On January 2, 1967, U.S. Air Force F-4C Phantoms lured North Vietnamese MiG-21s into the kind of air-to-air dogfight they usually tried to avoid. The mission, called “Operation Bolo,” was an aerial trap designed by Colonel Robin Olds, a fighter ace and veteran who started his combat flying career during World War II. In spite of the fact that Bolo was flown in the some of the most heavily defended airspace ever attacked by U.S. forces, it wound up being one of the most successful deception operations in American military history.
Olds took command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1966. The unit he took over was short on aggression and initiative. Olds, then 44 years old, brought in another Air Force pioneer, Col. Daniel “Chappie” James, another World War II veteran and one of the Tuskegee Airmen, as his director of operations. The command team, which would come to be known as “Blackman and Robin,” completely changed the culture of the 8th TFW. They were ready to take the war to the Vietnamese.
After taking command of the 8th, Olds lost three F-4C aircraft to intercepting Mig-21s. He was frustrated with target restrictions from Washington and frustrated with the battlespace over North Vietnam. Ground observers and early warning radar provided by the Soviet Union would warn the VPAF what was coming. By the time attacking aircraft crossed the Red River, the MiGs were waiting for them. Olds wanted to use this tactic to his advantage.
MiGs were in the air anytime U.S. aircraft were in the area. Two to four MiGs would remain near the enemy’s base at Phuc Yen, while the rest attacked the bomber force along one intercept point on the southern side of the Red River and the other northeast of Thai Nguyen. The MiGs would attack the F-105 formations all along their route and generally avoid the F-4s.
In response, Olds designed Bolo, the first offensive fighter sweep of the Vietnam War. Convinced of the superiority of U.S. pilots in air-to-air combat, he wanted to trick the North Vietnamese to read flights of F-4Cs as the slower, bulkier F-105s. Once the MiGs were in the air, the F-4s would break formation and attack on their own terms. To fool the radar and ground observers, the F-4s would fly in a 105 formation while using Thud call signs.
The SAM threat was mitigated by new ECM anti-radar pods. The jamming pods reduced the rate of SAM kills on F-105s to near zero, but the F-4s were still vulnerable because the pods didn’t fit on the F-4 bomb racks. Olds’ NCOs in the 8th TFW’s fabrication shop spent 36 hours fashioning makeshift replacement panels before Bolo so the F-4s could carry them. This was the first time F-4s ever carried the countermeasure.
Seven flights of F-4Cs would come in from Ubon in the West while seven more came in from Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam. The Ubon forces, led by Olds, would stay in a Thud formation until the last possible second. The Da Nang fighters covered all available airfields to keep the MiGs from landing (they were no longer be targetable on the ground due to orders from Washington) and keep them from making an escape to China.
Olds’ flight used the sign “Olds.” Chappie used the sign “Ford” because one of the planners thought Fords were “big, black, and fun.” The rest were “Rambler,” “Lincoln,” “Tempest,” “Plymouth,” and “Vespa.” They would arrive in the engagement area four minutes apart.
January 2, 1967 was an overcast day. Olds led the first flight into the area. At first there seemed to be no response, which would be devastating. The Americans could only attack MiGs in the air. But Olds didn’t know the cloud cover kept the MiGs on the ground for an extra fifteen minutes. With three minutes until Ford Flight’s arrival, Olds flight made a turn Northwest when MiGs started to come up from the cloud cover.
“Ok, Wolfpack! Go get ’em!” Olds roared.
The MiGs were trying a vise maneuver that blew up in their faces when the U.S. fighters left formation. The Americans took down seven of the sixteen MiG-21s in the VPAF inventory without losing any Phantoms. Bolo was the worst single day for the Vietnam People’s Air Force. The operation’s success led to Seventh Air Force launching a similar operation three days later, mimicking a recon mission. Of the four MiG intercepting that ruse, two were shot down. VPAF fighters were grounded for several months for retraining.
Colonel Olds would score his fourth MiG kill in Vietnam on May 4, 1967, bringing his total to sixteen and making him a triple ace. He flew his last mission in Vietnam on September 23, 1967.