12 September 2010

Robin Olds and the Nuclear Voodoos

When SAC lost interest in the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo as a bomber escort, the Tactical Air Command (TAC) saw potential in the big fighter as a tactical nuclear bomber given its large fuel capacity and solid low-level stability. With the support of the commander of the US Air Forces Europe, General Frank Everest, and the USAF Vice-Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, the single-seat F-101A and F-101C Voodoos were assigned to the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing in the UK at the twin bases in Suffolk at RAF Bentwaters and Woodbridge. There the Voodoos replaced the nuclear-capable Republic F-84Fs previously based there that were assigned targets in the East Germany, Poland, and the Baltic republics. Because of the nuclear delivery role of the 81st TFW, the wing tended to have more senior officers as pilots than other USAFE fighter wings of the time. Voodoos on "Victor Alert" were fueled and armed with a single tactical nuclear bomb on the centerline station between the two external fuel tanks. The 81st TFW began its nuclear alert duties with the F-101A/C at the end of 1958. 

Because of the nuclear role of the 81st TFW, many of the pilots assigned would later become generals within the USAF in their careers. In August of 1963, two famous USAF pilots came to the 81st TFW to assume command. Colonel Robin Olds, already an ace from the Second World War and Korea became the wing commander and Lt. Colonel Daniel "Chappie" James would be his Director of Operations. Men of the 81st TFW fondly remembered them as "Blackman and Robin". 

The choice of Olds to lead the wing was surprising to many given Olds' extensive background in air combat. Some even thought him unsuitable to command a tactical nuclear bomber wing. But his enthusiasm, skill, and reputation endeared him to the men of the wing and Olds surprised even his harshest detractors. Olds selected an F-101 with a serial number ending in "001" because, as he put it, "The boss should have Balls 1 as his personal mount." The morale of the unit was the utmost importance to the command staff at USAFE, which may have been the reason Robin Olds was selected to command the unit. The reason was simple- during a time of war, the Voodoos of the 81st TFW would have to fly in low and fast across the Iron Curtain to drop nuclear bombs on tactical targets in the rear flank areas of the Warsaw Pact's immense armored forces in East Germany. The defenses along the way were already dense and the Voodoos had no onboard ECM systems like SAC's bombers did. They would rely on speed and penetration altitudes as low as 50 feet to reach their targets in even the worst weather using the radars that had been upgraded to provide ground mapping functions. Many of the targets were beyond the combat radius of the Voodoo and the men were told they'd refuel from KB-50 tankers over the North Sea, but in a war, many knew that the missions would be one way with little chance of safe return to the UK. 

Knowing their assigned mission was one-way at best, having Olds as their commander was key to morale. Not only did Olds relish in the challenge of commanding the 81st TFW which was nothing like he had done before, he was eager to show the pilots the strengths of the F-101 Voodoo at low-level. Olds worked his man hard and had the Voodoos modified with one of the 20mm cannon being removed to make room for TACAN equipment to help with training missions. Olds set up an intensive series of training missions for his pilots and it wasn't unusual for a pilot sitting Victor Alert to be scrambled in an evaluation of his performance. Olds' rigorous training regimen no doubt would have made even Curtis LeMay proud. 

In 1964 the 81st TFW was notified that they would be soon transitioning to the McDonnell F-4C Phantom and would have start training for close air support missions. Though the Voodoo was far from ideal in CAS roles, Olds nonetheless trained them in CAS to prepare them for the transition to the Phantom which did have a CAS role for the USAFE and NATO. In order to keep the morale of the wing up, Olds set up an aerobatic unit to showcase the F-101's capabilities with four formation aircraft and one solo aircraft. Olds believed even the big Voodoo could be maneuverable if handled properly and the team trained in addition to their regular training duties. Olds, however, in his often maverick style, set up the team on his own accord without consulting his superior officers and his impending promotion to General along with a planned citation for his work in leading the 81st TFW were immediately scuppered. Olds was reassigned to a non-flying staff position as punishment for starting an aerobatic team. 

Only nine months elapsed before Colonel Olds was flying again, this time he was in Arizona converting to the F-4 Phantom. Olds would fly as much as three times a day to understand the quirks and advantages of the Phantom and found himself being called upon again to raise morale for another Air Force unit, this time the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing "Wolfpack" at RTAFB Ubon in Thailand which was suffering losses at the hands of North Vietnamese MiGs. During his tenure with the Wolfpack at Ubon, Olds ordered that no Voodoo reconnaissance pilot should have to buy his own drink at the officers' club at the base!

