RA-5C "Vigilante" on a combat mission
by Robert "Boom" Powell
On the bow catapult of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, the yellow-shirted director sweeps one hand low and forward; the other hand-at shoulder height-opens from a fist to splayed fingers. The below-the-waist signal is for the catapult crew: "Take tension." The high signal is to me, the pilot: Release brakes." I drop my heels to the floor but leave my toes on the rudders. My left hand pushes the throttles to the detent for full military power. While the J-79 engines spool up, I look over to the catapult officer, the "shooter." He is waving his hand-with two fingers up-over his head. I look back in the cockpit at the engine gauges: rpm, temperatures, pressure -all good. The intercom to the back seat is hot," so I say, "Looks good. You ready?" The shooter is flicking his hand open and shut. Time for afterburner. I hear "All ready in back" from the reconnaissance attack navigator (RAN). I push the throttles past the detent as far forward as they can go and brace them there with my fingertips. To reach all the way to the catapult grip would pull my shoulder off the seatback - not a good thing if I have to eject. I quickly check one tiny gauge with two needles for afterburner nozzle positions. They both swing around symmetrically. Too much time in burner will damage the seawater-blast deflectors that are only a few feet behind the exhausts.
I report the gauge readings to "Bull" Davis, my RAN for today's mission, and throw an exaggerated salute to the catapult officer. I drop my right hand to the stick, brace my elbow on my thigh, settle my helmet solidly against the headrest and check that my back is straight. My breathing becomes shallower. I wait while the Vigilante quivers and roars with 36,000 pounds of thrust boiling the air behind me.
The catapult officer looks back and forth in a final check, leans far forward and touches a hand to the deck. At the edge of my vision, I can see the sailor at the control console drop his hands from over his head and press a large green button.
The catapult fires. The weight on my chest forces me to grunt. I strain my neck as I try to pull my head off the rest; if I succeed, I will eject. Seventy thousand pounds of airplane is accelerating to 170 mph. As the "Vigi" clears the deck, 3,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure in the nose gear extend the Oleo strut hard enough to vibrate the nose and make the instrument panel a blur (barely noticed in the daytime, this could create moments of confused terror at night). I can now lean forward, reach with my left hand to raise the landing-gear lever and pull the throttles back from afterburner to military power. I keep low, turn starboard away from the carrier, accelerate, then climb and look around for my F-4 Phantom escort.
The rendezvous is at 15,000 feet over the aircraft carrier. The F-4 has Sidewinder missiles on pylons below its wings, a huge fuel tank hung on its belly and Sparrow missiles partially buried in its fuselage. Although the two jets have the same engines, GE J-79-lOs, my RA-5C Vigilante can outrun our fighter escort because it doesn't carry any external stores and is "clean" aerodynamically. Also, it carries twice as much fuel.
The J-79 engine, however, runs dirty. A black smoke trail streams out behind, which makes the aircraft easy to spot and helps enemy ground gunners track and shoot at it. The solution is to fly in combat using afterburner, which provides a clear exhaust. I will stay in minimum afterburner while "over the beach," but unless the Phantom crew has paid attention during the briefing and can anticipate turns and stay inside, they will
As I slide alongside the F-4, the pilot taps his helmet and points to give me the lead. I tell Bull, and he calls a radio change to Strike frequency. I tap my ear and hold up five fingers. The Phantom RIO acknowledges.
When the Vigilante was new and called the "A-3J," (later, the "A-5A"), the men in the back were simply called bombardier navigators (BN), but when the plane's mission changed to reconnaissance with the RA-5C, they became known as reconnaissance attack navigators (RAN5). The A remained even after the attack role was abandoned. The RAN is the heart of the reconnaissance mission. His job is to run the ASB-12 inertial navigation system that integrates radar and television for updating the navigation and target detection (the television scanner lens is in the small glass blister on the bottom of a Vigi's nose). All I have in the front cockpit is a steering bar and distance readout. The most frequent command from the back seat is "Follow steering."
Additionally, the RAN mans the controls for a suite of sophisticated cam- eras. No matter how much an RA-5C maneuvers during a photo run, the RAN has to monitor film use, exposure settings and, most important, image motion compensation (IMC). The optical viewfinder has an opening in the belly, and, through a series of lenses, it gives the RAN a look at the ground that is superimposed with moving lines of light. The RAN's job is to adjust the lines to match speed over the surface. Home photographers who have jiggled their cameras are familiar with what hap- pens if you don't compensate for motion. Add the controls for an infrared mapping unit, side-looking radar, various electronic countermeasures, plus normal crew coordination, and a RAN has enough duties to keep him busier than a bar- tender at last call.
