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Originally designed as a Mach 2 all-weather bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons, the North American A3J Vigilante was eventually modified into a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft after the Navy’s strategic deterrence mission was assumed by nuclear submarines. The resulting RA-5C Vigilante incorporated sophisticated electronic equipment in its bomb-bay that included side-looking airborne radar and passive electronic countermeasures, along with vertical, oblique and split-image cameras.
The Vigilante first flew in August 1958 and by June 1960 the Vigilante had achieved several impressive performance milestones, and the Navy was eager for publicity. As told by Mark A. Frankel in the book North American Aviation Jet Age The Columbus Years 1941-1988, the NAA public-relations department was authorized to invite noted aviatrix Jackie Cochran to ride in the rear cockpit of a Vigilante as it exceeded Mach 2.
A nearly Mach 2 ride to Jackie Cochran
Test pilot John Moore recalls the event:
‘We checked Jackie out in the rear seat of the A3J-1 Vigi. There were no flight controls in that cockpit, but she really did not care on this mission. She just wanted to achieve Mach 2. With the wisdom of a woman who held many aviation records, she carefully reviewed and digested cockpit matters related to safety-the ejection system, radios, and the like. But she was impatient and wanted to get on with it.
‘The day was clear and warm, which caused me some concern. At 35,000 feet the temperature norm is minus 65 degrees[,] but on this day the weatherman gave us a minus 56 degree reading, which would be marginal for attaining Mach 2. Our performance guys said it might be close, but I should make that speed okay with my precious cargo in the back seat. So off we went. Our FAA[-]assigned supersonic corridor stretched from Knoxville, Tennessee[,] to Columbus, Ohio[,] with the provision that we be subsonic over both cities.
‘About Mach 1.6 our acceleration rate became noticeably slower as the “Vigi” engines struggled with the warmer air. At Mach 1.9 we were accelerating very slowly, and I was running out of fuel and supersonic corridor at the same time. But I knew exactly what to do I pushed the intercom button and said with pride, “Jackie, here we are at Mach 2.” There was a moment’s silence, then she replied, “Buster, you may be at Mach 2 in the front cockpit, but I am only at Mach 1.96 in this cockpit.”
‘Rats! I had forgotten that she had a Mach meter on the instrument panel in her cockpit…’
At last, Jackie Cochran reaches Mach 2
‘She elected to stay another day to try again with more optimum temperatures projected along with a faster pilot. So, our boss, Jim Pearce, saved the day by taking his elegant passenger to Mach 2,01 in both cockpits of the Vigilante at the same time.’
North American Aviation Jet Age The Columbus Years 1941-1988 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force