The Vigilante was the largest and fastest airplane to ever operate from an aircraft carrier. Douglas' A3 Skywarrior was a contender, as it could launch at a heavier weight (its trap weight was the same) and it had a wider wingspan. The Vigi was a little bit longer; it was basically an even contest between the two, but the "and fastest" settles the score because the Vigi's approach and top speed was higher. In 1969, the London/New York Mail Race was held. A new 156 series Vigi was delivered to NAS Albany without the reconnaissance canoe installed. North American engineers said the Mach 2.0 speed restriction was Navy conservatism, and the airplane was capable of higher speeds. On a practice run for the race, the Vigilante went to Mach 2.5, and the pilot said he felt he could go faster. A series of KA-3 tankers were arranged over the Atlantic. Then the Navy bureaucracy gave a thumbs down on the idea. The unlimited category was won by an RAF Phantom.

Another record is a sad, but proud, one. The RA-5C had the highest loss rate of any Navy aircraft during the Vietnam War. Twenty-three Vigilantes went down. The loss rate had nothing to do with the airplane itself but was the hazard of its primary mission; pre- and post-strike photography. Getting in before a major Alfa strike was relatively easy; there was an element of surprise and the Vietnamese gunners were waiting for the attack aircraft. It was getting the vital bomb damage assessment (BOA) photos that was risky. The smoke and dust from bombs took 10 minutes to clear, so the Vigilante would wait to come back over the target. This was also how long it took for the gunners to reload their weapons. The exact target was obvious, and the sky above would be filled with flak.

The Navy Bureau of Aeronautics wanted a nuclear-armed aircraft to replace or compliment the North American AJ Savage, the Lockheed P-2 Neptune, and the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior. The result of the competition was the Vigilante, the last strategic bomber built for the Navy. It was designed to fly a high altitude, supersonic speed attack profile, and like the U.S. Air Force's Convair B-58 Hustler, was vulnerable to the new long range high altitude surface-to-air missiles entering service.

The A3J was first flown in August 1958. On December 13,1960, while carrying a payload of 1,000 kilograms, Pilot Leroy (Roy) Heath and B/N Larry Monroe flew an A3J to a new world altitude record of 91,450 feet, thus surpassing the existing record by over five miles.


End of the A-5A/A-3J

A serious design shortcoming involved the unique linear bomb bay. In simple terms it consisted of a tube running inside the fuselage, between the two engines. The weapon was loaded through an opening between the two jet exhausts. Weapons ejection was also effected via this opening, with a solid fuel cartridge used to propel the device clear of the aircraft once the jettisonable tail-cone faring had been ejected. The weapons bay was considerably longer than the nuclear weapons which the Vigilante was originally intended to carry therefore some of this space was utilized for additional fuel. This fuel was contained in two jettisonable tanks located aft of the weapon and linked to it. The tanks, which were ejected with the bomb, acted as aerodynamic stabilizers for the bomb's free-fall to the target.

Although a viable system in theory, in actual practice difficulties were encountered in clearing the linear bomb bay during operational use. At the same time a major shift in Navy policy deleted the strategic bombing role. Consequently plans to produce the improved Vigilante attack-bomber were abandoned after it had reached the flight-test phase.

The first squadron deployment occurred in August 1962 aboard the USS Enterprise on its first cruise. Shortly thereafter the Navy's strategic bombing mission was assumed by nuclear powered submarine Polaris missiles. The A3J's mission then reverted to that of photo reconnaissance with the introduction in 1963 of the RA-5C "Vigilante."

After the decision was made to end the A-5 strategic bombing mission, the A-5A's were quickly relegated training roles, and removed from the active inventory as heavy attack aircraft. At a later date, all surviving airframes were returned to the North American plant at Columbus for conversion to RA-5C standards.

Production of the A-3J-1/A-5A was completed by early 1963

The A-5B

The A-5B incorporated major design changes included enlargement of the main fuel tank for increased range and blown leading edge flaps for improved low speed handling. The raised forward A-5B fuselage visually distinguished the A-5B from the A-5A.

Eighteen A-5B's were ordered, but by that time the Navy's requirement had changed from strategic strike to reconnaissance, so production was changed to the RA-5C aircraft, for which a number of A-5B's subsequently served as developmental aircraft.

None of the A-5B's were delivered to active fleet squadrons; the 4 A-5B's that were produced were utilized as interim trainers, and eventually converted to RA-5C standards. The first of these A-5B's flew on 29 April 1962

The RA-5C

The RA-5C was a Mach 2+ aircraft, capable of electromagnetic, optical, and electronic reconnaissance. It could operate at altitudes from SL to above 50,000 feet. The Vigilante was employed to great effect by the 7th fleet during carrier air wing operations in the Vietnam war.

