Academic journal article Air Power History

Robin Olds and the Heroes of Operation Bolo: The Lessons Learned from the Day U.S. Air Power Ruled the Skies over North Vietnam

Academic journal article Air Power History

Robin Olds and the Heroes of Operation Bolo: The Lessons Learned from the Day U.S. Air Power Ruled the Skies over North Vietnam

Article excerpt

In the early morning of January 2, 1967, F-4 Phantom IIs of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (8 TFW) waited on the tarmac at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) for orders to launch a mission over Phuc Yen Airfield in North Vietnam. It was a meticulously planned operation that sought to deceive Northern air assets into engaging Air Force F-4Cs which they had generally sought to avoid. As time dragged on, the crews waited for the weather over the target area to clear to begin what became known as Operation Bolo.


The story of this famous event began in 1965, when the 8 TFW arrived in Thailand. That first year, they shot down six MiGs, a rarity since, most often, enemy MiGs avoided combat with F-4s. MiGs engaged slower U.S. combat aircraft such as the F-105 Thunderchiefs which could fight off older MiG-17s or, later, MiG-19s. When the enemy received MiG-21 Fishbeds in the mid-1960s, the risk increased. (1)

In March 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated a tightly controlled air campaign against the North Vietnamese. The Air Force and Navy conducted this large-scale, offensive air operation mainly against the Northern capital of Hanoi and the major port city of Haiphong. Designated Operation Rolling Thunder, it grew in intensity during 1965 and 1966.

The President sought to have this sustained bombing campaign increase the "quotient of pain" on the enemy to the extent it would persuade the North Vietnamese regime to cease support for the Communist insurgency in the South and negotiate a peace settlement. At the very least, they hoped it would halt or slow the flow of Communist men and materiel into South Vietnam. (2)

Rolling Thunder sorties targeted Northern industry, storage facilities, transshipment points, lines of communication, and, later, air defenses. Air Force and Navy aircraft struck at the core of the Hanoi's infrastructure, with ever increasing frequency, aiming to destroy its capacity to make war. As effective as these raids proved to be on the infrastructure, the enemy survived with ever growing resupplies of essential materials from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC). The largest portion of missions was flown by the F-105Ds referred to as "Thuds." They operated from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. (3)

To counter America's air war, Communist leaders worked to bolster and expand their air defenses. Chinese and Soviet leaders dispatched powerful, modern air defense systems to their Communist cousins in order to challenge U.S. air superiority. The major aspects of these defenses was a network of early warning radars and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, armed with the deadly S-75s, better known as SA-2 Guideline missiles. They defended high value targets with an array of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) that ranged from 100mm radar-directed guns to rapid fire 23 mm, multi-barrel, automatic cannons and heavy machine guns. They also, gradually, built up their MiG interceptors. (4)

The Competing Air Forces

As U.S. aircraft attacks gained momentum, officials in Hanoi sought to construct a fighter-interceptor force using aircraft, equipment, and pilot training afforded them by their Soviet and Chinese allies. In February 1964, the Vietnamese People's Air Force (VPAF) received its first jet aircraft. They were Soviet-built, Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG)-17s, also known in China as J-5s. At first, they were stationed at bases in the PRC These aging fighters made up the 921st Sao Do or Red Star Fighter Regiment (921 FR) and comprised the VPAF's first operational jet fighter unit. While the MiG-17 was an upgrade from the VPAF's propeller fighters, they were not comparable to U.S. fighter aircraft. They were a post-Korean War design that flew at subsonic speeds and did not possess air-to-air missile capability. They were very maneuverable, and armed with "powerful 23 and 37 mm cannons, it was a force to be reckoned with in close air combat. …

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