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North American A-5 Vigilante Aircraft Information

North American A-5 Vigilante

A-5 (A3J) Vigilante

Role: Nuclear strike bomber, reconnaissance aircraft
Manufacturer: North American Aviation
First flight: 31 August 1958
Introduced: June 1961
Retired: January 1980
Primary user: United States Navy
Produced: 1956-1963 1968-1970
Number built: 158

The North American A-5 Vigilante was a powerful, highly advanced carrier-based supersonic bomber designed for the United States Navy. Its service in the nuclear strike role to replace the A-3 Skywarrior was very short; however, as the RA-5C, it saw extensive service during the Vietnam War in the tactical strike reconnaissance role. Prior to the unification of the Navy designation sequence with the Air Force sequence in 1962, it was designated the A3J Vigilante.

Airplane Picture - An A3J-1 during trials on USS Saratoga, 1960.

Picture - An A3J-1 during trials on USS Saratoga, 1960.

Design and development

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 United States 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.

At the time of its introduction, the Vigilante was one of the largest and by far the most complex aircraft to operate from a United States Navy aircraft carrier. It had a high-mounted swept wing with a boundary-layer control system (blown flaps) to improve low-speed lift, as well as being used instead of conventional ailerons. Use of aluminum-lithium alloy for wing skins and titanium for critical structures were also unusual. The A-5 had two widely-spaced General Electric J79 turbojet engines (the same as used on the F-4 Phantom II fighter), and a single large all-moving vertical stabilizer. Preliminary design studies had employed twin vertical fin/rudders. The wings, vertical stabilizer and the nose radome folded for carrier stowage. The Vigilante had a crew of two seated in tandem, a pilot and a bombardier-navigator (BN)-reconnaissance/attack navigator (RAN) on later recon versions- in individual ejection seats.

Despite being designated by the US Navy as a "heavy", the A-5 was surprisingly agile for such a large aircraft, without the drag of bombs or missiles, even escorting fighters found that the clean airframe and powerful engines made the Vigilante very fast at high and low altitudes. However, its high approach speed and high angle of attack in the landing configuration made returning to the aircraft carrier a challenge for inexperienced or unwary pilots.

Airplane Picture - A YA-5C prototype, 1963

Picture - A YA-5C prototype, 1963

The Vigilante had advanced and complex electronics when it first entered service. It had one of the first fly-by-wire systems of an operational aircraft (with mechanical/hydraulic backup) and a computerized AN/ASB-12 nav/attack system incorporating a head-up display (Pilot's Projected Display Indicator (PPDI), one of the first), multi-mode radar, Radar-Equipped Inertial Navigation System (REINS, based on technologies developed for the Navaho missile), closed-circuit television camera under the nose, and an early digital computer known as VERDAN (Versatile Digital Analyzer) to run it all.

Given its original design as a carrier-based nuclear heavy attack aircraft, the Vigilante's main armament was carried in a novel "linear bomb bay" between the engines in the rear fuselage, which was intended to make bomb delivery safer for the flight crew and more accurate. When conventional bombers "drop" a bomb, the bomb falls downward, but continues forward at the same speed as the aircraft. This requires pilot and navigator/bombardier skill and complicated equipment to place a bomb on its intended target. The linear bomb bay would eject the payload rearward at approximately the same speed as the forward velocity of the aircraft, causing the bomb to "stand still" and drop straight down. No calculation is needed - the bomb falls at the point at which it was dropped. As an added benefit, the aircraft is rapidly moving away from the dropped bomb, enabling lower drop altitudes or safer drops from higher altitudes.

The single nuclear weapon, commonly the Mk 28 bomb, was attached to two disposable fuel tanks in the cylindrical bay in an assembly known as the "stores train". The idea was for the fuel tanks to be emptied during flight to the target and then jettisoned as part of the bomb by an explosive drogue gun. In practice the system was never reliable and no live weapons were ever carried in the linear bomb bay. In the RA-5C configuration, the bay was used solely for fuel. On three occasions the shock of the catapult launch caused the fuel cans to eject onto the deck resulting in one aircraft loss.

Airplane Picture - An overhead aerial view of an RA-5C Vigilante aircraft.

Picture - An overhead aerial view of an RA-5C Vigilante aircraft.

The Vigilante originally had two wing pylons, intended primarily for drop tanks.