The 2 man crew flew in tandem in twin cockpits, the pilot in front, and the Reconnaissance Attack Navigator, in the rear.
Flight Controls

The Vigilante did not have ailerons, elevator or a rudder. Spoilers on the wing provided roll control and acted as speed brakes, The horizontal tail surfaces were solid slabs. Together, they controlled pitch and were adjusted separately for roll trim. The vertical tail was also one piece rather than a hinged 'rudder.' Each gave the RA5C some quirks.  

Like all jets, the Vigi had a yaw augmentation system. When you taxied behind another Vigilante, the vertical stab would move in response to the rudder pedals that were used for nosewheel steering, while the yaw aug responded to irregular inputs by shimmying the tail like a dog trying to get dry.

Landing signal officers - while waving the Vigi on board the carrier - could see every tiny movement of the horizontal stab because it was so big. A well-flown Vigi pass had the nose steady on speed while the stabs fluttered and twitched because of the pilot's small, constant stick inputs.

Neither of these was apparent in the cockpit while flying, but using the spoilers to roll certainly was. The center of the roll axis felt as if it were out on the high wing rather than through the pilot's belly as it is on most airplanes. Jam the control sick to the side, and you seemed to drop as the roll started.


Speed: 1,320 mph
Service Ceiling: 52,100 feet
Crew: Two
Range: 2,050 miles
Wingspan: 53.2 feet
Empty Weight: 37,489 pounds
Maximum Weight: 79,588 pounds
Power: Two J79-GE-10 turbojet engines
Thrust: 17,859 Ibs thrust each

The "Vigilante" flew for the first time in June 1962. It embodied the same modifications that had been incorporated into the A-5B with a few minor changes, the main one being the addition of a under fuselage mounted "canoe" that carried most of the reconnaissance sensors. The RA-5C retained its capability for carrying underwing ordnance, although it was rarely, if ever, used.

The first RA-5C was delivered on in June 1963 and the aircraft entered service during 1964 . The aircraft answered a U. S. Navy need for a capable, manned, long-range reconnaissance system to augment short range tactical systems, such as the RF-8G Crusader.

The RA-5C "Vigilante" incorporated a sophisticated electronic reconnaissance pod in its bomb-bay that included a side-looking airborne radar in a fairing under the fuselage, vertical, oblique and split-image cameras as well as active and passive ECM equipment. Production deliveries began in mid-1964 and shortly thereafter the RA-5C began flying reconnaissance missions over Vietnam from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

An inertial navigation system (INS) combined with an automatic flight control system enabled the RA-5C to fly precise courses on mission altitudes ranging from high to tree-top levels. Each photo taken carried a marginal notation that displayed latitude and longitude of the plane at the time it was taken, thus pinpointing target locations. The information obtained was then incorporated into a shipboard data bank and used for mission planning.

Reconnaissance Capabilities

• A SLAR (Side Looking Airborne Radar) unit
• Photographic equipment, which included vertical, oblique, and split-image cameras, and 3 inch and 18 inch horizon-to-horizon panoramic scanning cameras. (The SLAR and the cameras were carried in a long external under-fuselage faring, called the canoe.)
• A television camera capable of functioning in very low light was mounted under the nose just behind the radome.
• A sensor for gathering electromagnetic intelligence (Passive Electronic Counter-measures (PECM), which replaced one of the 3 fuel tanks, was in the linear weapons bay.
• Two high-intensity super sonic strobe-type flasher pods were mounted on the underwing pylons to illuminate the ground under the aircraft.
• The DDS (Digital Data System) encoded data on each exposure indicating all the statistical data (altitude, latitude, date, etc, etc.) which identified exactly where the photo was taken. This was invaluable to subsequent air strikes against camouflaged targets that were recognized when aerial infrared film was used.

The RA-5C formed the airborne reconnaissance unit of the Integrated Operational Intelligence System (IOIS). The Integrated Operational Intelligence Center (IOIC), the shipboard part of the system, process the electronic and photographic information collected by the RA-5C. Housed within the IOIC was an electronic intelligence data handling center, a one-hour photo processing center whose equipment (Kodak EH-38 high speed processors) was highly classified at the time (now this same type of equipment is readily available at most shopping malls for one hour processing). After processing the film it was read out by specialists at interpretation of the images electronic data analysis.

Prototypes of the reconnaissance system worked so well that all surviving A-5A and A-5B aircraft were returned to North American Aviation's Columbus, Ohio facilities to be modified to RA-5C standards. The demonstrated ability of the RA-5C to meet a long standing need for long range fleet reconnaissance now provided the justification to keep the Vigilante in production. (NOTE: The prototypes worked much better than they did in actual operation).

