NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE
F-4 SAMURAIS – THE PHINAL COUNTDOWN
For nearly 50 years the silence in the area surrounding Hyakuri air base north of Tokyo has been broken by the sound of the twin General Electric J-79 engines of the locally based McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms (known locally by the nickname ‘Samurai’) starting up for their daily tasks. We have now entered the final year of operations for this venerable and legendary cold war warrior as the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) runs down its operations. Hyakuri and the Phantom are inexorably linked after such a long time and this picturesque and unique setting is set for a huge change.
On November 1st 1968 Japan made public its desire to purchase the Phantom from the United States of America (USA), and that the majority would be licence built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. 154 Phantoms would be built for the JASDF and all but the first two prototypes and the later order for the reconnaissance RF-4E would be produced in Japan. The first eleven, after the prototypes, were only assembled by Mitsubishi but there on in for the rest of the contract all aircraft were built from scratch, the first example fully built in Japan flying on 12th May 1972.
In the fighter role, 127 F-4EJ were manufactured to equip six squadrons which were 301, 302, 303, 304, 305 and 306 Hikotai (Squadron), with the 14 reconnaissance version RF-4Es on strength with 501 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. By 2020 only 301 and 501 were remaining. The F-4EJ phantoms were delivered without the bombing computer system and air to air refuelling capacity, and even its air to air ability was constrained. This was due to the political stance of Japan in having a more pacifist stance since World War Two. However, in February 1982, a Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP) was devised to rectify this lack of capability, and to add an Anti-Ship role with the ability to fire ASM-1 and ASM-2 missiles. 96 aircraft were eventually converted to the ‘Kai’ (Japanese for’extra’ or modified) status which include the much improved Westinghouse APG-66 radar and the AIM-7 Sparrow medium range radar guided missiles to supplement the AIM-9 Sidewinders and internal M-61 Vulcan cannon.
301 Tactical Fighter Squadron
The first squadron to operate the F-4EJ, 301 Hikotai will also be the last. The unit was formed at Hyakuri on October 16th 1973, where it was based until moving to Nyutabaru in 1985, not returning until October 31st 2016. The famous markings of the 301st, a frog wearing a scarf, adorn all the aircraft. It is thought that the squadron will run down its remaining aircraft throughout 2020 and all will be gone by the end of the year. 301 Hikotai will move to Misawa and re-equip with the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II in the near future.
501 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
The aircraft of the 501 Hikotai in these pictures were flying the last of their missions in JASDF service. By March 9th 2020 the closing operational sortie took place at Hyakuri, and when the four aircraft returned to base, it was the first RF-4E delivered, 47-6901, that did the final landing and received a water salute by the fire brigade. This ended 45 years of the Phantom with 501 TRS and after some formalities all the aircraft were towed into the hangar. A total of 29 RF-4s were operated by 501 TRS which was split between 14 RF-4E and 15 RF-4EJs.
The 501st was formed in 1961 at Matsushima with the North American RF-86F Sabre but it wasn’t until December 1974 that the squadron re-equipped with the RF-4E at Hyakuri. The RF-4E were later supplemented by an extra 15 RF-4EJ converted from F-4EJs. The RF-4EJs came from a stock of seven normal F-4EJ and eight modernised F-4EJ Kai versions. These aircraft carried out their mission with three different reconnaissance pods – Tactical Camera Pod (TAC), Long Range Oblique Photography (LOROP) or Tactical Electronic Reconnaissance (TACER).
Hyakuri in 2020
Being so close to Tokyo, the Phantoms fulfilled an important defensive role for the capital city, which is now being bestowed to 3 Hikotai and its Mitsubishi F-2A/Bs as of the 20th January 2020. These have taken on the hangars and facilities of the previous F-4EJ operator 302 Hikotai.
F-2s of 3 Hikotai noted on February 25th 2020;
The Hyakuri Kyunantai (Air Rescue Squadron) operates the Hawker U-125A and Sikorsky UH-60J as the resident rescue unit for the base.
Noted on February 25th;
There are several preserved aircraft at Hyakuri;
The Phantoms are being decommissioned at a fast rate, with the following seen in a ready state for scrap on February 25th 2020;
A scrapyard north of the base is reducing these aircraft to their component parts which included F-4EJ 97-8427. Also seen here was TC-90 6828.
Alongside the air base is Ibaraki airport, whose main operator is Skymark, and its Boeing 737s. The Japanese Police has a helicopter based in the form of Kawasaki BK-117B-2 JA6651.
There are two Phantoms preserved at Ibaraki Airport – F-4EJ 37-8319 and RF-4EJ 87-6412.
During pixelsnipers visit to Hyakuri on February 24TH/25th were the following Phantoms;
F-4EJ 57-8353 301 TFS
F-4EJ 57-8367 301 TFS
F-4EJ 57-8356 301 TFS
F-4EJ 57-8367 301 TFS
F-4EJ 87-8404 301 TFS
F-4EJ 87-8415 301 TFS
F-4EJ 97-8416 301 TFS
F-4EJ 97-8422 301 TFS
F-4EJ 97-8426 301 TFS
F-4EJ 07-8436 301 TFS
F-4EJ 17-8437 301 TFS
F-4EJ 17-8439 301 TFS
RF-4E 47-6901 501 TRS
RF-4E 47-6903 501 TRS
RF-4E 57-6907 501 TRS
RF-4E 57-6909 501 TRS
RF-4EJ 67-6380 501 TRS
RF-4EJ 07-6433 501 TRS