Farewell to a Legend: South Korea’s Final F-4 Phantom Takes Flight in Historic Ceremony

F-4 Retirement
South Korea received their first F-4D's from the US in 1969 under the “Peace Spectator” program. With this the Asian country became the fourth operator worldwide of the Phantom and the F-4D flew all the way till June 16th 2010. (All images, credit: Author)

Last week, the Republic of Korean Air Force (ROKAF) retired their very last F-4 Phantoms. During a decommissioning ceremony held at their last homebase Suwon South Korea flew the very last F-4s. We were there.

In total South Korea operated around 200 Phantoms in three different versions. The ROKAF received their first six F-4Ds at Daegu Air Base in the second half of 1969, being the fourth county to operate the Phantom back than.

The first unit to operate the Phantom was the 151st Fighter Squadron, followed by 152nd, 153rd and the 159th all flying out of Daegu. In 1972 South Korea acquired another 18 F-4Ds from the US followed by more Phantoms in 1975 after the regional security situation deteriorated.

A total of 92 F-4Ds found their way to Asia with the last ones being retired as late as 2010. The first, more advanced F-4E Pantoms arrived in September 1977, giving South Korea enhanced air-to air and air-to ground capabilities. A total of 94 F-4E’s where purchased by the ROKAF including aircraft 78-0744, the 5057th and very last build Phantom by McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.

The “Peace Pheasant II” program further strengthened the ROKAF fleet with the introduction of the more capable and advanced F-4E model, including factory new and used aircrafts formerly owned by the USAF.

South Korea also operated the reconnaissance version of the Phantom, the RF-4. Twelve ex USAF RF-4C were sent to South Korea in 1989/1990 followed by another 15 lateron. These flew with the 131st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron from Suwon till 2014.

The third version of the mighty Phantom that was operated by the ROKAF was the RF-4C reconnaissance version. 27 should have been delivered with the last ones being retired in 2014.

The official decommissioning ceremony was held on Friday June 7, 2024, at Suwon Air Base.

Attendance were the Minister of National Defense, Mr. Shin Wok Sik, other military leaders but most important were all the current and former F-4 pilots, maintenance crews etc. who worked with the Phantoms. The ceremony included a remembrance part for the fallen ROKAF F-4 crews who lost their lives, the commendations and citations to former and current Phantom crews and a very last sortie flown by two F-4’s.

“Phantom Zero One, you are requested to complete your final mission and return. Phantom Zero One, take off.” Following the order to take off from Korea’s Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, two F-4Es took off for their final flight.
During the 1990s, the South Korean Air Force evaluated a modernization program for 38 F-4Es, but ultimately decided to implement a more economical upgrade package.
After its pilot and WSO parked their F-4 for their very last time they walk towards the Minister of National Defence to sign off. Defense Minister Shin hung congratulatory wreaths on the nose of the jets and wrote the commemorative message on the fuselage of one of them: “Beyond legend, into the future!”

After returning to base the two Phantoms parked themselves in front of the stage with all the guests after which Defense Minister Shin hung congratulatory wreaths on the nose of one of the F-4s and wrote the a message on the nose saying: “Beyond legend, into the future!”

Returning to Suwon Air Base after its very last mission and rolling towards its parking position in front of the gathered crowd F-4E 78-0743.

The ceremony also included commemorative flights by a range of modern fighter jets such as the F-16, KF-16, FA-50, RF-16, F-15K, and F-35A, symbolizing the transition of air defense duties to newer aircraft. These demonstrations underscored South Korea’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a robust and modern air force.

Several F-4’s received some special decals with a Korean text saying ‘From the hands of the people, to the hearts of the people: 1969-2024’

With the South Korea F-4 retirement the last words went to Phantom pilot Lt. Col. Kim Tae-hyung, the commander of the 153rd Fighter Squadron, 10th Fighter Wing: “As the last commander of the last Phantom Squadron, it was an honor to witness the Phantom’s final moments. Though its mission has concluded, the majesty that once overwhelmed the enemy and the thunderous engine roar that resonated through the earth will forever endure in the hearts of the ‘Phantom Men’. With unwavering pride as a Phantom pilot, I am committed to steadfastly defending the Republic of Korea. Phantom, Forever!”

The last two F-4 pilots and WSO’s report to Minister Shin that their final Phantom mission was completed. This moment they symbolized the end of all missions carried out by the F-4 over the past 55 years.
All current F-4E pilots and WSO’s from the 153rd Fighter Squadron pose on a Phantom for a group picture after the ceremony.
About Edwin Schimmel
Edwin Schimmel is a freelance photographer based near Utrecht city in The Netherlands. His first article and photo publications date back to the mid 90’s in Dutch aviation magazines like Onze Luchtmacht and De Vliegende Hollander. Later on he also got published in international aviation magazines like Air Forces Monthly and Combat Aircraft. Since 2000 he works in the Air Traffic Control at the Royal Netherlands Air Force. He reported from many bases around Europe but also in the US and Japan.