Vigi Vignettes

VIGI VIGNETTES edited by Bob Lawson
From "The Hook, Winter of 1980"

SO YOU WANT TO BE A TEST PILOT? from CAPT. R. A. "Bob" Elder, USN (Ret)

I was asked by the editor of The Hook to relate a few interesting anecdotes during my early test activities with the controversial Vigilante-it seems that every new Navy tactical airplane is "controversial" during its development phase. At least two incidents I remember well: I was Director of Flight Test at Fax River in 1958 and '59, a period when Navy Preliminary Evaluations were coming thick and fast; McDonnell's F4H-1 Phantom II, Vought's superb Crusader Ill, and the North American Vigilante, to highlight only a few. As for the latter, my first NPE flight in BuNo 145157 on 12 February 1959 got off to a less than auspicious start.

Among the several advanced technologies of the period, the Vigilante incorporated an early form of fly-by-wire flight control system. Both the longitudinal and lateral flight control systems used electric signalling for normal operation with mechanical backup preloaded to actuate automatically should the electrical system fail, and it did, or at least the fly-by-wire longitudinal system did, at an altitude of about 200 feet, immediately after my first takeoff. During reversion to manual, a full nose-down pitch command was pulsed to the horizontal stabilator and the ensuing recovery was best described as a steeplechase through the sagebrush, chasing jackrabbits and trailing a dense plume of dust for several miles across the desert-shades of the F-16! Fortunately, no harm, no foul, but hardly a confidence builder. Then, there was the spontaneous, some senior naval officers of the period would say infamous, first public presentation of the Vigilante at the annual Andrews AFB air show. I had received approval to stop at Andrews en route from North American, Columbus in May of '59 with the first Pax River flight test aircraft, A3J-1 145159, specifically for static display only. Now static display may be better than nothing, but not much! In fact, the thought of that sleek new bird roosting on the ramp while the show went on was depressing to me. So much so that I decided to test the water with DCNO (Air) VADM Robert B. Pine. Hoping for a mellow response, I placed the phone call to his quarters the evening before the show, along about the cocktail hour. Approval was granted, with some constraints.

Unfortunately, my performance the next day neither lasted very long nor did much to credit my confidence, or the Admiral's decision. Every aircraft manufacturer seems to have an Achilles heel, and with North American Aviation it was wheel well doors or panels. Shedding one or more seemed to be a necessity in the developmental test history of a number of their airplanes. I acquired that test point shortly after takeoff, a rather sporty chandelle reentry to a burner pass down the runway on the deck-all out- streaming parts down the runway and along the flight path! Not all of them however, as the right main wheel well door buried itself about three feet deep into the leading edge of the stabilator, none of which did anything to improve the aerodynamics or control qualities of the airplane, or my Following a somewhat gimpy trip from Andrews 50 or so miles south to Patuxent, I made an uneventful landing and filled out the not so uneventful reports. The rest of the day and night were spent uncomfortably wondering where the substantial number of missing parts had impacted along my route of flight Sunday morning early, having scanned the Washington Post, happily with negative results, and hoping it had all gone away. I received a phone call. A Major, U.S. Air Force, with family and friends gathered at home watching the air show, while roasting hot dogs and the like, last saw the barbecue disappear in a trailing stream of burning charcoal! Miraculously, no one was injured.

A new barbecue, a bag of charcoal, a generous supply of steaks and an understanding fellow pilot, ended what could have been an otherwise more distasteful incident.

FUN OVER HAIPHONG from CAPT. A. R. "Art" Skelly, USN (Ret)

As I'm sure you know, the Vigilante was/is/will be a very controversial aircraft. When they were first delivered to squadrons at Sanford in 1964, their cost was about $6. million per copy. Adding the cost of cameras and other sensors plus the necessary support gear, ran the cost to about $16.5 million. That is very expensive even today and those were 1964 dollars.

The RA-5C was a big airplane! Size is a factor, especially aboard a carrier. We took up a lot of deck space on the flight deck and hangar bay. High steam pressure was required to launch us and lots of wind over the deck to recover us. It took a very tolerant and understanding carrier CO/Air Boss team for an RVAH squadron to even start cruise with an even break. This combination was rare but when we had it we could go gangbusters. For example, with CVW-11 in Kitty Hawk on Yankee Station in 1972, Vigilantes were routinely spotted on the cat for first launch and always recovered first on Alpha Strikes and at night.

The number of aircraft per squadron varied over the years. A-5A squadrons had 12 planes, when the RA-5C came along, the number was decreased to 6. Then as the inventory began to dwindle the number per squadron gradually reduced by one until the final level of 3 per squadron.

The A-5A was a real hot rod. It was the Navy's answer to the USAF B-58; hi-lo-hi Mach 2 nuclear delivery. After that mission was scrubbed the remaining A-5As were converted to RA-5Cs.

The RA-5C got its baptism of fire early in the Vietnam war Our main defense was speed. We had no armament of any kind. With a fairly wide turning radius, jinking in the Vigilante was a graceful, majestic maneuver! We just went in fast at low to medium altitudes and got through the threat area as fast as possible. We carried super ECM gear and were seldom surprised at what we encountered. We usually carried F-4 escorts (sometimes other RA-5s) and had to be careful not to run them out of fuel or run away from them. We were clean wing and the F-4 was loaded with missiles, thereby the difference. Any AAA encountered usually went off behind us because of our speed.

