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The Vigilante: The Navy’s Mach 2 Brownie Camera Flew the Hairiest Missions

RA-5C Vigilantes Took Fearful Losses In Vietnam But Kept Boring In To Get The Pictures

Official US Navy photograph

Development of the North American A3J (after 1962 the A-5) Vigilante began in 1953 as a privately-funded program to build a carrier-based supersonic bomber capable of filling the nuclear strike role for the United States Navy (USN). North American called the program the North American General Purpose Attack Weapon (NAGPAW). After engineering tweaks were incorporated into the design in 1955, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) accepted the design. A contract for two prototypes followed in August of 1956, and North American chief test pilot Dick Wenzel flew the YA3J-1 for the first time almost exactly two years later.

Official US Navy photograph

That’s how the Viggie got started. Nothing terribly surprising there. But the jet was nothing short of revolutionary for its time. The first production A3J-1 flew in 1960. Carrier qualification was completed aboard the carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60) in 1960. When the A3J-1 became operational with Heavy Attack Squadron THREE (VAH-3) Sea Dragons at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sanford in Florida during June of 1961 it was the one of the largest, fastest, and most complex aircraft ever to be based aboard Navy aircraft carriers. Though only 156 of these awe-inspiring jets were produced, veterans of its era will never forget its combination of speed and power.

Official US Navy photograph

That power came from two General Electric J79-GE-8 afterburning turbojet engines- the very same power plants used in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and the Convair B-58 Hustler bomber among others. And the speed? Well the Viggie was easily capable of Mach 2 speeds at high altitudes (during a record-setting attempt the aircraft topped Mach 2.5) and supersonic speeds down low. McNamara’s 1962 Tri-Services Designation plan changed the bomber A3J-1 designator to A-5A, the bomber A3J-2 designator to A-5B, the bomber A3J-3 designator to A-5C, and the reconnaissance A3J-2P designator to RA-5C. Alphabet soup!

Official US Navy photograph

The revolutionary aspects of the Vigilante included a number of firsts, including the first fly-by-wire control system (with mechanical backup) in a production jet, the computerized AN/ASB-12 attack/navigation system displayed on a head-up display (HUD) or Pilot’s Projected Display Indicator (PPDI) as it was called at the time, the multi-mode mono-pulse radar system with terrain-avoidance features, the radar-equipped inertial navigation system (REINS) which was based on similar tech used in North American’s SM-64 Navaho missile, the closed-circuit television camera under the jet’s nose, and the Versatile Digital Analyzer (VERDAN, a small digital computer) capable of integrating the “take” from the sensors.

Official US Navy photograph

Other features of the Viggie’s design that weren’t necessarily firsts included the small-area highly-loaded 37.5 degree swept wing equipped with boundary-layer control system (or blown) flaps without ailerons (spoilers/deflectors were used for roll control), the one-piece powered (all-moving) vertical and horizontal stabilizers, the variable engine inlets with both profile and area adjustments, the fully retractable refueling probe, the extensive use of titanium in the structure of the jet, the one-piece aluminum-lithium alloy wing skins, and even gold film and plating in the engine bays to reduce heat radiated through the structure.

Official US Navy photograph

The Vigilante also incorporated other new or emerging engineering such as an internal bomb bay (more about that later), a one-piece acrylic frameless windshield, and the use of inert nitrogen rather than flammable hydraulic fluid in hotter areas of the airframe. The jet was built with folding wings and vertical stabilizer as well as a nose radome that could be swung back along the side of the forward fuselage to decrease footprint aboard ship. The aircraft’s high-mounted swept wings and narrow-track landing gear, coupled with high approach speeds and angle of attack, could and sometimes did make for “interesting” carrier recoveries although the jet’s auto-throttle feature helped.

Official US Navy photograph

One unique aspect of the A-5 design was the linear bomb bay. Rather than release ordnance using conventional bomb bay doors in the aircraft’s underside, the Vigilante was designed to release “special” weapons from the aft fuselage horizontally between the two engines. Typically consisting of a Mark 28 thermonuclear bomb with a pair of attached fuel tanks, the payload was dubbed a “stores train.” Never (thankfully) used as designed, the internal bomb bay was instead used to carry additional fuel and occasionally mission electronics, especially in the RA-5C variants- although several times during cat shots the internal fuel tanks were left on the deck.

Official US Navy photograph

About fuel. As the Vigilante was developed from the A-5A to the A-5B, fuel capacity was added via two additional “wet” hard points under each wing to carry a total of four drop tanks and additional internal tankage housed in a dorsal fairing or “hump.” The A-5B also incorporated boundary-layer (blown) leading edge flaps/slats to improve low speed handing as well as beefier landing gear to better withstand the stresses of carrier launches and recoveries. The new technology incorporated into the Vigilante was becoming more reliable, but the A-5Bs never entered service under that designation. The majority of them became RA-5C variants.

