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A-5 (A3J) Vigilante
Role Nuclear strike bomber, reconnaissance aircraft
Manufacturer North American Aviation
First flight 31 August 1958
Introduction June 1961
Retired November 1979
Primary user United States Navy
Produced 1956–63
Number built 156

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

The North American A-5 Vigilante was a carrier-based supersonic bomber designed and built by North American Aviation for the United States Navy. Its service in the nuclear strike role to replace the Douglas 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.[1]

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.[2] This proposal, the NAGPAW (North American General Purpose Attack Weapon) concept, was accepted by the United States Navy, with some revisions, in 1955.[3] A contract was awarded on 29 August 1956. Its first flight occurred two years later on 31 August 1958 in Columbus, Ohio.[4]

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.[4] There were no ailerons. Roll control was provided by spoilers in conjunction with differential deflection of the all-moving tail surfaces. 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 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter), and a single large all-moving vertical stabilizer.[2] Preliminary design studies had employed twin vertical fin/rudders.[4] 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.[1]

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.[5]

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, supersonic, 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 provided for positive separation of the bomb from the aircraft at supersonic speeds. 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". A set of extendable fins was attached to the aft end of the most rearward fuel tank. These fuel tanks were to be emptied during flight to the target and then jettisoned with the bomb by an explosive drogue gun. The stores train was propelled rearward at about 50 feet per second (30 knots) relative to the aircraft, not at the aircraft's forward speed as stated in some references. It therefore followed a typical ballistic arc rather than "falling straight down."[6]

In practice, the system was not 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.[7]

A planform 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

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 Douglas A-3 Skywarrior in the heavy attack role.[8] All variants of the Vigilante were built at North American Aviation's facility at Port Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ohio, alongside the North American 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.[citation needed] 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-5Cs 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.

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 to 1970 as attrition replacements.[9]

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 Boeing 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 Naval Air Station 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.[10] Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE was subsequently disestablished at NAS Key West, Florida in January 1980.

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 Naval Air Station Memphis), Tennessee.

Retired RA-5Cs in storage at MASDC, Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona in November 1978.

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 Vought 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 Grumman 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 Boeing 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 Boeing F/A-18E/F 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, Grumman 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 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 "Foxbat" interceptor was greatly influenced by American advances in high speed flight.[11] [N 1] Although there is a superficial resemblance to the F-108/Vigilante configuration, the MiG-25 was an entirely unique design.[12]


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, beating the previous record by over four miles (6 km). This new record held for over 13 years.[13]


Prototypes, two built, one converted to RA-5C.
A-5A (A3J-1)
Production nuclear bomber variant; 57 built, 42 converted to RA-5C.
A-5B (A3J-2)
Nuclear bomber with greater range. Two prototypes, both converted to RA-5C.
YA-5C (XA3J-3P)
Four completed from A-5B order without reconnaissance systems and assigned to pilot familiarization, later converted to RA-5C.
RA-5C (A3J-3P)
Reconnaissance version; 91 new-build plus conversions of 43 A-5As and the first six A-5Bs.
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

Aircraft on display

RA-5C BuNo 156624 is preserved at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida.

RA-5C BuNo 151629 on outdoor display in RVAH-3 markings at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum in Pueblo, Colorado in November 2007. This aircraft has since been repainted in RVAH-7 markings and is now displayed indoors.

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

  • 146697 - Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. It is the oldest Vigilante on display and the only one still in its original A3J/A-5A nuclear attack bomber configuration.[14]
  • 156608 - 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 with Carrier Air Wing 2 aboard the USS Ranger in 1979.[17]
  • 156615 - Castle Air Museum at the former Castle Air Force Base, California in 2012. This aircraft was formerly located on the Mojave Test Range. This particular RA-5C was the last Vigilante to land aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger while assigned to RVAH-7 in August 1979 during the last Vigilante deployment.[19]
  • 156621 - New York State Aerosciences Museum (ESAM) in Glenville, New York. It was initially on display at the former US Naval Photographic School at NAS Pensacola, Florida. In 1986, it was shipped up the East Coast by barge and placed on display aboard the USS Intrepid Museum in New York City. In 2005, this RA-5C was acquired by ESAM. 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.[20]
  • 156632 - Orlando Sanford International Airport (formerly Naval Air Station Sanford) in Sanford, Florida. It was placed there on 30 May 2003 as a memorial to A-5 and RA-5C aircrewmen and support personnel who served at NAS Sanford. On loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation, the aircraft 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.[22]
  • 156638 - Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. It was transferred from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California and was previously marked as an RVAH-6 aircraft in a Vietnam-era jungle camouflage paint scheme, as an RVAH-12 aircraft in traditional Cold War gray/white paint scheme, and currently as an RVAH-7 aircraft in traditional gray/white paint scheme.[23]
  • 156643 - Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. It was transferred from NAS Key West, Florida, and is displayed as a test aircraft operated by the Patuxent River Flight Test Division in the 1970s. It was the last RA-5C built.[25]

Specifications (A-5A Vigilante)

Orthographically projected diagram of the A-5A Vigilante.