The Vigilante had the dubious distinction of photographing targets before and after the strike group bombed it. The Vietnamese were always waiting for the BOA pass after the last attack aircraft pulled off the target.

Of the 260 combat flights I flew in the Vigilante, the most unusual had to be with RVAH 6 in 1966 aboard Constellation. One dark, overcast Sunday morning. I photographed an oil storage area that had been hit the previous night by A-6s. On our way out of the target area over downtown Haiphong, we took some severe AAA, automatic weapons fire and SAMs. Tracers were crisscrossing over the canopy and the F-4 escort pilot was going crazy calling out flak. I decided we had had enough so I pulled up into a nearby thunderstorm and we immediately encountered rain, hail and lightning.

I was on instruments, 4,000 ft altitude, 600 kts, wings level and still dodging tracers. The attitude gyro just didn't look quite right, but that was the least of my worries then. A few seconds later I broke out on the other side and we were inverted, the F-4 was right there in position, inverted toot The guys in the ready room threatened to mount a Brownie on top of my hard hat for future maneuvers.

As the Vigilante is retired and "interim" reconnaissance aircraft are introduced because funding priorities are directed to other tactical aircraft, I hope the task force commanders remember one thing about the art of tactical reconnaissance. The quality of the product they want is directly related to the quality of the platform and system. Hanging a reconnaissance pod on a fighter and calling it a recce aircraft is a band-aid fix and will produce mediocre results at best.


On rare occasions (fortunately) a few Vigi pilots experienced a strange phenomena upon being catapulted from the carrier. Once in awhile there would be a Vigi that would decide it wasn't going to carry all of that weight contained in the linear bomb bay fuel cells. Upon receiving the cat stroke, they would unceremoniously dump the three cells right on the flight deck! This usually resulted in a spectacular conflagration on the flight deck but didn't present a problem that a competent pilot couldn't handle. However, on one occasion, when only one can came out with its 2,000 lbs of fuel and ripping the plumbing out of the next cell, it resulted in one of the hairiest cat shots ever recorded and only through the quick reactions of pilot LCDR Howie Fowler, a well designed North American ejection seat, and whole lot of luck, are he and his RAN, LTJG Art Dipadova, here to relate the story. The tale begins on a fair spring afternoon in WestPac in 1973 as the crew manned their RVAH-12 RA-5C BuNo 156609 aboard Connie. But let CDR Fowler tell it:

Following a normal brief and preflight the turnup went well with no problems. We were first directed to cat three but then changed to cat two because of problems with three's shuttle. The catapult shot seemed normal but the nose dropped off the bow causing a settle which required more than normal stick throw to correct. I noticed a RAMPS light on the annunciator which went out after resetting it. I selected 30/25 flaps/droops and raised the gear. I thought the ramps had closed reducing thrust to the engines and caused the settle. I made a normal clearing turn to starboard and climbed to 300 ft. As I leveled and the aircraft was accelerating through 200 kts, Departure Control came up with "605 you dropped one of your tanks on the deck and its on fire. " At the same time Art told me he had a fire warning light I saw both engines 1 and 2 fire warning lights on. The aircraft started to buffet and yaw slightly back and forth. I felt what I thought were explosions in the tail section. Immediately, the aircraft pitched nose down and commenced a violent roll to the right which I estimate was 300-400 degrees per second. Also at the same time, all of the annunciator lights came on with the stick going full forward and to the right, freezing in that position.

I called "Eject!, Eject! " and on the second command I initiated ejection with the left turn and pull knob. At this time the aircraft had completed at least one roll and was now about 90 degrees right wing down and about 20-30 degrees nose down. As luck would have it, we had just converted our seats to the 0-0 configuration and they worked beautifully, although at first I thought nothing was happening. Time slows down to an eternity and your brain freezes each moment. But then the canopy left the airplane and I was aware of an eerie sound caused by the wind. The seat dropped down and bottomed out as I saw smoke from the cartridge and left the cockpit. I lost my helmet and mask as I went out but could clearly see the airplane, I was looking directly at the tail as it hit the water in a 60-70 degree nose down attitude.

When I left the airplane, it had completed about 270 degrees of at least its second roll. I got a full canopy at about the same time that I entered the water. After inflating my life vest I got rid of the chute and was soon picked up by the helo with no injuries, but I took on a lot of salt water.

Howie's RAN wasn't quite as fortunate. Art's seat left the airplane about 3/4 second before Howie, when the Vigi was on its back. He had attempted to initiate the ejection himself but the violence of the rolling motion caused his arm to be thrown outboard as he reached for the left hand knob. As he grabbed for it the second time and pulled it, he felt the ejection sequence begin. He was conscious of being inverted as he went out, felt the seat separate and at about the same time he hit the water inverted. After going under- water 5-10 ft, he tried to inflate his life vest but found his right arm extremely weak and unusable. He managed to get the left toggle pulled which brought him to the surface but just barely. After struggling in vain to reach the right toggle with his left hand he unfastened his left parachute riser. At about this time the rescue helo arrived overhead and the swimmer entered the water to assist. It was just in time, as Art was swallowing "quite a bit of the sea. " He was pulled into the helo and they went after Howie. Both crewmembers were back aboard Connie within 15 minutes after the ejection with neither man sustaining serious injury.

An interesting aspect of this story that has taken you several minutes to read, is that the entire lapsed time from fire warning lights to ejection was probably somewhere near five seconds.