec Def / Congress and the people and mission of his service – a demanding, demeaning role playable by very few.  

An entire book-length analysis could easily be written about this letter. Seldom can any airman hope to encounter a more furiously burning, dense bundle of essential truths. But initially, two things jump out. (At the risk of doing violence to their public images by mentioning them here, I credit Jeff Donnithorne, Matt Brooks, and Aaron Sasson for including me in their conduct of an enlightening exchange about these initial reactions).

One immediate impression raised from this writing is the recognition of Olds’ considerable intellectual heft. The popular image of the lovable, devil-may-care, warrior firebrand is one Olds earned in spades. But it’s an incomplete portrait. He thought carefully and in great depth about his Air Force and its place in national affairs, and was extraordinarily literate in expressing himself about it.

This is an important point. Olds stands as the definitive example many young airmen — particularly young officers — strive to embody. The notion of a binary division separating “intellectuals” from “true leaders” remains firmly entrenched in the culture of the institution, and it leads to a host of misguided and counterproductive policies, decisions, and characterizations. Olds proves to us that such a false dichotomy is baseless in the first place. It’s not only possible but absolutely essential that an air warrior also be a reflective and even contemplative leader. Olds lived up to that standard, and his words to Schwalier exhort others to do the same.

Another easily grasped takeaway is that the problems facing the Air Force today are not new. Olds lamented them as he retired in 1973, and they remained operative as he mentored Terry Schwalier in 1981. Top heaviness, micromanagement, loss of combat focus, misprioritization … all are directly addressed or implied in Olds’ letter. All are visiting upon the Air Force in 2015.

Lest we find this discouraging, it’s actually good news. It means we’ve been here before, and we found a way out of it. Much of what troubles Olds in his letter had been addressed, ameliorated, or even eradicated by the time the Air Force walloped Saddam Hussein a decade later in the First Gulf War. The institution got relatively healthy and remained that way for much of the 1990s, enjoying a Renaissance of sorts before the combined pressures of post-Cold War adaptation and response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 allowed many maladies to creep back in.

Whether these recurring institutional illnesses are tied to protracted wars, keyed to resources, or simply cyclical is a great discussion for another time. In the interim, we could do a lot worse than to consider the learned words of perhaps the ultimate airman.

If you haven’t yet digested “Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds,” do yourself a favor and give it a read. We have a lot to learn from Robin Olds. This letter demonstrates how so much of the wisdom he bequeathed to us remains undiscovered.

My thanks to Lt. Col. Jeff Donnithorne (an airpower wizard and strong leader in his own right) for sharing this amazing glimpse at Air Force history.

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