The back cockpit has only two small windows that are mounted rather high. These are remnants from the Vigi's origins as a nuclear bomber; less glass is better. Interior panels slide over them to shut out all light. Pilots used to accuse RANs of not being able to see anything. The navigator's retort was that he could see more, not less: the radar reached out 200 miles; the TV reception was as far as air clarity would permit; and he could see the forward horizon as well as straight down to the ground. Could the pilot see what was directly below or look at the landing gear?
The television system does have a peculiarity: the farther from straight ahead the lens is pointed, the farther it tilts. On a run using the oblique (pointed to the side) cameras, the TV would be pointed to one side to check distance from the tar- get, and the apparent horizon would be at 45 degrees. When checking that the landing gear was "down" by looking aft, the wheels would seem to be sticking up.
The coast of Vietnam appears in the tropical haze. Bull has had the coast-in point-a distinctive cape-on the radar almost since launch. I push the throttles past the detent and feel a shove against my back as the afterburners light. As the Vigilante accelerates in the dive, I trim out pressure with the tiny movements of a ridged wheel set in the control stick The RA-5C had a fly-by-wire system called "electric flight" years before fly-by-wire had a name. At 550 knots, we cross the narrow part of North Vietnam in minutes. A look over my shoulder shows the Phantom in good chase position on my right. The first turn will be north to follow a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the border with Laos. I level off between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. From the back cockpit I hear, "Follow steering. Cameras coming on." Nothing but jungle-covered hills are in front of me. The distance rolls to zero. "Right to 020. Follow steering." The Vigi feels smooth and solid at this speed. To throw off gunners on the ground, I sacrifice a precise course for constantly changing altitudes and headings.
The usual camera configuration for route reconnaissance or "recce" is a tri-fan. The RA-5C has one camera aimed forward that will run for the entire mission. Its firing rate is slow and its photography will be used to re-create the route of flight. The other three cameras are mounted vertically, shooting straight down, and two oblique cameras are aimed off to the sides. Their angles can be set at 19.75, 37.5, or 52 degrees, depending on lens focal length, to get overlapping coverage of the ground below. The oblique cameras have a small green light on the pilot's glare shield that flashes when the cameras fire. The imagery is clearer if the airplane is steady, with wings level, when the cameras fire. A good Vigilante pilot will time his linking maneuvers to take place between exposures. The green light winks, roll fast and pull, level the wings, wink, roll, pull, wink, reverse, pull, wink.
"1 see the Trail. It's bearing off right," Bull says with his view straight down. I adjust my course between winks. Farther along, I see a stretch of dirt road between the trees. I head for it. Over a ridge, I see a bombed-out bridge across a stream. The earth is red and pock-marked with craters. In the quick glimpse I have, the bridge seems to be down. The cameras will tell the truth. It may be that the Vietnamese have played a favorite trick and rebuilt the bridge just below the surface of the water.
I hear a call from my escort about flak from the left and watch as yellow streaks come from the jungle and float behind and low. Bull notes the coordinates. Fifteen minutes have passed. The terrain is higher, and the safety of the water of the Gulf of Tonkin farther away. A cluster of red and yellow bails appears at 12 o'clock. They seem to float, unmoving. No time to do or say anything. None hit. Someone says an expletive on the radio. The radar-warning array beeps and shows a dotted line. I start to think about how to evade if a SAM is launched. There are five more miles until the end of our assigned route. Wink, bank, pull, wink. The beeping is persistent and loud. The counter reaches zero then spins up with the distance to the carrier-"home plate." The needle centers on the heading. "We're outta here; 100 heading." The SAM warning stops as I turn away from the hills.
I stay at low altitude; climbing would slow us down. I also fight the urge to jam the burners up to max and get the mission over with. We cross a white, sandy beach; the miles click off: one, five, 10. I begin a climb, deselect afterburner and start to slow down. I peel off my oxygen mask and let it dangle to the side. The air in the cockpit is cool. The F-4 pulls alongside; the pilot and RIO have also unsnapped their masks. The pilot taps his head and I give him the lead. Now I will fly at the Phantom's max-conserve speed while the fighter heads for the tanker waiting near the ship. Relaxed, I sashay around the Phantom, flying slowly with the nose up.
At the KA-6 tanker, I wait while the F-4 plugs and takes on fuel. No other thirsty fighters are around, so I go in for some practice. With my mask back on in case of canopy damage or fuel ingestion, I slide 10 feet behind the basket, reach down and flip the switch to extend the fueling probe. A red, bent pipe with a gray tip comes out of the left side of the nose. The wind across the probe and its doors makes a racket.
