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Remembering a Pioneer – Marc “Thor” Olson

In his youth, years before his middle name would become his callsign, Marc Thor Olson knew he wanted to fly. It comes as no surprise, given that he grew up across the street from an airport in the small town of Mineral Wells, Texas, with a father who had been a helicopter flight instructor for the U.S. Army at Fort Rucker for some years. No matter what Olson’s specific aviation catalyst was, it was clear to his close, life-long friend, Mark Smith, that “He was thinking well beyond high school. Marc knew aviation was his future, and nothing was going to stop him.”

In 1979, Olson received his private pilot’s license at age 17, having paid for it by saving lunch money and working at the airport washing planes. Frequently, Olson would call Smith and say, “Hey, we’re going to go wash an airplane.” Smith recalled how he would run out to the airport to assist his friend because “We had to dry it off when we were done, right? So Marc and I would go around the pattern a couple of times to dry it off.”

Following high school, Olson enlisted in the Army as a helicopter mechanic and was later selected for Army Officer Candidate School (OCS), becoming a helicopter pilot. After his initial hitch, he then attended Embry Riddle, after which he transitioned to the Air Force and completed Air Force flight training at Williams Air Force Base. According to Smith, Olson had a stand-out military career even from the beginning, having won all of the flying awards that his Air Force flight training offered. “Thor,” as he was now known, would continue in that same manner through his military career.

“Oscar,” fellow A-10 pilot and pilot with CO Fire Aviation, first met Thor at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in the early 90’s when they were both OV-10 Bronco pilots. Though they were assigned to “competing” squadrons they shared common ground in their love of flying and in celebrating the histories of their renowned “Snoopy” and “Raven” squadrons. The two became friends, eventually best of friends, and throughout their time in the Air Force, they always made sure that the young officers around them knew the heritage behind the patches they wore and reinforced the understanding that they were all fighting for a flag that a lot of the people before them fought for. As Oscar recounts, “It wasn’t about making rank, it was about flying. It was also about making other people into good pilots, and Thor was a great instructor.” 

Thor and Oscar transitioned together from OV-10s to A-10s and became deeply involved in the A-10’s modernization program. Many lessons had recently been learned during Desert Storm, and modifying A-10 to allow Night Vision Goggle (NVG) operations was expected to improve the flying conditions for the pilots, as well as expand and improve the mission set and survivability of the aircraft. In the early 90s, there was finally support at the Pentagon to modernize and modify the A-10. Thor, Oscar and the other core pilots in the program developed a great deal of passion for what they were doing. Pairing the A-10 and NVGs was game-changing and revolutionized the close air support mission for the aircraft and crews.

This passion for flying with NVGs and his renowned aptitude for instruction became central to Thor’s military career. He continued to succeed and excel in everything he did throughout his military service and managed to accumulate an impressive list of accolades before retiring from the Air Force after 32 years of combined military service. Thor had flown over 190 hours in combat, was a two-time Hawgsmoke winner, and at the time of his retirement, Thor held the record as the highest time A-10 pilot, to mention a few of his many accomplishments. However, according to all who knew him, you would never guess that Thor was such an accomplished fighter pilot and legend in the A-10 community despite his godly callsign. It was never about rank or bragging rights; it was only about his passion for flying.

For many in the A-10 community, life after the service offers only a few civilian avenues to ply the close air support skills they have spent years, even decades, honing. Around his retirement, the United Arab Emirates was developing a Border Patrol Aircraft (BPA) program utilizing weaponized Air Tractor 802s and Thrush 660s. The UAE sought experienced A-10 pilots to teach their students skills like weapons delivery, close air support, and being in a threat environment. Thor and his best friend Oscar became one of the original six hand-picked instructors to launch this program.

In 2014, not long after the BPA program began, fellow A-10 wingmen “Hamster” and “Stitchy” also retired from the Air Force. They, too, had learned about the program with Thor and Oscar in Abu Dhabi. Hamster sets the scene, “They’d come up with this new idea of dropping laser-guided bombs off these crop dusters, and I remember thinking this ain’t going to work. But, they were paying good money, so we went over and gave it a shot.” The instructor cadre of A-10 pilots was being paid to teach some of the UAE’s younger pilots how to drop bombs from crop dusters. The student pilots in this program had minimal experience, some of as little as 100 to 200 hours. Communication was also terrible as many of the students didn’t speak English very well. Some of them couldn’t understand what the instructors were saying unless they could watch the instructor’s lips. Not an ideal situation when the instructor is sitting immediately behind the student in the airplane. To top it off – most of this flight instruction is being done at night.

“It’s nighttime, they don’t fly very well, you’re trying to talk to them over an intercom system, and they don’t understand you very well, and this airplane had a lot of ‘Gucci stuff’ in it.” Hamster remarks, adding that, “The brand new GPS has different windows, it was so easy for them to hit the wrong buttons and get into different screens that you had to try to talk them back out of, but again, they don’t understand you very well. So the communication was horrible, and Thor was adamant that he was going to come up with a better way to teach these guys.” 

After a few months of trying to figure out a better way, Thor came in with an old telescoping antenna that had been broken off of a car. While flying, if the student didn’t understand what Thor was talking about, he would pull this little antenna out, unbuckle himself from the backseat, stand up and reach over the student’s shoulder with the antenna, and point at what buttons he needed the student to press. It was clear that his idea was working out pretty well, and Thor was even bragging a bit about his teaching abilities being way more effective and the communication improving.