Official US Navy photograph

Those RA-5Cs were modified with a long eight-station ventral fairing (canoe) to carry a variety of sensors. RA-5Cs also sported a modified wing with slightly more surface area thanks in part to a leading edge extension that also improved low-speed handling. The reconnaissance equipment added to the RA-5C, including the APD-7 side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), AAS-21 infrared line scanner, vertical, oblique, and split-image cameras as well as 3 inch and 18 inch horizon-to-horizon panoramic scanning cameras,  improved electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, and AN/ALQ-61 electronic intelligence system, added nearly 10,000 pounds to the RA-5C airframe. Consequently even when later equipped with uprated J79 engines the recon Vigilantes were slower to accelerate and climb but straight-line speed was not negatively impacted.

Official US Navy photograph

Though the Vigilante was intended to replace or augment the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior and the Lockheed P-2 Neptune in the heavy attack or atomic bombing role, in a practical sense it never really did. There was a timing component involved. After the first few years the A-5 was in service the Navy’s piece of the nuclear triad shifted to submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The attack version of the A-5 served short service lives. Those groundbreaking technologies built into the A-5s were troublesome in the beginning although the reliability of the tech improved as maintainers gained experience. The A-3 in particular was just too adaptable an airframe to replace. But the reconnaissance role of the RA-5C kept the Vigilantes in business.

Official US Navy photograph

In 1963 production of A-5s was stopped. The majority of the airframes then in service were converted to the RA-5C specification. As a result the Heavy Attack (VAH) designation was changed to Reconnaissance Attack Heavy (RVAH) for the squadrons flying the Vigilante when they transitioned from A-5s to RA-5Cs. That transition began in 1963. The Vigilante crews had previously consisting of the pilot and a bombardier/navigator. The reconnaissance role of the RA-5C drove the back-seater’s title to change to the reconnaissance attack navigator (RAN).

Official US Navy photograph

Because the RA-5C had so many systems installed the role of the RAN was integral to mission success. He was tasked first and foremost with operation of the ASB-12 inertial navigation system and its associated systems such as the under-nose video camera. The RAN also controlled the camera system(s), the strobe lighting pods used for flash lighting, the digital data system (DDS) which encoded location, speed, altitude, and other data on the negative film, the infrared mapping unit, side-looking radar, and ECM systems including radar warning receivers and radar jamming equipment.

Official US Navy photograph

Prior to the debut of the RA-5C the heavy attack squadrons flying bomber Vigilantes such as VAH-7 Peacemakers deployed aboard carriers like the first cruise of the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) beginning in 1962. That particular deployment was extended when the Cuban Missile Crisis flared up during October of that eventful year. RA-5Cs began their operational service in 1963 with RVAH-3 Savage Sons at NAS Sanford. Eventually a total of ten RVAH squadrons were established, the majority of which were based at NAS Sanford. These squadrons deployed aboard the large-deck Forrestal-class and later the USS Nimitz (CVN-68)

Official US Navy photograph

Eight of the ten RVAH squadrons deployed to Southeast Asia 31 times aboard Task Force 77 carriers for service during the Vietnam War. The majority of Vigilante sorties were high-risk medium-level post-strike reconnaissance missions flown in full afterburner while “feet dry” over North Vietnam. Attrition of the RA-5C fleet was unprecedented. Six aircraft squadrons began deploying with five, then four, and finally only three aircraft as the war progressed and losses mounted. 11 RA-5Cs were lost to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Two more were lost to surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and one was shot down by a marauding MiG-21. An additional nine aircraft were lost to operational mishaps. This was the highest Navy loss rate of the Vietnam War.

Official US Navy photograph

Attrition was bad enough, but the missions flown by the RA-5Cs important enough, that North American re-opened their production line in 1968 and produced an additional 36 RA-5Cs before shutting down for good in 1970. When the powers that were decided to close NAS Sanford and move the RVAH squadrons to Strategic Air Command’s Turner Air Force Base (AFB) in Georgia, the Vigilantes were already on their way out. Photo reconnaissance versions of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (Marine Corps-flown RF-4B) and the Vought F-8 Crusader (RF-8A and later RF-8G), along with the RA-3B and ERA-3B variants of the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior had already begun flying the photo recon missions.

Official US Navy photograph

After a tumultuous time in Georgia and the close of the Vietnam War the remaining RVAH squadrons moved to NAS Key West. Though proven to be a valuable asset to the fleet, Vigilantes were beginning to be phased out of service during the mid-1970s. They took up a lot of space aboard carriers already burdened with air wings flying larger airframes and they were expensive to operate. RVAH squadrons began to be disestablished beginning in 1974. The final deployment of an RVAH squadron was that of the Peacemakers of RVAH-7 aboard the USS Ranger (CVA-61), ending in 1979. The last operational Vigilante sortie took place at NAS Key West on November 20th 1979.

Official US Navy photograph

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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