The Tom Cruise character from Top Gun may be better recognised among the general public, but real flyboys will tell you there’s only one fighter ace truly worthy of the ‘Maverick’ moniker: the late, great Robin Olds — a man whose rebellious nature was as plain as the regulation-flouting ’stache on his face.
Raised in a military family, his father a pioneering World War I pilot who rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the US Army Air Corps (the precursor to the US Air Force), flying was literally in Olds’s DNA. He held to the belief that this was a pre-requisite of airborne greatness. “There are pilots and there are pilots,” he said. “With the good ones, it is inborn. You can’t teach it.”
Olds did his own learning at West Point, where he was a football star, named Lineman of the Year and Player of the Year in 1942 (he famously returned to the field after losing his two front teeth in that year’s Army-Navy game) and earning a place in the College Football Hall of Fame. Despite being the quintessential ‘big man on campus’ — 1.9m tall, weighing in at 92kg, he was built like a house — Olds suffered the indignity of a demotion from Cadet Captain to Private after admitting to a weekend’s drinking in New York, doing punishment marches until he graduated. He’d retain a disdain for officious authority the rest of his days.
With the US by this point thoroughly engaged in World War II, his flight training completed, the 22-year-old pilot shipped out for Britain in 1944, winning ace status in short order by shooting down five German aircraft in his first two missions. Within a year he’d been promoted to Major and given command of a squadron, personally tallying up 12 confirmed air-to-air kills (and many more ‘probables’) by the end of the war, engaging in acts of dogfighting derring-do that put Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels to shame. “If you are a fighter pilot, you have to be willing to take risks,” Olds said, with no little understatement.
(As Tom Wolfe would memorably note in The Right Stuff, “In time, the Navy would compile statistics showing that for a career Navy pilot, i.e., one who intended to keep flying for twenty years... there was a 23 percent probability that he would die in an aircraft accident. This did not even include combat deaths, since the military did not classify death in combat as accidental.”)