Pharewell Phantom

Text by Erik Bruijns
South Korea bids farewell to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II on Friday 7 June 2024.
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The ‘Pilseung Squadron’ formation showing all three different colour schemes worn by the F-4 during its career - ROKAF
After 55 years of service two Phantoms made their last flight from Suwon Air Base. Upon their return, an emotional decommissioning ceremony saw the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) provide an “honourable discharge” for these aircraft that have played such a vital role over the past decades. The F-4 has been vital in the defense of the nation and seen as a game changer after its introduction. The proper send off for the type was attended by South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik. The ceremony saw many other military leaders, past and present, as well as former pilots and maintenance crew associated with the ROKAF F-4 join the ceremony. With South Korea being only one of four operators of the Phantom in the world, this iconic plane will slowly disappear from the skies in the world.
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From the hands of the people, to the hearts of the people, the Phantom has always had a special place in the hearts of the South Korean people - Erik Bruijns
Having operated the type since 1969, the ROKAF was one of the F-4’s earliest operators, after the United States, United Kingdom, and Iran. As part of a deal between the US to participate in the Vietnam War, South Korea became the fourth country to fly the F-4. In total, South Korea operated 187 Phantoms in three versions. The ROKAF initially received 18 F-4D’s, paid for with $64 million in special military aid provided by the United States government, part of the Peace Spectator program. Training for aircrew and maintainers began at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, in 1968. The first six of these F-4Ds arrived at Daegu Air Base on August 29 the following year. With the ROKAF’s main fighter being the budget friendly F-5 beforehand, the Phantom helped form South Korea’s aerial superiority in the 70s. The first ROKAF Phantom squadron, the 151st Fighter Squadron, was formally established at Daegu on September 23, 1969. The 152nd, 153rd, and 159th Fighter Squadrons followed, making Daegu the Korean Phantom’s primary home base. Among the pilots involved in bringing the first ROKAF Phantoms to Korea was retired Maj. Gen. Lee Jae-woo: “My heart still races when I think of the moment I flew the then state-of-the-art Phantom, received mid-air refuelling, and landed at the Daegu base. Fifty-five years have passed since then, and witnessing the Phantom’s final flight is deeply moving.”
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F-4 pilots celebrate the career of the F-4, which has been full of memorable achievements - Erik Bruijns
The introduction of the Phantom was a turning point for South Korea when it came to the relationship with the North. With the Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF), which at the time was roughly twice the size of the ROKAF, operating the capable MiG-21, the introduction of the Phantom brought a change in the proportions. It wasn’t long before the Phantom was involved in skirmishes with North Korea. On June 1, 1971, a North Korean spy ship appeared off the coast of Soeguksan Island. The ROKAF and the Republic of Korea Navy conducted a joint counter-espionage operation against the ship. While the North Korean vessel put up anti-aircraft fire, it was eventually destroyed by F-4D’s. In 1972, South Korea acquired another 18 F-4D’s from the United States as a free loan, in a reciprocal arrangement that saw Seoul send 30 F-5A/Bs to South Vietnam. 1975 saw the arrival of more Phantoms, amid changes in the regional security situation. This included the visit of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung to China and the communist takeover of Vietnam. Under the National Defense Fund, South Korean citizens funded the purchase of five more F-4D’s at a cost of around 7 billion won ($6.7 million). President Park Chung-hee inaugurated the resulting ‘Pilseung Squadron’ at Suwon Air Base on December 12, 1975. Several more F-4D’s were delivered in the following years, with the last batch delivered in 1987–88. These were equipped with Pave Tack laser designators, an important feature that allowed the use of laser-guided bombs.
