Japan retires its last Photo Phantoms.
On Mar. 9, 2020, the Japan Air Self Defense Force retired its RF-4E/J reconnaissance aircraft at Hyakuri Air Base, in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. Assigned to the 501 Hikotai or Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, the “Photo Phantoms” made their last training sortie and all the unit’s Phantoms, with their peculiar sharkmouth, the unit’s woodpecker mark on the tail and the three camo schemes (European, Vietnam and Blue offshore camouflage) were eventually retired.
Actually, local flight training had already ended last week, on Tuesday Mar. 3, 2020 and, on the event on Mar. 9 was held to celebrate the disbandment of 501 Sqn. The last six remaining RF-4s flew in two 3-ship flights, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
The official disbandment ceremony should be held on March 14, but there will be no flying activity.
— 航空自衛隊百里基地 (@jasdf_hyakuri) March 9, 2020
Photographer and The Aviationist contributor David Parody visited Hyakuri to capture some of the final flights of the venerable Photo Phantom airframe recently. Here’s what he wrote in an email to us giving an idea of the aviation enthusiasts feeling in the last days of operations of the aircraft:
Despite their advanced age and impending retirement it was heartening to see that flights of the RF-4Js were still taking place on a daily basis with at least one or two sorties of two aircraft each being deployed in the morning and afternoon, much to the delight of local and foreign spotters keen to be making the most of the final opportunities to capture the aircraft in their colourful liveries.
Abysmal weather on the first day of shooting only added to the nostalgia and atmosphere of the afterburner take offs in the pouring rain and subsequent parachute assisted recoveries about an hour after take off. The photographic opportunities were enhanced with 301 Squadron, flying the F-4Js, also make four ship sorties throughout the day as were the F2 Viper Zeros also operating from the same base.
With the “recce” Phatoms withdrawn from use once and for all, the 501 Hikotai will be disbanded. However, the 301 Squadron, also based at Hyakuri, and equipped with the grey F-4EJ “Kai” jets with the squadron emblem, a frog, on the tail, will continue to operate the Phantom for some months, before moving to Misawa Air Base in the north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, to become the second F-35A unit later in 2020. Japan is introducing a fleet of 42 F-35As to replace the Phantom.
As already explained in many recent posts focusing on the last “Samurai” Phantoms:
The Recce unit’s Phantoms have three types of camo schemes: European camouflage (RF-4EJ), Vietnam camouflage (RF-4E), Blue offshore camouflage (RF-4E).
The F-4EJ “Kai” (“extra”) is the latest Japanese variant of the Phantom that has been modernized from the EJ version in the mid-1980s with the installation of a new AN/APG-66J pulse-Doppler radar, a new central computer, a Kaiser HUD (Head Up Display), an AN/APZ-79 IFF system, as well as the ability to carry an AN/ALQ-131 advanced multimode electronic countermeasures pod and to launch the AIM-7E/F Sparrow and the AIM-9L/P Sidewinder AAMs (air-to-air missiles). The RF-4EJ is the reconnaissance version of the F-4E. It’s almost identical to the USAF RF-4C but it lacks a few systems (such as the radar homing and warning receiver suite) which were not released for export to Japan. The upgraded variant of the original RF-4EJ is designated RF-4EJ “Kai”.