Source: Voodoo Warriors: The Story of the McDonnell Voodoo Fast Jets by Nigel Walpole. Pen and Sword, 2007, p119-131.


  1. You might want to check the newest book about Robin Olds based upon his notes and memorabilia but written by Ed Rasimus and Christina Olds. I don't think Olds was able to fly in combat during the Korean War, something he wanted to do, as you can well imagine.

  2. Go to http://www.usafa1961.org/robin_olds.htm and read about Robin Olds. It confirms my earlier message that Olds did not fly in Korea.

  3. I was stationed in Ubon in 1966-7 flyinf night missions with the 497th TFS under the 8th TFW.
    I do recall being hoisted in the stag bar by Robin and Chappie and ordered (I was a 1st Lt.)
    to sing "The Balls of O'Leary" while my chest was crushed by their massive arms (I,m 5'7").

    I had the duty of delivering cold champagne to the pilot's cockpits after their last mission.
    When I flew mine, no one was assigned the duty.
    Later, at the stag bar, Robin presented me with
    TWO such bottles.

    Frank J. McLeod, Jr Col (ret)

  4. Great article--Good history from a RF-101 Tac Reccy puke in France who took his do it yourself kit simulator trng at Bentwaters in May,'60 for an initial ckout in RF-101s and later to fly 100 missions over NVN in F-105 "67 with Olds and his 8th guys flying Mig Cap in their F-4s to pack 6. We (RF-101) guys in France also had the same tgts in Europe to photo the nuc destruction. We had to plan the missions with enough gas to return to fwd bases to unload the film or the mission was wasted without the film. Great low level flying. Al Lenski, B/Gen, USAF ret.

  5. Thanks guys for reading and the additional information that Olds didn't get to fly and fight in Korea. From what has also been emailed to me, a lot of keeping him out of combat in Korea had to do with the lobbying of his actress wife, Ella Raines. I have always thought that the story of the F-101 Voodoo one of the most unheralded in recent aviation history.

    Thanks for your contributions. I will try and relink to this blog entry so my readers can read your posts!

  6. Enjoyed the article, but question one statement regarding Olds scrambling birds from Victor ALert. I sat Victor at RAFB Sculthorpe, 1959-1962 with two MK-28,Mod 1, loaded on a B-66B. Moving a "loaded" aircraft under its own power within the Victor area without a valid, authenticated launch order would be met by the Victor Security Force with deadly results. It was routine to be scrambled to the aircraft anytime of day or night, check in with the tower,and be told your time from scramble bell to check in for engone start. But,that was it. No engine start,let alone moving the aircraft! Pete Nicolos,Col,USAF (ret)

  7. Thanks for the clarification and posting that to my blog! I didn't realize that the B-66 Destroyers sat nuclear alert. I was under the impression that most of the B-66 missions for USAFE were reconnaissance.

  8. Unfortunately, almost all of your information about the 81st and the F-101 is incorrect. All of the innovations you attribute to Olds were in place before he arrived, except for the aerobatic team - which he put together not because the Voodoo was a capable aerobatic platform (it was not), but because Olds wanted desperately to get busted out of the 81st job and secure a squadron command in Vietnam. Blackman and Robin as a nickname didn't come about until they were in Thailand - their time together at Bentwaters was prior to the Batman TV series. Chappie James beat Olds to the 81st by almost two years. He was he 92TFS C/O prior to Olds arriving and making him Wing DO. Olds did not push the unit towards CAS or practice it at all - that was not the unit's mission, and the Voodoos had no CAS or ground attack capability (other than nuke delivery). Victor Alert aircraft were NOT scrambled - the Voodoos never flew with a live nuke on board, they could not move under their own power with a weapon unless a command order was issued. Targets were not 'tactical' in nature, in that they were not to be determined after a conflict arose, or in response to a tactical situation. They were almost all Warsaw Pact airfields. The Wing had 8-12 targets. Each pilot had a specific target assigned to them. The Alert schedule was arranged so that a pilot for each of the Wing's targets was sitting alert at all times. The targets, still classified, were up to 500 miles within Soviet borders.

    Thanks for putting up the Voodoo info - you are correct,the bombers have been a sorely unreported aircraft over the years. My father flew with the 92nd TFS for 3 years, leaving just as Olds arrived. Chappie was his squadron C/O for a time.

    Keith Snyder, Dallas TX