The Vigilante, designed and built for the U.S. Navy by North American Aircraft Division at Columbus, Ohio, was the only Mach 2 bomber to serve aboard a Navy carrier. Initially designated the A3J-1 attack bomber, it was one of the largest and heaviest aircraft ever accepted for service aboard U.S. Navy carriers. Production began in 1956, and it entered squadron service in June 1961. It was redesignated the A-5 and fully deployed by August 1962, when the USS Enterprise, the Navy’s first nuclear aircraft carrier, made its inaugural cruise.
Changing defense strategies marked a change of focus away from carrier-based, heavy-attack squadrons. In 1964, all the Vigilantes were reconfigured as reconnaissance aircraft and designated RA-5C. Reconnaissance gear was mounted in what had been the Vigilante’s bomb bay. Other modifications allowed the RA-5C to carry four external fuel tanks. According to Boeing, these additions increased the airplane’s range on reconnaissance missions and allowed it to keep its attack capability with externally mounted bombs and rockets.
The combination of the RA-5C Vigilante’s ability to deliver conventional weapons, day or night in all kinds of weather, as well as to complete tactical reconnaissance missions and its sleek design made it one of the most versatile and beautiful aircraft in the world, as Andy Burns, Flight Officer / Aviator at United States Navy (1995-present), explains on Quora.
‘I always loved the RA-5 Vigilante.
‘Originally designed as a carrier-based, high-speed strategic nuclear bomber, it was a failure in that role, but proved quite successful as a reconnaissance aircraft during the Vietnam War.
‘The “Viggie” was fast as stink – Mach 2 at altitude – and I always felt it was just a beautiful, sexy airplane.’
‘The Viggie was considered a failure as a bomber essentially because it had a ‘revolutionary’ weapons delivery system that didn’t work very well at all, to the point of being hazardous to the crew.
‘The A-5 as originally designed was intended to be able to deliver its nukes in a high speed “dash” that would preclude either carrying them externally or using a conventional bomb bay. The solution was a unique “linear delivery” system where the weapons (along with extra fuel tanks) were carried in a centerline tube and ejected from a port between the exhaust nozzles.
‘Cool in theory. In practice, the payload tended to get caught in the jet’s slipstream and either tumble uncontrollably or, more distressing for the crew, follow the jet along for a bit. Either way, it made for unacceptable delivery accuracy, even by nuclear weapons standards.’
‘As the RA-5, the “tube” contained only fuel tanks, which was vital for gas-guzzling turbojets. On a couple of occasions, however, the fuel tanks were rattled loose during a shipboard catapult launch and tumbled out, with some alarmingly spectacular results.’
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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