The end of Phantom combat operations in Japan comes at a time in which the country is stepping up military spending and looking to modernize its military, as a whole, in response to increasing national security threats. Credit: JASDF.

There is an old joke, about the F-4 Phantom fighter jet — an aircraft that was prominent during the Vietnam war.

So the story goes, they asked a fighter pilot, what it was like to fly an F-4.

He began by saying, “Well, with enough thrust, anything can fly …”

The Phantom has been called  “double ugly,” “rhino,” “old smokey,” and monikers even less flattering, according to Air & Space.

The design does have its share of ungainly bends and angles. The horizontal stabilizers droop 23.25 degrees. The outer wing sections tilt upward 12 degrees.

When an engineer looks it over, the first thing that probably comes to mind is “stability and control problems.”

A brutal example of that weakness occurred during a May 18, 1961 speed record attempt. While Navy test pilot Commander J.L. Felsman flew below 125 feet over a three-mile course, his F-4 experienced pitch damper failure, Air & Space reported.

The resulting pilot-induced oscillation generated over 12 Gs. Both engines were ripped from the airframe and Felsman was killed. (A later attempt succeeded.)

OK, so it’s not perfect.

And speaking of numbers, it downed more adversaries (280 claimed victories) than any other US fighter in the Vietnam War. 

Nowadays, you’ll find Phantoms sitting in the American desert, or maybe at the bottom of the sea, or serving with other countries, including Japan.

This week, a special ceremony was held at Hyakuri Air Base, in Ibaraki Prefecture, 50 miles northeast of Tokyo — where the JASDF’s (Japan Air Self-Defence Force) famed 301 Hikotai combat unit is stationed, Thomas Newdick of The War Zone reported.

The Japanese production run also included the last of the 5,195 Phantoms built anywhere in the world — F-4EJ 17-8440 rolled off the MHI production line on May 21, 1981. Credit: JASDF.

Representatives from the base, various squadron commanders, as well as officials representing the wider JASDF, attended the send-off which marked the end of 48 years of faithful service of the F-4 Phantom II, which will cease flying operations next month.

The 501 Hikotai was famous for adopting the American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as its mascot, painting the bird on the squadron’s vertical stabilizers.

The remaining F-4EJs will, in the future, only be flown by the country’s Air Development and Test Wing, The War Zone reported.

The end of Phantom combat operations in Japan comes at a time in which the country is stepping up military spending and looking to modernize its military, as a whole, in response to increasing national security threats, especially from China and North Korea.

Japan’s Phantom story began in 1968 when the McDonnell Douglas type was selected for the JASDF, an order being placed for 140 F-4EJ versions, based on the US Air Force’s then-standard F-4E.

The production effort was of considerable significance for Japan’s aerospace industry, with all but the first two F-4EJs being completed under license by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), The War Zone reported. 

Meanwhile, the initial pair from the production line in St Louis, Missouri, touched down in Japan on July 25, 1971.

The Japanese production run also included the last of the 5,195 Phantoms built anywhere in the world — F-4EJ 17-8440 rolled off the MHI production line on May 21, 1981, The War Zone reported.

The definitive F-4EJ Kai, which the JASDF had continued to fly in a frontline role until today, had new avionics other systems installed, including an enhanced bombing computer. Credit: JASDF.

The following year, Japan kicked off a major upgrade effort for its F-4EJ fleet, which would bring 96 examples up to F-4EJ Kai standard, with “Kai” meaning “improved.”

The definitive F-4EJ Kai, which the JASDF had continued to fly in a frontline role until today, had new avionics other systems installed, including an enhanced bombing computer.

It also featured an AN/APG-66J pulse-Doppler radar, based on the standard AN/APG-66 used in early F-16 Viper fighter jets. The upgraded Phantoms gained the AN/ASN-141 inertial navigation system, similar to the one found in Japan’s F-15J air superiority fighters, The War Zone reported.

In the cockpit, the F-4EJ Kais received modern hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls and a head-up display (HUD). Additional avionics changes included the installation of the AN/APX-76A identification friend or foe (IFF) system and the J/APR-6 radar warning receiver (RWR) suite, while AN/ALE-40 countermeasures dispensers were fitted for self-defense.

The F-4EJ Kai’s airframe was also reworked to add another 2,000 hours of flight time, while weapons options were expanded to include the indigenous ASM-2 anti-ship missile and AAM-3 air-to-air missile, and eventually the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), The War Zone reported.

These were a vast improvement over the Vietnam era AIM-7 radar-guided missile, which sported a kill rate against North Vietnamese MiG-17s and MiG-21s at below 10%, Air & Space reported. 

The legendary Chuck Yeager once said it was because the missiles weren’t meant to go from a freezing cold environment in the upper air, to the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia.

Another pilot, Richard Keyt of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, said it was because “F-4s fired in high-G turns at small MiGs that were turning hard and pulling Gs.”

As well as the F-4EJ, Japan had acquired Phantoms for the reconnaissance role. The first of an initial batch of 14 unarmed RF-4E variants were delivered by McDonnell Douglas in 1974 to replace the aging RF-86F Sabre.

The retirement of the Phantom doesn’t signal the end for 301 Hikotai. It is now due to move to Misawa Air Base, where it will become the second JASDF squadron to be equipped with the F-35A stealth fighter, The War Zone reported.

The 501 Hikotai, based at Hyakuri Air Base north of Tokyo, was famous for adopting the American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as its mascot, painting the bird on the squadron’s vertical stabilizers. Credit: JASDF.

However, the JASDF’s F-35 fleet now looks set to exceed the peak size of its F-4 force after the US State Department approved the possible sale to Japan of an additional 105 Joint Strike Fighters, worth an estimated $23.11 billion, earlier this year.

The proposed contract also includes 42 F-35B Short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) jets, to conduct fixed-wing operations from Japan’s two Izumo class helicopter carriers.

The State Department’s approval of this proposed deal follows Tokyo’s initial order for 42 conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35A variants, The War Zone reported.

The end of the line for frontline Phantoms in Japan also further reduces the dwindling total of F-4s still in operational service. Surviving “Phantastic Phantoms” are now only found among the air forces of Greece, Iran, Turkey and South Korea. 

Oh, and about that joke about thrust and those early J79 turbojet engines.

In a memorable moment landing on the USS Midway, a pilot realized that his tailhook had failed to engage an arresting cable — after he’d already fully idled back both engines (a rookie mistake).

The Midway’s deck camera recorded his Phantom plunging off the end of the carrier. Everyone knew it was over.

The pilot slammed the throttles forward.

Instead of a large splash, the F-4 reappeared—“going straight up, in full afterburner,” said the pilot — as the J79s delivered just-in-time thrust.

Sources: The War Zone, Air & Space, Popular Mechanics

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