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That Time an RA-5C Vigilante and its F-4 Escort Pulled Up into a Thunderstorm to Evade North Vietnamese AAA, were Flipped Upside Down by the Turbulence and Popped Out of the Squall Inverted

`Once back on the ship, the guys in the ready room threatened to mount a Brownie camera on top of my hardhat for future manoeuvres,’ Art Skelly, RA-5C Vigilante Pilot.

Developed from the A-5 nuclear bomber, the RA-5C Vigilante was the largest and fastest aeroplane to ever operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The operational debut of the ‘Vigi’ coincided with the build-up of the Vietnam War. Due to its extremely dangerous, and vital, reconnaissance role, the jet sustained the highest loss ratio of any American aircraft in that conflict.

Throughout the war, there was always a ‘Vigi’ squadron on the line providing commanders with the latest intelligence. A Mach 2 aeroplane originally designed as a bomber, the RA-5C could outrun the F-4 Phantom IIs that were its escorts ‘over the beach’ into enemy territory.

As told by Robert R ‘Boom’ Powell in his book RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat, Lt Cdr Art Skelly and his Reconnaissance Attack Navigator (RAN), Lt(jg) Joe Shevlin, from RVAH-6 Fleurs survived one of the strangest events of the Vigilante’s career. In 1980. then Capt Skelly wrote;

`The Vigilante had the dubious distinction of photographing targets before and after the strike group bombed it. The Vietnamese were always waiting for the BDA pass after the last attack aircraft pulled off the target.

‘Of the 260 combat flights I flew in the Vigilante, the most unusual had to be with RVAH-6 in July 1966 aboard Constellation. One dark, overcast Sunday morning, we photographed an oil storage area that had been hit the previous night by A-6s. On our way out of the target area over downtown Haiphong, we attracted some severe AAA, automatic weapons fire and SAMs. Tracers were crisscrossing over the canopy and the F-4 escort was going crazy calling out flak. I decided that we had had enough, so I pulled up into a nearby thunderstorm to get away from the heaviest flak I had ever seen.

“Do you think, Comrade, that Hanoi will believe it?” from an original drawing by McMillan
In the thick of the action again in July 1966, It Cdr Skelly and Lt Shevlin incurred the wrath of Haiphong Harbour’s AAA and SAM during a challenging BDA ‘photo recce’ mission. The pilot pulled up into a thunderstorm in an effort to evade the enemy’s attention, and turbulence promptly flipped the Vigilante upside down. When they emerged inverted from the storm cloud, their F-4 Phantom II escort was still on their wing — also upside down. The rest of RVAH-6 threatened to mount a camera on the top of Skelly’s helmet for any such future manoeuvres. The story was soon all over the ship, and talented jet mechanic ADJ3 Macmillan drew this cartoon, which was widely circulated (Skelly)

`It didn’t work. Not only did we immediately encounter rain, hail and lightning, but the tracers were streaking around us and there were bright flashes from lightning and exploding shells. I couldn’t tell whether the turbulence was violent because of near misses or the storm! The attitude gyro didn’t look quite right, but that was the least of my worries then. We soon popped out of the storm cell and I realised the gyro was correct — not only were we upside down, but the F-4 was right there in position, also inverted!

`Joe recognised that the nose had fallen through, and was telling me to pull out. I rolled level and pulled hard because the water was awfully close. Joe said that the radar altimeter had gone to zero before we started to climb.

`There was a large merchant ship in front of us — it turned out to be Chinese — and as we flew past, our escort Phantom II called that a machine gun on the stern was firing down at us.

`Once back on the ship, I had maintenance check the “Vigi” for overstress and battle damage. Despite some of the heaviest flak I had ever seen, there wasn’t a single hole in the aeroplane!

`The guys in the ready room threatened to mount a Brownie camera on top of my hardhat for future manoeuvres.’

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RA-5C Vigilante RVAH-6 Fleurs, AJ601 / 156620 / 1972

RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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