The second Vigilante variant, the A3J-2 (A-5B), incorporated internal tanks for an additional 460 gallons of fuel (which added a pronounced dorsal "hump") along with two additional wing hardpoints, for a total of four. In practice the hardpoints were rarely used. Other improvements included blown flaps on the leading edge of the wing and sturdier landing gear.

The reconnaissance version of the Vigilante, the RA-5C, had slightly greater wing area and added a long canoe-shaped fairing under the fuselage for a multi-sensor reconnaissance pack. This added an APD-7 side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), AAS-21 infrared linescanner, and camera packs, as well as improved ECM. An AN/ALQ-61 electronic intelligence system could also be carried. The RA-5C retained the AN/ASB-12 bombing system, and could, in theory, carry weapons, although it never did in service. Later-build RA-5Cs had more powerful J79-10 engines with afterburning thrust of 17,900 lbf (80 kN). The reconnaissance Vigilante weighed almost five tons more than the strike version with almost the same thrust and an only modestly enlarged wing. These changes cost it acceleration and climb rate, though it remained fast in level flight.

Operational history

Airplane Picture - A-5As of VAH-7 on USS Enterprise in 1962.

Picture - A-5As of VAH-7 on USS Enterprise in 1962.

Designated A3J-1, the Vigilante first entered squadron service with Heavy Attack Squadron THREE (VAH-3) in June 1961 at Naval Air Station Sanford, Florida, 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, alongside the T-2 Buckeye and OV-10 Bronco.

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 reconnaissance version, originally A3J-3P, became the RA-5C.

The Vigilante's early service proved troublesome, with many teething problems for its advanced systems. Although these systems were highly sophisticated, the technology of the time was in its infancy, and its reliability was poor. In early squadron service, the MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) for some systems was sometimes as short as 15 minutes. Although most of these reliability issues were eventually worked out as maintenance personnel gained greater experience with supporting these systems, the aircraft tended to remain a maintenance-intensive platform throughout its career.

The A-5's service coincided with a major policy shift in the U.S. Navy's 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. The first RA-5C's were delivered to the Replacement Air Group (RAG)/Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), redesignated as Reconnaissance Attack Squadron THREE (RVAH-3) at NAS Sanford, Florida in July 1963, with all Vigilante squadrons subsequently redesignated RVAH. Under the cognizance of Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE, a total of 10 RA-5C squadrons were ultimately commissioned. RVAH-3 continued to be responsible for the stateside-based RA-5C training mission of both flight crews, maintenance and support personnel, while RVAH-1, RVAH-5, RVAH-6, RVAH-7, RVAH-9, RVAH-11, RVAH-12, RVAH-13 and RVAH-14 routinely deployed aboard Forrestal, Saratoga, Ranger, Independence, Kitty Hawk, Constellation, Enterprise, America, John F. Kennedy and eventually Nimitz-class aircraft carriers to the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Western Pacific.

Airplane Picture - An RVAH-12 RA-5C beginning its reconnaissance run over Vietnam, 1967.

Picture - An RVAH-12 RA-5C beginning its reconnaissance run over Vietnam, 1967.

Eight of 10 squadrons of RA-5C Vigilantes also saw extensive service in Vietnam starting in August 1964, carrying out hazardous medium-level reconnaissance missions. Although it proved fast and agile, 18 RA-5Cs were lost in combat: 14 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 while serving with Task Force 77. Due, in part, to these combat losses, 36 additional RA-5C aircraft were built from 1968-1970 as attrition replacements.

In 1968, Congress closed the aircraft's original operating base of NAS Sanford, Florida and transferred the parent wing, Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE, all subordinate squadrons and all aircraft and personnel to Turner AFB, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 and KC-135 base in Albany, Georgia. The tenant SAC bomb wing was then deactivated and control of Turner AFB was transferred from the Air Force to the Navy with the installation renamed NAS Albany. In 1974, after barely six years of service as a naval air station, Congress opted to close NAS Albany as part of a post-Vietnam force reduction, transferring all RA-5C units and personnel to NAS Key West, Florida.