Aerial refueling of a Vigilante is difficult. The pitching moment arm is long, and an up or down correction results in the probe twisting in an arc. Just before contact, airflow over the nose shoves the basket off to the side. The secret is to aim halfway out at the drogue's 10 o'clock. I get good contact, shove in a couple of feet, then back out and do it twice more to show it wasn't a fluke. Next, the probe is retracted, and I pull alongside the tanker to show I am clear. My escort is lazing along on the other side to conserve fuel. Showing off, I light the burners and pull away in a swooping barrel roll as I head for the ship.
Landing on the carrier
The landing order on a carrier is prescribed by plane type. The fighters come in first, then the A-7s and A-6s followed by the odd dogs, EA-6s or A-3s. The last jet is the Vigilante, followed by the turboprop E-2 and C-2 COD. I wait, circling overhead when the weather is good. On one of the turns, the RAN reminds me to fly level over the ship with the cameras on. The photography specialists will use known objects and marking on the carrier deck to calibrate the cameras.
Usually, the Vigilante flies into the break quickly and alone. Occasionally, on a whim, Vigi and E-2 Hummer pilots will arrange to come in together, the Vigi on the left win to break first. The Hummer is nose-down with its turboprops screaming at redline air speed, while the Vigi has the flaps partially down and its nose high to try to stay slow and under control while in tight formation.
Downwind, I lower the flaps to a full 5 degrees, lower the gear and have my RAN check by TV what the indicators show. Bull quips, "We have three 'up' and locked." A lever on the right side of the cockpit lowers the heavy, A-frame tailhook. As the flaps come down, so do the leading-edge slats, and the cockpit air conditioning cuts out as engine bleed-air is diverted over the wing. As the airspeed slows toward 155 knots, the angle-of-attack indexer on the glare shield lights up. I engage the auto throttles with a switch and check the auto-throttle operation by pulling back on the stick; the throttles move forward. If you push the stick forward, the throttles move back. There may have been lots of fuel to burn flying around, but at a maximum trap weight of 50,000 pounds, there's only enough for four "looks" at the deck-not a time to screw up with the entire ship watching and waiting for me to trap.
Across the wake, I pick up the meatball. The wings are level when the plane is on the landing centerline. I start the landing scan I first learned in Pensacola: meatball, lineup, angle of attack, meatball, lineup, angle of attack. In the Vigi, I fly the ball with tiny tweaks of the stick to keep it dead center-gentle touches with fingers and thumb. The auto throttles keep the speed correct. Their jerky movements are reassuring. Nevertheless, my left hand rests on the throttles all the time-just in case. Any lineup problem has to be solved early. A turn to line up an RA-5C means the spoilers come up, and their drag will pull the nose down if not anticipated. Close in, my scan changes as angle of attack becomes less important; then, the lineup drops out. For the last seconds, it is all meatball, meatball, meatball. Touchdown has to be in a perfect attitude, or there is the risk of a shattered nosewheel or of the tailhook slamming up into the fuselage. On a good trap at Vigi approach speeds, I am thrown forward hard against my straps (woe to those who forget to lock their harnesses). I have to struggle to bring the throttles to idle, raise the flaps, press the button on the stick for nosewheel steering, switch hands to raise the tailhook, switch hands to advance the power, switch hands again to fold the wings and taxi out of the landing area.
Taxiing the Vigilante is unique because the nosewheel is eight feet behind me. This takes some getting used to, even in normal turns, and on the ship, there are situations that require the nosewheel to be run up to the edge of the deck with the pilot watching the director over his shoulder and the RAN looking at water in the viewfinder. To the relief of Vigilante crews, this was eventually forbidden at night and discouraged in daylight.
One of the joys of being in an RVAH squadron is that, after the standard verbal debrief and time for a cup of coffee, Bull and I can go down to the integrated operational intelligence center (IOIC) to watch hundreds of feet of five-inch-wide negative film come out of the processor. Selected areas are taken to a light table for a quick look. We get instant confirmation of how well we flew. Sure enough, the bridge was intact-inches under water. In the fighter and attack ready rooms, what happened was settled by who was senior, or who told the best stow or yelled the loudest. My film does not lie.
Not only was reconnaissance a satisfying mission, but it was also a chance to fly the Cadillac of carrier airplanes-the RA-SC Vigilante-the most beautiful flying machine to ever grace a carrier deck. END