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One last take off for the final flight of the F-4E in ROKAF service. After a career of 55 years the end has finally come - Erik Bruijns
A total of 92 F-4D’s were delivered, making the ROKAF the main export customer for the "D" model. The F-4D’s were joined by 37 new-build F-4E’s, ordered in the 1970s. The last of these was the 5,068th F-4 built in St. Louis. Under Operation Peace Pheasant these were delivered to the ROKAF 152 and 153 TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron), 17th TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing) at Cheongju. This was only the beginning of South Korean F-4 acquisitions, as more ex-USAF F-4E’s were delivered in the next few years, giving a total of 103 F-4E’s. This meant a major boost in operations, offering enhanced air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. It was an F-4E that was at the centre of another significant incident involving North Korea, on February 25, 1983. When KPAF Capt. Lee Ung Pyeong defected to the South in a MiG-19, a Phantom was scrambled and intercepted the North Korean pilot over Yeonpyeong Island, before guiding him safely to land at Suwon Air Base. The same Mig-19 is still preserved at Suwon Air Base today. The Phantoms were furthermore involved in different intercepts of Russian assets. Notable interceptions involved various Soviet military assets that were closely monitored by ROKAF Phantoms, including Tu-16’s (in 1983), and Tu-95’s as well as nuclear submarines (in 1984). Over the Sea of Japan, on February 17, 1998, F-4D’s were responsible for shadowing a Russian Il-20 Coot electronic intelligence aircraft. ROKAF Chief of Staff Lee Young-su said, “The level and frequency of enemy provocations, including ballistic missile launches, GPS jamming, and dirty balloons, have increased in recent years, and we must be ready and able to respond immediately, forcefully, and to the end, to any provocation. The F-4E Phantom that served as a virtual representative today, but our airmen will forever carry the security will and wishes of the people that were embodied in the Phantom. The Phantom, introduced with fervent desire and active support from people longing for strong national security, has steadfastly defended the skies of the Republic of Korea for over 50 years, repaying the citizens’ support. This year’s final journey of the Phantom will be recorded as the most magnificent retirement of a fighter jet in the history of the Air Force.”
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Pilots wrote their final thoughts on Phantom 743 as they said goodbye to the aircraft they loved flying in - Erik Bruijns
The South Koreans also received RF-4C’s. There were 12 ex-USAF 460 TRG (Tactical Reconnaissance Group) that were sent to the South Korean 131st TRS (Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron), at Suwon Air Base, along with another 11 sent later. Included in the package were ALQ-131 electronic countermeasures pods. In South Korean service, the F-4 was nicknamed Dokkaebi, after a kind of goblin from Korean mythology and folklore. However, the Spook motif was also widely used. To mark the retirement, new versions of the Spook were created, one of them wearing a traditional Korean red scarf and a flag, and another with the helmet of a Joseon Dynasty warrior, holding an AGM-142 Popeye missile. While the KF-16 has replaced the F-4’s role as the nation’s main fighter in 1994, it still offered unique capabilities that no other subsequent platform could. The remaining Phantoms have been kept in service into the 2020s due to its unique ability to carry larger payloads that no other aircraft in the ROKAF arsenal can’t. Most notably, the AGM-142 “Popeye” missile has been used exclusively by the Phantom on air-to-surface roles. The AGM-142 was first introduced to the Republic of Korea Air Force in 2002. It is an air-to-ground missile that can precisely hit targets with an error range of less than 1m. From a distance of five kilometers to the target, the pilot can directly control the direction of the missile and adjust it where needed to improve the accuracy.
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Two pilots walk away from their Phantom one last time as they return to Suwon AB - Erik Bruijns
With the Phantom getting older, South Korea disposed of its F-4D’s in 2010, while the RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft was retired in 2014. Since the introduction of more modern fighters such as the KF-16C/D, F-15K and more recently the F-35A, the F-4E has been focusing on attack roles. These include being used as a launching platform for air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs like the AGM-65 Maverick and Korean GPS-Guided Bomb (KGGB). With the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) contract with Korean Air ending on May 26, 2022, any Phantoms that reached its maintenance cycle have been retired one at a time. Along with the F-5E/F’s, the F-4E’s in service have seen an extension of their service life due to the delay of the KF-21 program. Speaking at the decommissioning ceremony was South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik. He said: “The past 55 years with the Phantom have marked a history of victory for South Korea. With the introduction of the Phantom, the guardian of the free world, the Republic of Korea swiftly overwhelmed North Korea's air power, and since then, North Korea's air force has been no match. The Phantom never dies; it just fades away. The noble spirit of the Phantom, dedicated to protecting the skies of our nation, will return to us alongside the world's most-advanced sixth-generation fighter jets.”
