Robin Olds was of another time. As a warrior, as a pilot, and even as a man. One gets the sense that he was born “old school”, that he was a throwback to another way, not just of battling the enemy, but of living itself. Olds was an iconoclast and a swashbuckling one, at that. He drank too much, he wore his mustache out of regulation, and he pushed his planes so hard they were sometimes never flown again.
As a fighter pilot new to the war, Robin Olds was eager to find his enemy counterparts and test himself against them. Based out of England some months before D-Day, Olds found himself flying primarily reconnaissance and bomber escort missions and became frustrated with the boredom of the routine.
His unit was assigned an unremarkable mission to strike a bridge in France early one morning. In bad weather, Olds soon found himself approaching the target all alone. He came in low to hit the bridge and let his bombs go, finding out later that he’d managed to destroy the bridge single-handedly. On his way out of the area, Olds saw a couple of dark shapes dart through the air across the road ahead of him. Olds gave chase and downed both German planes with his machine guns. But he was alone! He worried whether his comrades would believe his success on his return. Arriving at the airfield, though, his commander informed Olds that two American planes had been watching the action from thousands of feet above him and had called to let his unit know what they’d seen. Olds had the first two of what would be his sixteen aerial victories resulting from action in WWII and Vietnam.
Fighter Pilot, Olds’ memoir, conveys not just Olds’ personal experiences but also some amazing evidence of just how dangerous military aviation was in its early days. These guys crashed, and they crashed a lot, not just in action, but in peacetime training as well. The freedom fighter pilots had in those days is stunning. They could literally just get in their planes, fly over France, and shoot up pretty much anything they found moving on the ground or in the air. The sense of awe Olds felt flying over the armada as the Allies invaded Normandy gives the reader some idea of the enormous scale of that effort. The sea, to Olds’ eyes, was carpeted with ships, and he could tell, even from far above, it was a bloody day on those beaches.
It’s easy to read his memoir from the lens of contemporary cultural viewpoints and be amazed that things ever were the way they were. Times may be better now for a lot of us in a lot ways, but the captivating tales of Fighter Pilot leave one with the nagging feeling that, after all the progress we’ve made, we’ve lost something of the excitement of being alive in this world.