Hamster continues, “He went on with this thing for about a month while the rest of us laughed at him. Then we thought, you know, he may be on to something. Well, one night, he was unstrapped and reaching over the guy’s shoulder, pointing at the buttons he needed to press. Finally, the student got the concept, and Thor decided to sit back down. As he sat, he accidentally hit the door handle with his butt, opening the door, which was then promptly ripped off the side of the airplane by the airstream. – Later, at the bar, we asked him how the communication in the aircraft was once his ass ripped the door off….” Hamster laughs heartily, “I’ll never forget that… He was always trying to make things better for us. We never did find that door!”

Stitchy had briefly met Thor before his retirement. “He was already a legend in the A-10 community at that time because of some of the things he’d done with night vision goggles. His high-time in the aircraft, his amazing ability flying the aircraft, and of course the knowledge that came along with that.” Now, having the chance to work with him for the first time, Stitchy immediately recognized some of his strengths, one of which was his passion for flying. “There are people who fly for a job and do things for a paycheck, but Thor, it was his passion. He lived and breathed flying. He was also incredibly dedicated to working with the students and instructors alike.” For instance, when asked a question, Thor was never the kind of guy to say, I’m not sure. He usually knew the answer. But, if he didn’t, he would take the time to research the question and return with a very detailed explanation.

While in the UAE, Chris “Doyley” Doyle, a test pilot for the 802, would continually talk to the cadre of A-10 pilots about his dream of starting a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) company and fighting fires with the Air Tractor 802s. All of the pilots had been listening to him talk about this idea over and over. The more they thought about it, the more they realized that it would be a fantastic opportunity and great way for them to continue to use their skills in close air support missions back home instead of overseas. A couple of years later, as Doyley and Kyle Scott teamed up to start CO Fire Aviation, Doyley introduced Oscar, Thor and the others to Kyle. Thus, as the pilots began rotating out of the UAE, their journeys into fire aviation began.

“I first met Thor in 2016,” recalls Kyle Scott, Co-Owner of CO Fire Aviation. “He was a remarkable guy, as are a lot of people in this industry, but I think his story is pretty unique. It’s ironic, telling parts of his story because he loved being mysterious, an enigma. Thor wouldn’t tell many people much about who he was. He was a ‘Man of Mystery’ and didn’t talk much about his accomplishments, and there were a lot of them.”

After joining CO Fire, Thor again immersed himself into his passions of flying, night NVG flying, and now firefighting. He also began to develop CO Fire’s Fixed-Wing NVG Firefighting program. He spent five years building the program from the ground up, harnessing his more than 1,000 hours of NVG flying experience for much of the basis of the program’s foundation. It was a passion, a labor of love for Thor, who would spend a significant amount of his free time further developing and refining the program. Kyle also described how it had been a lifelong dream of Thor’s to own an airplane. Thor chose to build a Glasair Sportsman and even set up the cockpit for NVGs. “He flew that Sportsman more than 500 hours the first year he had it, which is a crazy number of hours for a personal airplane. I bet a lot of that time was at night too. He would just put the NVGs on and go flying for hours at night, just for the sheer joy of it.” 

One time, Kyle invited Thor to fly an impromptu “escort mission” for a caravan of veterans as they traveled through Fort Morgan on their way to Denver for an “Honor Flight.” Thor immediately jumped at the opportunity. “That’s just the kind of guy he was. There wasn’t a bit of hesitation. It was like, ‘Yeah! We’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right, and this is how it’s done.'” Thor briefed Kyle on how A-10 pilots would fly convoy escort missions in the Middle East so that one aircraft is always traveling alongside the vehicles as they were moving. The two expertly executed the task, even joining at the end to perform a ceremonious break for the veterans just as they had gotten out of the vehicles at a gas station.

“He would take planning to the level above dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s,” according to Stitchy. And Thor was just as ready to meticulously plan and carry out pranks. Including one amazing heist of a sign that required some ‘Mission Impossible’ style skills up on a ladder swapping out a sign with a perfectly crafted forgery while avoiding a security camera. He then had the original sign expertly modified to read ‘Welcome to the Kliewer Hacienda of High Hospitality’ (the Triple H), as it became known to the CO Fire Crews that would stay there. Though he would see it every day Gary Kliewer – friend, and owner, had no idea it was even missing until a few months later as he was unwrapping his Christmas gift – the modified sign.

Stories like these come as no surprise to those close to Thor. They all know of his kind and thoughtful nature. Not just limited to gift-giving, pranks, or providing bottles of Scotch for ‘Le Rent,’ he would even always take the time to make handwritten thank you notes and Christmas cards. Thor was also genuinely passionate about introducing people to aviation. It was not lost on him that those who developed a passion for aviation were generally introduced to it by someone who truly loved it. He loved taking people for flights in his Sportsman; at times, he would even bring his friends along for his leisurely nighttime flights.

While those who knew him each have their favorite memories of times with Thor. They all describe him as extremely intelligent, witty, always armed with great sarcasm and a fantastic, dry sense of humor combined with his impeccable delivery. Above all, Thor was filled with a passion for life, which contributed directly to his willingness to help and his more than 8,000 hours of flying. This passion for life also fueled his desire to develop meaningful relationships with those around him, including friends from work, wingmen from his military service, personnel at tanker bases, and the two black labs at Kliewer’s “Triple H.”

For those who had the pleasure of knowing him, Marc Thor Olson managed to touch many lives and leave a lasting, positive impact on all that shared time in his life. Further reaching are the missions he flew, the lessons he taught, and trails he blazed during his 42 years of flying, a legacy that will continue through the lessons he taught so many for so long.

Ryan Mason
Ryan is an accomplished writer and aerial photographer that has worked in the aviation industry for over a decade before co-founding AerialFire Magazine. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Ryan is a former police officer that focuses his writing and photography efforts on para-public operations and agricultural aviation.

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