The North American A-5 Vigilante

US Navy

A North American RA-5C Vigilante, Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 7
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A North American RA-5C Vigilante, Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 7

A three-quarter starboard aerial view of an RA-5C Vigilante aircraft, Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 7 (RVAH-7) known as the "Peacemakers of the Fleet" and was assigned to the USS RANGER (CV 61) from February 21 to September 22, 1979.

Photo taken 1st Jan 1979

The rapid evolution of aircraft design in the 1950s led to new aircraft types with sleek lines and impressive performance. One such aircraft was the North American A-5/RA-5 "Vigilante". The Vigilante was designed as a carrier-based strategic nuclear bomber, but would see action over Vietnam as a fast reconnaissance aircraft. This document outlines the history of the Vigilante.

The North American Vigilante Origins (A-5A)

In the postwar period, the US Navy became determined to acquire a nuclear strike capability, first acquiring the North American AJ "Savage" and Douglas A-3 "Skywarrior" bombers. These were both subsonic aircraft, and since aircraft design was evolving quickly at the time, both soon became obsolete for the missions for which they had originally been designed.

North American Aviation (NAA) felt they could provide something more capable for the nuclear strike mission, and in November 1953 the company's Columbus, Ohio, division began a program on their own initiative using company funding to build such an advanced carrier-based nuclear-strike bomber. The development team was led by Frank G. Compton.

The new aircraft was originally referred to as the "North American General Purpose Attack Weapon (NAGPAW)" and later given the company designation of "NA-233". After discussions with the Navy, the NAA-233 concept took shape as a twin-engine aircraft with advanced combat avionics, Mach 2 performance, and an interesting "linear bomb bay" in which a nuclear weapon was popped out the tail to give the aircraft a better chance of escaping the atomic blast.

North American engineers also considered fitting the aircraft with an auxiliary rocket engine powered by jet fuel and hydrogen peroxide for an additional burst of speed over the target area, but the Navy didn't like the idea of handling a nasty, reactive, and unstable substance like hydrogen peroxide on board a ship, and it didn't happen.

The Navy gave North American the go-ahead for two prototypes in mid-1956. The first prototype of the "YA3J-1 Vigilante", as it was formally designated, was rolled out on 16 May 1958. First flight was on 31 August 1958, with North American chief test pilot Dick Wenzel at the controls.

The Vigilante was long and sleek, with a relatively small high-mounted swept-back wing, and all-moving slab tailplanes and tailfin. The aircraft had tricycle landing gear, with the main gear retracting into the fuselage. All three gear had single wheels and retracted forward, with the main gear rotating 90 degrees to fit into the wheel wells. The Vigilante was powered by twin General Electric YJ79-GE-2 engines, with engine bays made mostly of titanium, and covered with gold film to reflect heat. The aircraft had a large fuel capacity to give it long range and permit extended flight in afterburner.

LT Wade US Navy

A Heavy Attack Reconnaissance Squadron 3 (RVAK-3) RA-5C Vigilante aircraft is parked on the flight line.
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A Heavy Attack Reconnaissance Squadron 3 (RVAK-3) RA-5C Vigilante aircraft is parked on the flight line.

A Heavy Attack Reconnaissance Squadron 3 (RVAK-3) RA-5C Vigilante aircraft is parked on the flight line.


Date Shot: 27 Mar 1968

Camera Operator: LT WADE

The aircraft achieved good low-speed landing performance through the use of large flaps. The ailerons were eliminated to make room for the flaps, with roll control provided by differential movement of the horizontal tailplanes and an innovative scheme of spoilers. There were three spoilers on each wing, just forward of the rear flight control surfaces; there were actually spoilers on each surface of the wing, with a spoiler on one surface hinged at the front matched to a spoiler on the other hinged at the rear. When a spoiler was deployed, it formed a "vent" of sorts through the wing. The two topside inboard spoilers were hinged at the front, while the topside outboard spoiler was hinged at the rear. A "boundary layer control (BLC)" scheme was incorporated, in which air bled from the engines was automatically blown over the flaps when they were extended, in order to lower landing speed.

The wingtips folded up to allow carrier hangar storage. North American had considered twin tailfins to meet the height restrictions of a carrier hangar deck, but although such a configuration is common now, it was too bold for the Navy at the time. North American went with a single tall tailfin that folded to one side.

The Vigilante featured a long list of new technologies, including wing skins made of aluminum-lithium alloy; critical structures made of titanium; variable engine inlets; a windshield of stretched acrylics; and a retractable mid-air refueling probe. The two crewmen flew in tandem cockpits with individual "clamshell" canopies, sitting in North American HS-1 rocket-boosted ejection seats. The pilot could control ejection for both crewmen, though the back-seater could also eject on his own if necessary.

While the pilot had a good forward view, the "bombardier-navigator" in the back seat had only a small window to each side. Originally, North American engineers hadn't intended to provide

any windows for the back-seater on the premise that he would be able to see his displays better in the dark and would be protected from nuclear flash, but feedback on the idea from prospective bombardier-navigators was very negative. The engineers added the two little windows as a compromise.

The Vigilante had the advanced North American Autonetics "AN/ASB-12 Bomb Directing Set", which included:

  • A multi-mode radar. The nose radome had a power mechanism to allow it to pivot upward, not only for service access to the radar antenna but to reduce the aircraft's "footprint" when stowed in a carrier hanger. The radar unit itself pivoted downward for service when the nose was lifted.
  • A radar computer with an associated "Pilot's Projected Display Indicator (PPDI)" one of the first "head-up displays" to be fitted to an operational aircraft.
  • A TV camera under the nose for daylight target sighting, with the imagery passed to the pilot's PPDI and the back-seater's radar display.
  • A "Radar-Equipped Inertial Navigation System (REINS)", based on technologies developed for the Navaho intercontinental cruise missile.
  • A digital computer system designated the "Versatile Digital Analyser (VERDAN)", which would later be referred to as a "Very Effective Replacement for a Dumb-Ass Navigator". It was one of the first solid-state computer systems ever fitted to an aircraft.

The Vigilante was also one of the first aircraft to have a "fly by wire" flight control system.

The second prototype flew in November 1958. The flight test program went well, though the second prototype was lost on 3 June 1959 when its hydraulic and electrical systems failed.

The first production "A3J-1" Vigilante flew in 1960. Production aircraft were progressively fitted with more powerful J79 engine variants, leading to J79-GE-8 engines, with 48.5 kN (4,945 kgp / 10,900 lbf) dry thrust and 75.6 kN (7,710 kgp / 17,000 lbf) afterburning thrust. These were the same engines used on many of the Navy's McDonnell Douglas F4H-1 (F-4B) Phantom fighter, simplifying logistics and maintenance.

Carrier trials began in July 1960. To promote the Vigilante with the US Congress, the Navy also established several speed and altitude records with the aircraft. On 13 December 1960, Navy test pilots Commander Leroy Heath and Lieutenant Larry Monroe took their Vigilante to Mach 2.1 and then nosed it up into a climb that brought it to a record 27,750 meters (91,000 feet). At that altitude, the aircraft was no longer aerodynamic and tumbled onto its back as it fell down the far side of the arc, with the engines flaming out in the thin atmosphere. However, such problems had been encountered in practice flights leading up to the attempt and the flight crew knew what to expect. Heath simply neutralized the controls; once the Vigilante reached thicker air halfway through its fall, it naturally adopted a nose-down attitude, and Heath was able to relight the engines.

Author: Greg Goebel