Despite the Vigilante's useful service, it was expensive and complex to operate and occupied significant amounts of precious flight deck and hangar deck space aboard both conventional and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. With the end of the Vietnam War, disestablishment of RVAH squadrons began in 1974, with the last Vigilante squadron, RVAH-7, completing its final deployment to the Western Pacific aboard USS Ranger (CV-61) in late 1979. The final flight by an RA-5C took place on 20 November 1979 when a Vigilante departed NAS Key West, Florida. Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE was subsequently disestablished at NAS Key West, Florida in January 1980.

Airplane Picture - RA-5C Vigilante, BuNo 156608, from Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 7 (RVAH-7) during what may have been its final flight in 1979. This aircraft is now on permanent display at Naval Support Activity Mid-South (formerly NAS Memphis), TN.

Picture - RA-5C Vigilante, BuNo 156608, from Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 7 (RVAH-7) during what may have been its final flight in 1979. This aircraft is now on permanent display at Naval Support Activity Mid-South (formerly NAS Memphis), TN.

Airplane Picture - Retired Vigilantes in the Arizona desert.

Picture - Retired Vigilantes in the Arizona desert.

The Vigilante did not end the career of the A-3 Skywarriors, which would carry on as electronic warfare platforms and tankers, designated as EA-3B and KA-3B, into the 1980s and early 1990s.

Fighters replaced the RA-5C in the carrier-based reconnaissance role. The RF-8G version of the F-8 Crusader, modified with internal cameras, had already been serving in two light photographic squadrons (VFP-62 and VFP-63) since the early 1960s, operating from older aircraft carriers unable to support the Vigilante. The Marine Corps' sole photographic squadron (VMFP-3) would also deploy aboard aircraft carriers during this period with RF-4B Phantom II aircraft. These squadrons superseded the Vigilante's role by providing detachments from the primary squadron to carrier air wings throughout the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s until transfer of the recon mission to the Navy's fighter squadron (VF) community operating the F-14 Tomcat.

Select models of the F-14 Tomcat would eventually carry the multi-sensor Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod (TARPS) and the Digital Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod (D-TARPS). Following up to present day, the weight of fighters such as the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet have evolved into the same 62,950 lb (28,550 kg) class as the Vigilante. With the retirement of the F-14, the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft are planned to cover the strike, reconnaissance, tanker and electronic warfare roles of the F-14 Tomcat, A-6E Intruder, A-7E Corsair II, RF-8G Crusader, RA-5C, KA-6D Intruder, EA-6B Prowler. S-3B Viking, ES-3A Shadow and EA-3B Skywarrior.


While the Vigilante served in the attack and reconnaissance roles, its design and planform was a direct descendant of the earlier WS-202 or XF-108 Rapier Mach 3 fighter, designed originally to escort the North American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber. Although both experimental programs were ultimately unsuccessful, the Soviet's MiG-25 "Foxbat" interceptor was greatly influenced by American advances in high speed flight. Although there is a superficial resemblance to the F-108/Vigilante configuration, the MiG-25 was an entirely unique design.


On 13 December 1960, Navy Commander Leroy Heath (Pilot) and Lieutenant Larry Monroe (Bombardier/Navigator) established a world altitude record of 91,450.8 feet (27,874.2 m) in an A3J Vigilante carrying a 1,000 kilogram payload, besting the previous record by over four miles (6 km). This new record held for over 13 years.


XA3J-1 Prototypes, two built. A-5A (A3J-1) production nuclear bomber variant; 59 built, 43 converted to RA-5C. A-5B (A3J-2) Nuclear bomber with greater range. None completed (see YA-5C). YA-5C (XA3J-3P) Six A-5Bs converted as reconnaissance prototyped before completion. RA-5C (A3J-3P) Reconnaissance version; 91 new-build plus 43 converted A-5As. NR-349 Retaliator Proposed Improved Manned Interceptor (IMI) for U.S. Air Force with two, later three engines and an armament of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles.


United States

United States Navy


Airplane Picture - RA-5C BuNo 156624 is preserved at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Picture - RA-5C BuNo 156624 is preserved at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Airplane Picture - RA-5C BuNo 151629 on display at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum in Pueblo, Colorado in November 2007.

Picture - RA-5C BuNo 151629 on display at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum in Pueblo, Colorado in November 2007.

