The 9th of March 2020 saw the end of an era as the JASDF RF-4 Phantom II aircraft were retired at Hyakuri Air Base after nigh on 46 years service since 47-6901 was delivered in 1974.
Six of the JASDF RF-4 Phantom II aircraft flew twice, in pairs, on their “phinal” day of service from Hyakuri, the six aircraft being: RF-4Es 47-6901, 47-6903, 57-6907, 57-6909 and RF-4EJs 67-6380 & 07-6433. Fittingly 47-6901 was the first RF-4E and 07-6433 the last RF-4EJ delivered to the JASDF.
501 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) were the only JASDF TRS squadron. The Squadron was formed at Matsushima Air Base in the Miyagi Prefecture on the 1st of December 1961. During late August 1962, 501 TRS moved to Iruma Air Base in Saitama prefecture where it operated the RF-86F Sabre, North American T-28B Trojan, and the Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star.
The squadron emblem is the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker wearing a bow tie. The Squadron aircraft wore a blue and yellow chevron on the tails until it was replaced by the woodpecker character in 1981. It is thought the use of the woodpecker as the 501 TRS emblem refers to a battle tactic from the 16th-century battles of Kawanakajima.
It was in 1972 that the JASDF decided to replace their aging RF-86Fs with 14 McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom IIs and created a detachment to Hyakuri Air Base to coincide with the RF-4E Phantoms arrival in Japan and commenced in December 1974 . Iruma continued to be utilised as a detachment furnished with the aging RF-86F Sabres until it was disestablished in March 1977.
The 14 JASDF RF-4E Phantom II aircraft were delivered throughout 1974 and 1975 sequentially numbered 6901 – 6914. Only two of all the RF-4 aircraft delivered were written off in crashes, sadly killing all four crew members. RF-4E 57-6910 crashed on the 5th November 1974 and RF-4E 57-6911 on the 2nd March 1992.
With the arrival of the F-15J Eagle in the JASDF inventory during the early eighties, a number of F-4EJ and F-4EJ Kai aircraft were surplus to requirements and subsequently 15 were converted to RF-4EJ/Kai and delivered to the 501st TRS at Hyakuri, taking the number of JASDF RF-4 Phantoms delivered to 27 frames.
All of the original RF-4E aircraft were delivered in a three-tone ‘forest’ camouflage scheme and all but three remained in that throughout their service. The three that didn’t were aircraft, 6901, 6905 and 6913, which went on to sport a striking new ‘Ocean Blue’ scheme.
6901 was the first aircraft to appear in the new Ocean Blue camouflage, specifically designed for operations over the sea, in August 2015, followed a few months later by 6905 and 6913. The converted RF-4EJ/Kai aircraft were a mixture of the lighter ‘forest’ scheme and a darker two-tone green/grey scheme similar to that of the USAF European based F-4s.
501 TRS also utilised a number of training aircraft, in the form of Kawasaki T4s, which were used for continuation training and conversion of pilots on to the RF-4.
The JASDF RF-4E Phantom II carried a varied ensemble of camera equipment ranging from high altitude cameras such as the KA-55A panoramic, KA-91 panoramic and KS-87 framing cameras to the low altitude kit such as KS-72 reconnaissance , KA-56 panoramic, KA-1 still picture camera and the KS-87 framing camera.
A feature of the converted RF-4E/RF-4E Kai was that they did not have the unique RF-4E camera housing in the nose as they retained the M61A1 Vulcan Cannon nose making them easily identifiable from the standard RF-4E’s. However, they were capable of carrying external centreline reconnaissance equipment. Three differing reconnaissance sensor pods could be carried; LOROP (with a KS-146B camera fitted) TACER (electronic reconnaissance pod with data link), and finally the TAC (featuring KS-135A and KS-95B cameras, and a D-500UR IR system).
The RF-4s are not getting replaced like for like, although Lockheed were contracted in 2016 to provide an unknown amount of synthetic aperture radar pods for F-15Js to carry out the reconnaissance role, allowing for the JASDF RF-4 Phantom IIs to be retired.
As for the future of 501 TRS, it remains unknown as to when ‘Woody’ will return to flight, but at least one (possibly two) Squadrons of F-15Js have been rumoured to be moving to Hyakuri in the near future.
A visit to Hyakuri Air Base and the peace towers will never be the same again however, with the arrival of the 3rd Tactical Fighter Squadron from Misawa, it’s good to see colourful aircraft living on in the shape of the Mitsubishi F-2.
The spook lives on, but for how much longer…
Like this Phantom article? Check out our coverage of the HAF RF-4E Retirement here: https://www.aeroresource.co.uk/events/hellenic-air-force-rf-4e-phantom-retirement/
You can learn more about the JASDF on the official English version of their website: https://www.mod.go.jp/asdf/English_page/