“Goodbye Woodpecker”: Dramatic Video Shows JASDF Photo Phantoms Last Flight

One of the last Japanese RF-4Es flying for the very last time. (Image credit: courtesy Akihiro Kanai).

“Shark 901”, the first RF-4E imported from the United States to Japan in 1974 was the last aircraft to land.

On Mar. 9, 2020, the Japan Air Self Defense Force retired its RF-4E/Js at Hyakuri Air Base, Japan. The “Photo Phantoms”, operated by the 501 Hikotai (or Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron) were among the world’s most famous, because of their trademark sharkmouth, the unit’s woodpecker emblem on the tail and the three camo schemes (European, Vietnam and Blue offshore camouflage) were eventually retired.

All the six last airworthy RF-4s flew last Monday: three in the morning and three in the afternoon but the third aircraft made a high-rate climb while the wet runway created some interesting vapor clouds. In the afternoon the weather has improved. Another three aircraft flew with “Shark 901”, aircraft 47-6901, the first RF-4E aircraft imported from the United States to Japan in 1974, with its offshore camouflage, being the last Japanese RF-4E to ever land.

Our friend and videomaker Akihiro Kanai filmed the last Samurai Photo Phantoms taking off and landing on Mar. 9 and produced the outstanding video tribute you can find below.

As already reported, with the “recce” Phatoms withdrawn from use once and for all, the 501 Hikotai will be disbanded.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.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.