The A-5 Vigilante was a carrier based supersonic bomber designed by North American for the U.S. Navy. Its service in the nuclear strike role (replacing the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior) was very short. However, as the RA-5C, it saw extensive service during the Vietnam War in the tactical strike reconnaissance role.
Starting in August of 1964 hazardous medium-level reconnaissance missions (such as that reported in this post) were carried out.
On Mar. 1, 1971, while performing one of these missions over North Vietnam, Lt Cdr Barry Gastrock and Lt Emy Conrad, flying the RA-5C Vigilante BuNo.156624 of Reconnaissance Attack (Heavy) Squadron Six (RVAH-6), call sign “Field Gold 602” from USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), took a remarkable photograph by accident.
As explained by Robert R. Powell in his book RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat, their planned route crossed over itself so as to allow the crew to get comprehensive photographic coverage of the Song Ca River.
This area was well inside the SAM envelopes around the city of Vinh.
Heading South, the Vigilante appeared back over the river juncture at Hung Nghia less than four minutes after crossing the same village in a westerly direction, AAA had been sporadic on the jet’s first pass over the area, and there had been no missile warnings when Lt Conrad saw a flash in his viewfinder, heard a “whumpf” and was thrown against his seat-straps. The coast was not far away, and the crew soon went “feet wet” and subsequently carried out a routine landing back aboard the Kitty Hawk.
A short while later in the ship’s intelligence centre, a photo-interpreter cranked the six inch-wide film from one massive spool to another across the light-table and stopped in surprise. Perfectly framed by the Vigilante’s vertical camera was an SA-2 surface-to-air-missile (SAM) still under boost.
The crew was called in to see the near miss. Since there was no terrain visible in the frame, they assumed the SAM passed beside the RA-5C as Lt Cdr Gastrock banked hard to head for home. Knowing the focal length of the camera and the size of an SA-2, the photogrammeters computed that the missile had passed just 104ft away from the Vigilante’s belly.
No one knows why it did not detonate although the most likely theory is that the missile had not reached its arming time when it shot past the wildly jinking RA-5C.
Even though the Vigilante was fast and agile, 18 RA-5Cs were lost in combat during the Vietnam War: 14 to anti-aircraft fire, three to surface-to-air missiles, and one to a MiG-21. Due in part, to these combat losses, 36 additional RA-5C aircraft were built from 1968 to 1970 as attrition replacements. These aircraft were significantly different from previous RA-5Cs. Uprated engines, Leading Edge Extensions over the intakes, revised intake shape, and other modifications made these worthy of being called RA-5Ds – but the previous designation was retained. This last batch of Vigilantes are known as 156 Series aircraft since their BuNo. start with the numbers 156 (some earlier RA-5Cs were rebuilt to the same standard so there are exceptions).
Photo credit: Emy Conrad / U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force
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