This legendary triple ace wrote an amazing letter on modern Air Force leadership

Robin Olds was not known for obeying the spirit of Air Force regulations. From the start of his military career, he didn’t always do things by the book. He was West Point graduate whose time at the Academy was hastened so he and his class could catch the last half of World War II.

This legendary fighter pilot was actually almost a bomber pilot, told by an instructor he called “Military Bill” that he was too big for a fighter. But he flew bombers like fighters and performed illegal maneuvers whenever possible. Eventually so many reports of his ability came in that “Military Bill” was overruled and Olds was back in a fighter. Even when the Army’s top brass declared that West Pointers were to be squadron commanders only, Olds and a buddy went down to the personnel section of their outfit and asked the old, grey-haired sergeant in charge to send them to England, and it worked.

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Olds’ entire career was results-oriented. Everything from planning Operation Bolo in Vietnam to being Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He turned an underperforming unit around with bold leadership and his distinctive out-of-regs mustache that he open admitted was a “middle finger I couldn’t raise in PR photographs.”

He spoke with authenticity and authority on all things military and aviation, so it makes sense that when Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier was a major, writing a paper for the Air Command and Staff College called “The Tactical Flight Commander — Developing Warriors,” he asked then-retired Brig. Gen. Robin Olds for his insights on the role of flight commander. In return, Schwalier received a five-page diagnosis on the institutional problems with the modern Air Force. Olds went on to describe how a commander can find fulfillment and still exemplify leadership, even in the current Air Force climate:

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.

Sincerely,

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.

This letter was first released on the John Q. Public blog, whose author is a former USAF officer. He noted that Olds retired in 1973 and the letter was written in 1981. He acknowledged that much of what Olds was talking about was cleared away by the time Operation Desert Storm rolled around. But protracted war in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world has caused much of the recurring problems of “Top heaviness, micromanagement, loss of combat focus, misprioritization” to return to the Air Force. This is the age where USAF leadership testifies to Congress about morale being “pretty darn good,” while the Air Force suffers from a crushing ops tempo and mistrust of leadership (note the occasion in 2011 where the USAF invited officers to apply for voluntary separation, revoked the offer, then gave them the boot anyway… or the occasion in 2014 where the same thing happened).

It’s nice to know it wasn’t always this way… and that it can be fixed.

F101Olds

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