Cockpit control panel

Data from North American Rockwell A3J (A-5) Vigilante,[26] Combat Aircraft since 1945[27]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 76 ft 6 in (23.32 m)
  • Wingspan: 53 ft 0 in (16.16 m)
  • Height: 19 ft 4¾ in (5.91 m)
  • Wing area: 700 ft² (65.1 m²)
  • 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: 2 × General Electric J79-GE-8 afterburning turbojets
    • Dry thrust: 10,900 lbf[28] (48 kN) each
    • Thrust with afterburner: 17,000 lbf[28] (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/ft² (308.3 kg/m²)
  • Thrust/weight: 0.72


Systems carried by A-5 or RA-5C[29][30]

  • AN/ASB-12 Bombing & Navigation Radar (A-5, RA-5C)
  • Westinghouse AN/APD-7 SLAR (RA-5C)
  • Sanders AN/ALQ-100 E/F/G/H-Band Radar Jammer (RA-5C)
  • Sanders AN/ALQ-41 X-Band Radar Jammer (A-5, RA-5C)
  • AIL AN/ALQ-61 Radio/Radar/IR ECM Receiver (RA-5C)
  • Litton ALR-45 "COMPASS TIE" 2-18 GHz Radar Warning Receiver (RA-5C)
  • Magnavox AN/APR-27 SAM Radar Warning Receiver (RA-5C)
  • Itek AN/APR-25 S/X/C-Band Radar Detection and Homing Set (RA-5C)
  • Motorola AN/APR-18 Electronic Reconnaissance System (A-5, RA-5C)
  • AN/AAS-21 IR Reconnaissance Camera (RA-5C)

See also



  1. Both the MiG and Sukhoi design bureaus received VVS funding in 1958–59 specifically to create interceptors to counter the perceived US threat.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wagner 1982, p. 361.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Dean 2001, p. 23.
  3. Siuru 1981, p. 15.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Siuru 1981, p. 16.
  5. Ellis 2008, p. 64.
  6. Thomason 2009, p. 112.
  7. Goebel, Greg. "The North American A-5/RA-5 Vigilante.", 5 April 2007. Retrieved: 2 March 2008.
  8. Goodspeed 2000, p. 51.
  9. Ellis 2008, p. 63.
  10. "The United States Naval Aviation 1910–1995, pp. 324–325" Retrieved: 10 August 2010.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Butowski and Miller 1991, p. 107.
  12. Buttler 2007, p. 79.
  13. Siuru 1981, p. 16.
  14. "A-5 Vigilante/146697." Warbird Registry. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  15. "A-5 Vigilante/149289." Pima Air & Space Museum. Retrieved: 12 September 2012.
  16. "A-5 Vigilante/151629." Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  17. "A-5 Vigilante/156608." Warbird Registry. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  18. "A-5 Vigilante/156612." Warbird Registry. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  19. "A-5 Vigilante/156615." Castle Air Museum. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  20. "A-5 Vigilante/156621." Empire State Aerosciences Museum. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  21. "A-5 Vigilante/156624." National Museum of Naval Aviation. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  22. "A-5 Vigilante/156632." Warbird Registry. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  23. "A-5 Vigilante/156638." Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  24. "A-5 Vigilante/156641." USS Midway Museum. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  25. "A-5 Vigilante/156643." Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. Retrieved: 13 December 2012.
  26. Goodspeed 2000, p. 77.
  27. Wilson 2000, p. 114.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Taylor 1965, p. 274.
  29. Parsch, Andreas. "Designations of US Military Electronic and Communications Equipment." Designation Systems, 5 June 2011. Retrieved: 31 January 2012.
  30. Eden 2009, pp. 220, 221.


  • Buttler, Tony. American Secret Projects: Fighters & Interceptors 1945–1978. Hinckley, UK: Midland Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-85780-264-1.
  • Butowski, Piotr with Jay Miller. OKB MiG: A History of the Design Bureau and Its Aircraft. Leicester, UK: Midland Counties Publications, 1991. ISBN 0-455-84725-6.
  • Dean, Jack. "Sleek Snooper." Airpower, Volume 31, No. 2, March 2001.
  • Donald, David and Jon Lake, eds. Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft. London: AIRtime Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-880588-24-2.
  • Eden. Paul. Modern Military Aircraft Anatomy. London: Amber Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-905704-77-4.
  • Ellis, Ken, ed. "North American A-5 Vigilante" (In Focus). Flypast, August 2008.
  • Goodspeed, M. Hill. "North American Rockwell A3J (A-5) Vigilante". Wings of Fame, Volume 19, pp. 38–103. London: Aerospace Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-86184-049-7.
  • Gunston, Bill. Bombers of the West. London: Ian Allan Ltd., 1973, pp. 227–35. ISBN 0-7110-0456-0.
  • Powell, Robert. RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat. London: Osprey Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-84176-749-2.
  • Siuru, William. "Vigilante: Farewell to the Fleet's Last Strategic Bomber!" Airpower, Volume 11, No. 1, January 1981.
  • Taylor, John W. R. Jane's All The World's Aircraft 1965–66. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1965.
  • Taylor, John W.R. "North American A-5 Vigilante." Combat Aircraft of the World from 1909 to the Present. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969. ISBN 0-425-03633-2.
  • Thomason, Tommy H. "Strike from the Sea". North Branch, Minnesota: Specialty Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1580071321 .
  • Wagner, Ray. American Combat Planes. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, third edition 1982. ISBN 0-385-13120-8.
  • Wilson, Stewart. Combat Aircraft since 1945. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 2000. ISBN 1-875671-50-1

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