The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) has paid tribute to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom with its retirement of the iconic type.

At a ceremony on 7 June, the ROKAF retired its last two examples of the Cold War icon after they completed a patrol lasting just over 1h, according to South Korea’s defence ministry.

F-4E final take off Korea

Source: Republic of Korea Air Force

One of South Korea’s last two F-4Es takes off on its final patrol on 7 June, wearing a retrospective camouflage scheme

One of the last two F-4Es sported a retrospective ‘jungle pattern’ camouflage scheme in a nod to the type’s heritage in ROKAF service.

The retirement came after several weeks of flypasts around the country. The swansong of South Korea’s last F-4Es also included their final live fire exercise. During the April activity, ROKAF F-4Es launched AGM-142 ‘Popeye’ air-to-ground missiles and dropped Mk-82 bombs.

The retirement concludes a 55-year career with the ROKAF, the last operator of the Phantom in the Asia-Pacific region – Japan retired its F-4s in 2020, and Australia its examples in 1973.

Overall, the ROKAF operated about 220 Phantoms, according to official news agency Yonhap. The last F-4D was retired in 2010, and the last RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft in 2014.

“The past 55 years with the Phantom have been a history of victory for the Republic of Korea,” says defence minister Shin Won-sik, who spoke at the retirement event, which took place at the ROKAF’s Suwon base south of Seoul.

Republic of Korea Air Force F-4E

Source: Greg Waldron/FlightGlobal

The F-4E had been in South Korean service for 55 years

He adds that the arrival of Seoul’s first six F-4Ds in 1969 – South Korean pilots had received training on the type in the USA in 1968 – meant that the ROKAF immediately outclassed types in service with rival North Korea.

Reserve Brig Gen Lee Kwang-soo, a former F-4 pilot, says that the type offered the ROKAF a transformative capability, serving as the backbone of its fleet from the 1970s until the arrival of the Lockheed Martin F-16 in the 1990s.

Lee recounts North Korean air traffic controllers ordering their MiGs to return to base immediately upon detection of a Phantom. “At that time, the MiGs flown by the North Korean military could not see us, but the Phantoms were able to see them.”

F-4E retirement

Source: Republic of Korea Air Force

Following the final Phantom flight, ROKAF pilots were met by the country’s minister of defence

The arrival of the F-4 allowed closer training between the ROKAF and the US Air Force, which was formerly a major operator of the type.

“Because using the F-4 was difficult and complicated, only pilots with top flight training scores could become Phantom pilots,” adds Lee.

As South Korea’s F-4E fleet has been drawn down in recent years, the ROKAF has been adding the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50. In addition, KAI is developing the KF-21 fighter, of which the ROKAF is expected to operate over 120 examples.