The nightfall of the Japanese Samurai

Farewell Japanese Phantom Hyakuri
Japanese Phantom pilots greet the crowd at Hyakuri AFB.

The nightfall of the last remaining Samurai Phantoms has already started since last March when the remaining Phantoms of the 302nd Hikotai (Tactical Fighter Squadron) "Ojirowashi" (White-tailed Eagles) were withdrawn from active service, in transition to the Lockheed Martin F-35A. The other two remaining squadrons, the 301st Hikotai "Frogs", the first ever Phantom squadron and the 501st Hikotai "Woodpeckers", which operates the photo-reconnaissance Phantoms will follow next year, ending what will then be Japan’s half a century operation of the type. All the above mentioned squadrons are based at the Hyakuri Airfield, in the prefecture of Tokyo.

Hyakuri Airfield (百里飛行場 Hyakuri Hikōjō) is the closest fighter base to Tokyo and is located about 85 km north-east of it. Since March 2010 it is also known as Ibaraki Airport when civil aviation operations began at the same location intended to serve as a low-cost alternative to Tokyo's larger Narita and Haneda airports. The airport is equipped with two parallel runways (03-21 L&R) and most of the times civil and military aircraft use different runways. The civil Apron is located on the west side of the airfield while the military on the east.

The Hyakuri Air Base – Ibaraki airport is considered to be one of the last Phantom “paradises” worldwide, because since 2017 all of the remaining Phantom squadrons of the JASDF were gathered there. That’s why it has become one of the most popular places to visit among the aviation photographers and enthusiasts.

Japan was one of the first countries which announced its intention to buy the highly capable new fighter of United States, the F-4 Phantom II, in order to replace its fleet of Lockheed F-104J Starfighters.

On the 1st of November 1968, Japan signed a letter of agreement with Mc Donnell Douglas and it was also announced that it would become one of the few countries worldwide that was going to license-produce this aircraft. Over the following years, the Nihon Koku Jietai (Japan Air Self-Defence Force) received a total of 154 F-4EJ and RF-4Es. The F-4EJs (the export version for Japan) were mostly similar to the F-4Es, although the Japanese aircraft had their in-flight refuelling and ground-attack capabilities removed to align with Japan’s defensive posture, the F-4EJs were delivered without the AN/AJB-7 bombing computer system.

The first two F-4EJs (JASDF serials 17-8301 and 17-8302) were built by McDonnell Douglas in St Louis and first flew on January 14, 1971. The next 11 F-4EJs (JASDF serials 27-8303/8307, 37-8307/8310, and 47-8311/8313) were built by McDonnell Douglas in kit form and were assembled in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. The first Japanese-assembled aircraft (27-8303) flew on May 12, 1972. Subsequently, Mitsubishi built all the rest 127 F-4EJ during the following nine years. The last example was delivered to the JASDF on May 20, 1981. This was the last F-4 ever built in the world.

Japan also acquired 14 RF-4Es built by McDonnell Douglas to serve in the reconnaissance role. These RF-4Es were delivered between November 1974 and June 1975. They were virtually identical to the USAF RF-4C, with the only differences being the deletion of certain equipment such as the radar homing and the warning suite which had not been released for export to Japan.

The F-4EJs entered service with the JASDF in August 1972 with a total of six squadrons operating the aircraft: the 301st, 302nd, 303rd, 304th, 305th and 306th squadrons. The RF-4Es equipped the 501st that had previously operated one of the less-well-known Sabre models, the RF-86F.

In the early 80s, JASDF decided to upgrade its Phantom fleet with a package that would offer the ability to remain a capable opponent for years to come. The upgraded version was called F-4EJ Kai and saw the reintroduction of ground-attack capabilities in the form of anti-ship missiles, bombs and rockets. The F-4EJ Kai (the suffix Kai means "extra" or "augmented") was fitted with the Westinghouse AN/APG-66J pulse-Doppler radar, which was much smaller and lighter than the original APQ-120 and had more operating modes with better lookdown - shootdown capability. Externally, the installation of the new radar could be distinguished by the presence of a new radome which had fore and aft strengthening ribs.

The F-4EJ Kai introduced a new central computer, a Kaiser heads-up display, a Hazeltine AN/APZ-79 IFF system, and a license-built Litton LN-39 inertial navigation unit. A new J/APR-6 Radar Homing And Warning System was also fitted. Twin aft-facing radomes for this system were mounted on the fin tip and forward-facing antennas were mounted on the wingtips. A new, much taller UHF blade antenna was mounted on the dorsal spine, and the lower UHF antenna on the undercarriage door is larger in size. These are about the only externally-visible distinguishing points between the F-4EJ and the F-4EJ Kai. Plans to fit leading edge slats to the F-4EJ Kai were ruled out on the basis of cost, so all the Kais maintained their original leading edge flaps.

The Japanese Kai Phantoms are able to carry a 610-US gallon F-15 fuel tank on the centreline. This tank is capable to withstand higher g-loads than the original F-4 centreline tank. The F-4EJ Kai can also carry the Westinghouse AN/ALQ-131 advanced multimode electronic countermeasures pod. This pod has a wide range of modules and has reprogrammable software which makes it capable of quickly countering new threats.

The F-4EJ Kai can carry the AIM-7E/F Sparrow and the AIM-9L/P Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. In addition, it can carry and launch the Mitsubishi ASM-1 anti-ship missile.

The original plan was to convert 110 aircraft of the remaining 125 (after the losses), but later on it was decided to be 96. The prototype F-4EJ Kai first flew on 17 July 1984, and it was delivered to the 306th squadron on the 24th of November 1989.

In order to strengthen the original RF-4E fleet which had been reduced in size due to aircraft being lost in accidents, JASDF decided to convert 17 F-4EJs to RF-4EJ configuration. These aircraft retained the nose for the M61A1 Vulcan cannon. While mounting no internal cameras or reconnaissance equipment in their nose, they were able to carry a centreline reconnaissance equipment pod. This feature makes them easily recognizable compare to the normal RF-4E.

These aircraft can carry three different types of sensor pods, depending on the mission requirements. These comprise of the TACER (an electronic reconnaissance pod with datalink), the TAC (pod with carrying KS-135A and KS-95B cameras, plus a D-500UR IR system) and the LOROP (with KS-146B camera). The first example which was converted to these standards was the 37-6406.

Nowadays Japan has already started to receive the first order of 42 F-35As to replace the remaining Phantoms. Pilots' training on this fifth-generation fighter is already taking place in Misawa Air Base in the north of Japan’s main island of Honshu as deliveries of Japan’s F-35s continue apace. Japan recently increased its F-35A procurement plans reaching a total of 147 aircraft.

The 302nd squadron withdrew its remaining Phantoms in March 2019, the 501st reconnaissance squadron will follow next March and the last remaining 301st squadron will draw the final curtain most probably at the end of 2020 or in the beginning of 2021. Although 301 and 302 squadrons are due to permanently move to Misawa following the transition to the F-35, the plan is unclear for the 501st squadron when and if it will then transition to a new aircraft type. The F-2 equipped 3 Hikotai, which is currently based at Misawa Air Base, is planned to move to Hyakuri Air Base.

Until then the unique silhouettes of one of the most famous American fighters in recent history will be screaming over the skies of Tokyo.

Long live the Legend!

Text and Pics: George Karavantos

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