Long before he retired as a much-decorated brigadier general, Robinson Risner was one of the most celebrated pilots in the Air Force. He was an ace in the Korean War, shooting down eight Russian-built MiG-15s and received the Silver Star for a daring mid-air maneuver to steer a fellow pilot to safety.
More than a decade later, he led the first flight of Operation Rolling Thunder, a high-intensity aerial bombing of North Vietnam. He received the Air Force Cross in April 1965. Later that month, “Robbie” Risner was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
In five missions in a single week, he once recalled, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire four times.
“Fear is a luxury one can’t afford,” he told Time.
But on Sept. 16, 1965, the luck of Risner ran out.
During a raid over North Vietnam, he was forced to bail out and was held for more than seven years in the so-called Hanoi Hilton, before his release in 1973.
Risner died Oct. 22 at his home in Bridgewater, Va. He was 88 and had complications from a recent stroke, his wife, Dorothy Risner, said.
In the 1990s, Risner met a Russian fighter pilot who had flown MiGs in Korea. The Russian wondered if they might have faced each other in the air.
“No way,” Risner replied. “You wouldn’t be here.”
Risner was one of only four airmen in history to receive more than one Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor for wartime heroism.
After his military career, Risner lived for many years in Texas, where he was executive director of an anti-drug program. He often spoke at gatherings for veterans and Air Force pilots.
He was also a close friend of the billionaire businessman and onetime presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who commissioned a statue of Risner, which was installed at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001.