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.
Nevertheless, the RA-5C’s first opportunity to go into harm’s way came before the aircraft had even been accepted by the Navy. On Oct. 13, 1962, high flying USAF U-2 aircraft photographed ballistic missile sites under construction in Cuba. Although the event was kept quiet, two weeks later one of the high-flying aircraft was shot down.
As told by Robert R ‘Boom’ Powell in his book RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat, late that same day, John Fosness, then Vigilante Programme Manager at North American Aviation (NAA) received a call from the Pentagon at his home. The question asked was, ‘Could the two prototype RA-5C’s have the test instrumentation removed and be reconfigured with advanced electronic countermeasures, along with the basic cameras?’ He replied, yes, and was stunned when his high-ranking caller told him they would have to deploy in 24 hours.
Fosness immediately began calling his people. However, it was a Saturday evening, and many of the engineers and technicians were not at home, but scattered around Columbus, Ohio. He remembers talking to many babysitters, and luckily reaching two groups at parties. By midnight, over 100 had been assembled and given their formidable task.
The aeroplanes were ready on time. The pair of Vigilantes may not have looked the best — ‘cosmetics’ like paint, had a low priority — but they were operational, with cameras and SLR ready to extend the surveillance of Cuba and the surrounding seas. Plus, they had the correct ECM equipment to defeat the newest Soviet radars.
Although held in readiness for two weeks, the prototype RA-5Cs were not used. As the crisis eased, Fosness convinced the Navy that such things as accurate fuel consumption figures for the new model would be good to have, and the two Vigilantes had their instrumentation re-installed and resumed development tests.
This rush job would not be the Vigilante’s last involvement with Cuba.
To this day, the US Navy has been reluctant to discuss the missions flown around the perimeter of Cuba. Vigilante crew-members remember performing flights called Jiffy Soda, but are unsure of when they began or when the last one took place. These missions were classified, and not openly talked about. The entry in the flight log book was ‘routine training’, and there are no open records. It was ‘combat’ of a different sort. They launched from home base and were back in time for dinner with the family. From NAS Sanford and NAS Albany, the Vigilante would stop in NAS Key West for fuel if needed. Once they were moved to the latter station, Cuba was visible soon after take-off. The missions were short enough that an extra fuelling was no longer required.
A Jiffy Soda flight would see the jet fly right around Cuba, with its PECM gathering radar signatures and locations and SLR recording a current image of the coastline and several miles inland, while a 36-inch focal length camera mounted in the oblique station — or sometimes the 18-inch panoramic camera — took high resolution photos to correlate with the IR and SLR. Theoretically, the RA-5C remained in international waters, but several missions were intercepted and trailed by MiGs, and lock-ups by Soviet made fire-control radars were not uncommon.
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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