A-5 Vigilante, North American

A-5 Vigilante supersonic attack aircraft

The A-5 was a very advanced supersonic attack aircraft, optimised for low-level attacks at high speed. It was long and angular, with rectangular air intakes, small, thin swept wings incorporating large full-span flaps, and all-moving tail surfaces. But the A-5, one of the biggest aircraft ever operated from a carrier, was not successful in its intended role as nuclear bomber, It has been claimed that the bomb ejection mechanism was unsatisfactory. The bomb bay was between the engines, and the plan was to expel the bomb rearwards, together with two empty fuel tanks. 63 bombers were built, but all but ten were converted to RA-5C reconnaissance aircraft. There were also 55 new RA-5Cs built. These were very effective and served until 1980.

Type: RA-5C
Function: reconnaissance
Year: 1964
Crew: 2
Engines: 2 * 79.4 kN G.E. J79-GE-10
Wing Span: 16.15 m
Length: 23.32 m
Height: 5.91 m
Wing Area: 70.05 m2
Empty Weight: 17009 kg
Max.Weight: 29937 kg
Speed: Mach 2.1
Ceiling: 14750 m
Range: 4820 km
Armament: 1 nuclear weapon, and conventional weapons on two hard points.


Designed to meet a US Navy requirement for a high-performance all-weather attack aircraft, the North American NA-247, known at first as the NAG-PAW (North American General Purpose Attack Weapon), won an order for two YA3J-1 prototypes on 29 June 1956. The name Vigilante was allocated soon after this, and the A3J designation was changed subsequently to A-5. The design's cantilever monoplane swept wing incorporated no ailerons, roll control being by the use of spoilers in conjunction with differential use of an all moving tailplane on each side of the fuselage and, when it entered service, the Vigilante was the first US production aircraft to introduce variable geometry intakes for its two General Electric J79 engines. The first of the prototypes, then powered by two YJ79-GE-2 engines each developing 6804 kg (15,000lbs) afterburning thrust, was flown for the first time on 31 August 1958, and carrier trials were completed aboard the USS Saratoga in July 1960. Initial production version A-5A, US Navy Squadron VAH-7 becoming the first operational unit in June 1961.

The primary weapon of the A-5A was a free-fall nuclear bomb ejected rearwards from a bomb bay between the tailpipes of he two turbojet engines. A-5A production totaled 57 aircraft. This version was followed by an interim long-range bomber version designated A-5B, incorporating greater fuel capacity and aerodynamic improvements, but, because of changes in the US Navy policy only six were built and then converted to serve as a long-ranged unarmed reconnaissance version designated RA-5C, equipped with side-looking airborne radar, cameras and electronic counter-measures equipment. The first RA-5C flew on 30 June 1962, being followed by 55 new production aircraft and the conversion to reconnaissance configuration of the 53 A-5As. The first squadron equipped with the RA-5C was RVAH-5 which, in June 1964, was operating from the USS Ranger, and other Vigilante squadrons included RVAH-1, RVAH-7, RVAH-9, and RVAH-11.


In 1953 North American Aviation began a private study for a carrier-based, long-range, all-weather strike bomber, capable of delivering nuclear weapons at supersonic speeds. This proposal, the NAGPAW (North American General Purpose Attack Weapon) concept, was accepted by the US Navy, with some revisions, in 1955. A contract was awarded on 29 August 1956. Its first flight occurred two years later on 31 August 1958 in Columbus, Ohio. Designated A3J-1, the Vigilante first entered squadron service with VAH-3 in June 1961, replacing the A-3 Skywarrior in the heavy attack role. All variants of the Vigilante were built at North American Aviation's facility at Port Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ohio.

Under the Tri-Services Designation plan implemented under Robert McNamara in September 1962, the Vigilante was redesignated A-5, with the initial A3J-1 becoming A-5A and the updated A3J-2 becoming A-5B. The subsequent recce version, originally AJ3-3P, became the RA-5C.

The Vigilante's early service proved troublesome, with many teething problems for its advanced systems. It also arrived in service during a major policy shift in the Navy strategic role, which switched to emphasize submarine launched ballistic missiles rather than manned bombers. As a result, in 1963 procurement of the A-5 was ended and the type was converted to the fast reconnaissance role. he first RA-5Cs were delivered in July 1963, with Vigilante squadrons redesignated RVAH.

Eight squadrons of RA-5C Vigilantes saw extensive service in Vietnam starting in August 1964, carrying out hazardous medium-level reconnaissance missions. Although it proved fast and agile, eighteen were lost in combat: fourteen to anti-aircraft fire, three to surface-to-air missiles, and one to a MiG-21 during Operation Linebacker II. Nine more were lost in operational accidents serving with Task Force 77. 36 additional aircraft were built from 1968-1970 as attrition replacements.

Despite the Vigilante's useful service, it was expensive and complex to operate, and it was phased out after the end of the Vietnam War. Disestablishment of RVAH squadrons began in 1974, with the last Vigilantes completing their final deployment in September 1979.


The Vigilante set several records, including a new world altitude record for the class; on 13 December 1960, a Vigilante flown by Larry Monroe and Leroy Heath carried a 1,000 kg (2,402.62 pound) payload on a zoom profile flight that peaked at 91,451 feet. This surpassed the existing record by over 4 miles.

Specifications RA-5C Vigilante
Type: carrier-based long-range reconnaissance aircraft
Powerplant: 2 * 8101 kg (17,860lb) afterburning General Electric J79-GE-10 turbojets
max speed: Mach 2.1
operational ceiling: 14,750 m (48,400 ft)
range: 4828 km (3,000 miles)
empty :17009 kg (37498 lbs)
max take-off weight: 29937 kg (66,000 lbs)
span: 16.15m (53ft)
length: 23.32m (76.5ft)
height: 5.91m (19 feet 4.75 inches)
wing area: 70.05 m2 (754 sq ft)

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