Airplane Picture - RA-5C Vigilante, BuNo 156632, on display at Orlando Sanford International Airport (formerly NAS Sanford) in late March 2008

Picture - RA-5C Vigilante, BuNo 156632, on display at Orlando Sanford International Airport (formerly NAS Sanford) in late March 2008

A number of A-5s are currently stored or on display in the United States:

A-5A Bureau Number (BuNo) 146697, the oldest Vigilante on display and the only one still in its original A3J/A-5A nuclear attack bomber configuration, is on display at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.
RA-5C BuNo 149289 is on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. It was transferred from long-term storage at nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and it carries the markings of RVAH-3.
RA-5C BuNo 151629 is on display at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum (formerly the Fred E. Weisbrod Museum/International B-24 Museum) in Pueblo, Colorado. It is displayed in the markings of RVAH-3.
RA-5C BuNo 156608 is on static display at Naval Support Activity Mid-South, formerly Naval Air Station Memphis, Tennessee. It was the last operational RA-5C aircraft and it carries the markings of its last squadron, RVAH-7, during its final deployment aboard the USS Ranger in 1979.
RA-5C BuNo 156612 is on static display at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida and it stands as a gate marker just inside the main gate. It carries the markings of RVAH-3.
RA-5C BuNo 156621 was initially on display at the former U.S. Naval Photographic School at NAS Pensacola, Florida. It was then shipped up the East Coast, and it was formerly on display on the USS Intrepid Museum in New York City. In 2005, the RA-5C was acquired by the New York State Aerosciences Museum (ESAM) in Glenville, New York. The aircraft suffered minor damage to its fuselage aft of the wing root while being moved from the aircraft carrier Intrepid to a barge while supported by slings. It is currently (as of 2010) undergoing restoration for display. It carries the markings of the RA-5C Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), RVAH-3.
RA-5C BuNo 156624 in on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida. It is displayed in the markings of RVAH-6, per that squadron's final cruise aboard the USS Nimitz in 1978.
RA-5C BuNo 156632 was placed on display at the Orlando Sanford International Airport (formerly the Naval Air Station Sanford) in Sanford, Florida, in 2004 as a memorial to A-5 aircrewmen and support personnel who served at NAS Sanford. It was transferred from the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Weapons Division at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California and is marked as an RVAH-3 aircraft.
RA-5C BuNo 156638 is on display at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. It was transferred from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California and is marked as an RVAH-12 aircraft.
RA-5C BuNo 156640 is currently in storage at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California.
RA-5C BuNo 156641 is on display at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. It carries the markings of RVAH-12.
RA-5C BuNo 156643, the last A-5 built, is on display at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, Maryland. It was transferred from NAS Key West, Florida, and it is displayed as a test aircraft operated by the Patuxent River Flight Test Division in the 1970s.
As of 2004, all RA-5C airframes previously stored with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, have either been scrapped or relocated, with some of the planes expended as ground targets in aerial bomb and guided missile tests. A small number of RA-5C airframes in various states of condition are currently stored at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California.

Specifications (A-5A Vigilante)

Data from North American Rockwell A3J (A-5) Vigilante

General characteristics

Crew: 2
Length: 76 ft 6 in (23.32 m)
Wingspan: 53 ft 0 in (16.16 m)
Height: 19 ft 4 in (5.91 m)
Wing area: 700 ft (65.1 m)
Empty weight: 32,714 lb (14,870 kg)
Loaded weight: 47,530 lb (21,605 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 62,953 lb (28,615 kg)
Powerplant: 2x General Electric J79-GE-8 afterburning turbojets
Dry thrust: 10,900 lbf (48 kN) each
Thrust with afterburner: 17,000 lbf (76 kN) each


Maximum speed: Mach 2.0 (1,149 knots, 1,320 mph, 2,123 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,200 m)
Combat radius: 1,121 nmi (1,289 mi, 2,075 km)
Ferry range: 1,571 nmi (1,807 mi, 2,909 km)
Service ceiling: 52,100 ft (15,880 m)
Rate of climb: 8,000 ft/min (40.6 m/s)
Wing loading: 80.4 lb/ft (308.3 kg/m)
Thrust/weight: 0.72


1x Mark 27 nuclear bomb, B28 or B43 freefall nuclear bomb in internal weapons bay
2x B43, Mark 83, or Mark 84 bombs on two external hardpoints

Related development

XF-108 Rapier

Comparable aircraft

Tupolev Tu-22
Dassault Mirage IV



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