‘Goodbye Phantom!’: South Korea retires legendary fighter jets

Posted on : 2024-06-14 16:51 KST Modified on : 2024-06-14 17:27 KST
At the ceremony was one of the men who first flew the Phantom for South Korea
A Republic of Korea Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jet takes off for a final flight during a retirement ceremony at its home base in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, on June 7, 2024. For its final flight, a Phantom was restored to its past jungle camouflage pattern. (courtesy of the ROK Air Force)
A Republic of Korea Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jet takes off for a final flight during a retirement ceremony at its home base in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, on June 7, 2024. For its final flight, a Phantom was restored to its past jungle camouflage pattern. (courtesy of the ROK Air Force)

“Let’s send off the Phantom with one final cheer. Goodbye Phantom, specter of the sky!”

Lee Jae-woo, a 90-year-old major general in the Air Force reserves and chair professor at Dongguk University, bade farewell with a sob to his beloved F-4E Phantom at a retirement ceremony for the aircraft at Suwon Air Base on the morning of June 7.

On Aug. 29, 1969, Lee, then a 34-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Republic of Korea (ROK) Air Force, spent two days flying in a F-4D Phantom across the Pacific Ocean from the US to Daegu Air Base. Lee was one of six ROK Air Force pilots who went to the US in 1968 to receive flight training for the Phantom.

Back in 1968, the Korean Peninsula was basically at war. A North Korean commando unit attacked the Blue House on Jan. 21, and then the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship, was captured by North Korea just two days later. South and North Korea were carrying out skirmishes around the military demarcation line almost every other day.

“Given the urgent security situation, the pilots training in the US returned home across the Pacific Ocean immediately, through midair refueling, as soon as our training was complete. Even now, my heart races when I think of the moment I touched down safely on the runway at Daegu Air Base in that state-of-the-art Phantom,” Lee recalled during the fighter jet’s retirement ceremony.

Lee Jae-woo, a major general in the Air Force reserves who flew a Phantom from the US to Korea in 1969, speaks at the retirement ceremony for the F-4E Phantom on June 7, 2024. (still from KFN)
Lee Jae-woo, a major general in the Air Force reserves who flew a Phantom from the US to Korea in 1969, speaks at the retirement ceremony for the F-4E Phantom on June 7, 2024. (still from KFN)

The ROK Air Force said its acquisition of the F-4D, the most powerful fighter in the world at the time, enabled it to overpower the North Korean air capabilities.

Lee and the other five trainees were South Korea’s “first penguins” when the Phantom was being introduced in the late 1960s.

The “first penguin” metaphor derives from a group of penguins who are hesitating to jump into the cold Antarctic waters, unsure of what might be lurking below the surface. As soon as one bold penguin makes the jump, the rest follow behind.

Lee was the first of 7,600 South Korean pilots who flew the Phantom.

Lee described himself at the retirement ceremony not as a “major general in the reserves” but as a “fighter pilot in the reserves.” The words expressed his willingness to put his life on the line, even now, if his country needed him.

A space was set aside at the retirement ceremony for heroic pilots and their planes. A plaque was set up bearing the names of 34 pilots who had died while flying a Phantom and the serial numbers of 19 Phantoms that had crashed.

Lee Yeong-su, chief of staff of the ROK Air Force, honored the dedication and sacrifice of those 34 pilots by reading out each of their names during his commemorative address.

A certificate of honorable discharge stands before a F-4 Phantom that was retired from the ROK Air Force on June 7, 2024, at a ceremony in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
A certificate of honorable discharge stands before a F-4 Phantom that was retired from the ROK Air Force on June 7, 2024, at a ceremony in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

Two F-4E Phantoms performed a 32-minute farewell flight and then returned to the runway. Then four pilots, two from each aircraft, presented Defense Minister Shin Won-sik with a ceremonial control stick.

The control stick is the chief instrument that pilots use to control their aircraft. By presenting one to the defense minister, the pilots were signifying that the Phantom had completed its mission.

Now that the Phantom’s work was complete, Shin presented the planes with an “honorable discharge.” The document said, “This certificate is presented upon the honorable discharge [of a plane] that defended the skies above the Republic of Korea for 55 years.”

After hanging a ceremonial wreath over the tip of one plane, Shin wrote, “Beyond the legend, into the future” on its right flank.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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