RA-5C Production

During the 1960's, a total of forty-three standard RA-5C's were built, these following closely on the heels of the eighteen original A-5B aircraft. When the last of these rolled off of the Columbus, Ohio assembly line, it appeared that the Vigilante production had come to an end. Accordingly, tooling and related hardware was placed in long-term storage.

The Columbus facility then shifted its priorities to other projects including the remanufacture of the forty-three remaining A-5A and A-5B aircraft to RA-5C standards.

Attrition caused by the continuing hostilities over Vietnam resulted in renewed Navy interest for acquiring additional RA-5C's, so in 1968 the Navy ordered forty-six new production RA-5C's, restarting the production line. Visually they differed from the previous models only by a leading edge extension which extended from near the wing root to the forward air intake lip. The purpose of this extension was to generate improved airflow over the stabilator at low speeds, enhancing pitch control during the landing approach. These aircraft were all powered by J79-GE-10 engines.

Only thirty-six of these new aircraft actually built, the last completed in August 1970.

Flying the RA-5C

The cockpit was large, and visibility, which was enhanced by the one piece curved front windscreen, was excellent. The rain removal system, which consisted of hot air being blown over the front windscreen, provided clear visibility in even the heaviest rainstorms.

The auto-throttle was outstanding - in addition to airspeed inputs it included the input from accelerometers located in the tail which caused the throttle to be sensitive to movement of the stabilator. This allowed the pilot to change the throttle setting during landing approach by stick input alone.

The aircraft was fast! It could exceed Mach 1 at 6,000 feet using minimum afterburner, and easily exceed Mach 2 at high altitude.

RVAH-11 RA-5C on the starboard cat

The RA-5C in the Vietnam war

The RA-5C was first deployed to south-east Asia in August of 1964, initially flying missions only over South Vietnam because the Navy was reluctant to jeopardize the aircraft's sophisticated and very expensive equipment, should the aircraft be lost over North Vietnam.

Eventually, the Vigilantes did go North, suffering the highest loss rate of any Naval aircraft in the war. In all, eighteen Vigilantes were lost in combat.

• 11 were lost to antiaircraft fire.
• 2 were shot down by SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles (SAM's).
• 1 was lost to an Atoll missile fired from a MiG-21 fighter.
• 4 were lost for unknown reasons, over N. Vietnam.
• 1 other aircraft was lost for unknown reasons, not over N. Vietnam.

Of the 11 lost to anti-aircraft artillery, the majority were during post-strike reconnaissance missions; North Vietnamese gunners knew that shortly after a strike a Vigilante would be overhead, without supporting flak suppression.

Thirty-one deployments were made to Vietnam by Vigilante squadrons. During the early period of Vietnam operations, Vigilante squadrons deployed with six aircraft. As the war progressed, this figure began declining, first to five, then to four and finally, by 1974/75, to three aircraft per squadron.

Gradual disestablishment of the "Vigilante" force occurred during 1979-1980 with the deactivation of the last RA-5C squadron, and phasing out of the last of the 156 RA-5/A-3Js produced.

Douglas A3 tanking an RVAH-11 RA-5C over the Gulf of Tonkin

The Vigilante may have introduced more new and advanced designed features than any other aircraft in history.

Advanced aerodynamic features included:

• A small high loaded wing (made possible by the use of powerful flaps).
• Elimination of the ailerons, roll control being effected by spoiler/deflectors.
• A one-piece powered vertical tail (or all moving fin).
• Fully variable engine inlets with profile as well as area adjustments to suit flight Mach numbers.
• Internal weapons storage.
• A slim fuselage configured for Mach 2.
• The engine inlets were sharp tipped and swept back for peak supersonic efficiency, with front and rear ramps to control the internal profile and throat area.
• A fully retractable refueling probe in the forward fuselage.
• The first variable inlet using horizontal ramp geometry.


• Major structures and frames were built out of Titanium.
• One-piece wing skins machined from aluminum-lithium alloy.
• Use of pure Nitrogen instead of hydraulic fluid in some of the hottest parts of the airframe.
• A one-piece, bird-proof, Mach 2 capable windshield was made of stretched acrylic.
• Gold-plate in the engine bays to reflect heat.


• The first production fly-by-wire control system.
• An airborne digital computer for bomb and navigation computations.
• The first Bomb-Navigation System with an inertial auto-navigation coupled to radar and television-sights for check point verification.
• The first operational heads-up display (HUD).
• The first fully integrated auto pilot/air data system for Bomb/Navigation weapons release.
• The first monopulse radar with terrain avoidance features.


The Vigilante set several records, including a new world altitude record for the class; on 13 December 1960, a Vigilante carried a 1,000 kg (2,402.62 pound) payload on a zoom profile flight that peaked at 91,451 feet.

RA-5C preparing for launch