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An F-4E and RF-4C watch over the retirement ceremony - Erik Bruijns
Decommissioning Ceremony

The retirement ceremony held on the June 7, 2024, was an homage to the 55 years of service of the F-4 with the ROKAF. The event saw the attendance of many South Korean high-ranking officers, both current and past from the Air Force, Army and Navy. Former pilots, maintenance crew, and key personnel from defense companies associated with the Phantom were also present to bid farewell to the Phantom. Different ceremonial parts preceded the launch of the final flight. During a moment of silence dedicated to fallen heroes and patriots, pilot helmets and national flags were placed on a seat in remembrance of the pilots who lost their lives while serving with the F-4 Phantom. The two final operational F-4E’s took off at 10:38 local time. For a flight that took around 30 minutes. One of the Phantoms received a jungle camouflage scheme, referring to the initial ROKAF Phantoms when they entered service back in 1969. This was the first livery that was used from the aircraft’s adoption to service until the 1980’s. The other airframe kept the current ROKAF dark grey camo but instead had a special decal reading roughly translating as “From the hands of the people, to the hearts of the people”.
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South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik as well as many high ranking officers attended the retirement ceremony - Erik Bruijns
With different speeches held during the duration of the flight, several commendations and citations also took place to both former and current personnel who have served alongside the Phantom throughout its history. With the two F-4E’s performing one last fly by it was time for the final landing. The Black Eagles then performed an aerial show above the event area to commemorate the retirement of the “Big Brother” fighter jet. What followed was a very symbolical send off for the Phantom. Upon shut down of the aircraft, the pilots presented the control stick of the Phantom to the defense minister. The control stick is a crucial interface that reflects the pilot's intentions to the aircraft. Presenting it to the defense minister symbolizes the conclusion of all missions carried out by the Phantom over the past 55 years. At this point the Phantom received an honourable discharge from Defense Minister Shin who also hung congratulatory wreaths on the nose of the aircraft. Minister Shin then personally wrote a commemorative phrase, “Beyond legend, into the future!” directly onto the Phantom's fuselage.
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An elephant walk was organized in March 8th, combining the F-4Es still in service with F-15K, F-16, FA-50, F-5, and F-35A - ROKAF
Several congratulatory flights followed, each symbolizing the illustrious career of the Phantom in ROKAF service. First, five F-16’s launched a total of 55 flares, commemorating the F-4’s 55 years of service since its introduction in 1969. This was followed by a formation of six KF-16’s from the 20th Fighter Wing and five FA-50’s from the 8th Fighter Wing. The six KF-16’s symbolizes the initial introduction of the six F-4D aircraft in 1969, while the five FA-50’s represented the aircraft acquired through the generous donations of the Korean people. Following them, two RF-16C’s from 159 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron based at Chungju Air Base, passed by. These took over the missions from the RF-4C since 1989. A nine-ship formation followed with three F-15K’s from the 11th Fighter Wing, three F-35A’s from the 17th Fighter Wing and three KF-16C’s from the 19th Fighter Wing, stationed at the air bases in Daegu, Cheongju, and Jungwon. Each of these bases were the former homes to the Phantom. Finally, three F-35A’s from the 17th Fighter Wing concluding the aerial homage, symbolizing the successful generational transition from the Phantom. Phantom pilot Lt. Col. Kim Tae-Hyung, commander of the 153rd Fighter Squadron, 10th Fighter Wing spoke concluded on the final flight and the end of an era: “As the last commander of the last Phantom Squadron, it was an honour 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!”