The terms supersonic, carrier-based, and bomber, don’t generally go together when describing individual airplanes.
Though heavy supersonic bombers like B-58 Hustlers and B-1 Lancers are nothing new, most are subsonic and entirely too big to operate from aircraft carriers.
The Navy has always had relatively small bombers and strike aircraft like the rugged and lethal Douglas SBD Dauntlesses that served with distinction in the Pacific during the Second World War, but most were and still are far cries from their larger land-based cousins.
However, more than a half a century ago, one revolutionary warbird fit all three of the above criteria, and surprisingly it’s been all but forgotten – perhaps because it never carried out the missions for which it was originally designed and built.
Huge advances in aviation technology were made during the ‘40s and ‘50s, and aircraft manufacturers were much less consolidated than they are now.
Competition was fierce, the military was pouring tons of money into development, and jets had become the engines of the future, which meant that the days of underpowered piston-engine aircraft lumbering off windy flight decks at laughably slow speeds were long gone.
Featuring a long dagger-like fuselage, a sleek canopy, and razor-thin swept wings, the North American A-5 Vigilante was blessed with a design that was decades ahead of its time, both aesthetically and technologically.
Even standing still, Vigilantes looked like they’d already punched their way through the sound barrier, and they definitely didn’t resemble other bombers.
Built for the US Navy by Los Angeles-based North American Aviation, the A-5 Vigilante – originally designated the A3J – first took to the skies in the late ‘50s after a lengthy development period that began years earlier.
Much of the early work was done at North American’s Columbus, Ohio facility under the supervision of design chief Frank Compton, but unlike other similar programs, the A-5 was initially a privately funded venture.
Convinced that their new concept would beat the pants off the competition, forward-thinking company executives also thought it would be a big money maker.
The idea took root in 1954 when North American engineers began tinkering with plans for a long-range, all-weather, supersonic carrier-based bomber capable of carrying hefty nuclear and conventional payloads.
Big, expensive and complex, Vigilantes were the first bombers equipped with digital computers, and more impressively, they had proposed top speeds in excess of Mach 2, or more than 1,300 mph (2,100 km/h).
It was an exceptionally ambitious and risky roll of the dice, but after years of promising development the Navy finally funded the project.
On the downside, a number of even more rigorous requirements were added, like that the new jet would need to be able to take off from carrier decks fully loaded without the benefit of stiff headwinds to assist with lift.
Nonetheless, in late August of 1958, the first Vigilante took to the air over the Midwest.
77-feet (23.5 m) long from nose to tail, 53-feet (16.2 m) wide from wingtip to wingtip, and with a maximum takeoff weight exceeding 63,000 pounds (28,600 kg), Vigilantes were whoppers by ‘50s standards, especially for airplanes destined for carrier use.
But despite their size, crews were limited to just a pilot and either a bombardier-navigator or reconnaissance-navigator depending on variant and mission.
To get all that weight moving even with help from carrier steam catapults, tons of muscle was required, and ample power came from two GE J79 turbojets, each of which produced 10,900 pound-feet of dry thrust, or more than 17,000 pound-feet when the afterburners were lit.
With minor variations, the J-79s were the same reliable, inexpensive and widely available power plants found on Convair B-58 Hustlers and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs, among others.
Top speed was about four times that of most World War II bombers, but though the manufacturer’s recommended service ceiling was a relatively average 52,000 feet (15,800 m), Vigilantes were capable of flying much higher.
Featuring a high power-to-weight ratio usually reserved for much smaller fighters and interceptors, Vigilantes could climb to altitude at the rate of 8,000 feet (2,435 m) a minute or 135 feet (41 m) per second, which was only slightly slower than the F-86 Sabre – a jet about one-third as heavy.
To reduce drag, freefall nukes and conventional bombs would be stowed in a narrow “linear bomb bay” between the engines.
Though unorthodox, this layout fit the Vigilante’s slender airframe and allowed payloads to be dropped at supersonic speeds.
Conventional bombs could also be carried on external hardpoints, but they never were because of all the vigilante’s ever produced, nearly all were reconnaissance variants.
Long before becoming standard on many high-performance military aircraft, North American engineers incorporated strong weight-saving materials like aluminum alloys in the wings and fuselage, titanium for critical structural elements, and pure gold coatings which acted as shields to reflect engine heat away from vital electronic components and the weapons inside the bomb bay.
Vigilantes also incorporated groundbreaking fly-by-wire control systems, early “heads-up” displays, and an inertial navigation system derived from the ones used on the company’s supersonic intercontinental Navaho cruise missiles.
North American originally settled on a twin rudder arrangement, but this configuration was later scrapped for single “all-moving” vertical fin which produced far less drag without sacrificing maneuverability.
In addition, the aforementioned GE turbojets got their all-important oxygen through two variable intake ramps located between the canopy and wings, each of which optimized airflow at various altitudes, thereby increasing performance and maximizing efficiency.
And speaking of efficiency, high fuel consumption was always an issue for the heavy and powerful aircraft.
To extend range with only a minimal increase in drag, a pronounced hump was added to the airframe behind the cockpit, beneath which was an additional 450 gallon fuel tank.
Size was another of the aircraft’s inherent drawbacks, especially in relation to the cramped carriers on which it was destined to operate, but A-5s were equipped with folding wings, tails and nose cones to lessen their footprints.
Originally intended as bombers, Vigilantes ultimately became reconnaissance aircraft almost exclusively.
Though nearly identical in appearance, reconnaissance RA-5Cs had larger wings with more surface area to compensate for the extra 10,000 pounds they had to lug around.
Since the engines were the same as the ones used on the lighter bombers, reconnaissance Vigilantes had slower rates of climb, though they were still amazingly fast in level flight.
In addition, RA-5Cs were equipped with oblong fairings under their fuselages to house specialized gear like cameras, side-looking radar, infrared scanners and electronic countermeasures equipment.
RA-5Cs still retained their bomb bays, but instead of weapons they carried even more fuel to offset increased consumption.
Ironically, some of the Vigilante’s greatest assets were also its biggest Achilles’ heels, namely that it was bulky and complex which made it expensive, unreliable, and tedious to maintain.
But from a strictly safety perspective, it was the plane’s bomb bay design that made it a potential death trap for crews, as well as a nuclear accident waiting to happen.
Oddly, the nuclear bombs that Vigilantes would have carried inside their bomb bays were intended to be attached to two disposable fuel tanks, that together were referred to as the “store train.”
During long flights these auxiliary tanks would be drained first, then when it was time to release the bomb the whole package would be jettisoned together by a powerful drogue gun like the ones used on some ejection seats.
In other words, a large caliber projectile would be fired toward a nuclear device inside the tight confines of an internal bomb bay.
What could possibly go wrong, or perhaps more aptly, what in the world were the designers thinking…or smoking?
Theoretically, if everything went according to plan the store train would eject safely away from the aircraft while it sped away.
In practice however, it was a wholly unacceptable system, which is probably why it was never tested with live ordinance.
Vigilantes entered service in the summer of 1961 as replacements for Douglas A-3 Skywarriors, which were the Navy’s primary nuclear strike aircraft.
All variants were produced at North American’s Columbus, Ohio plant along with a number of other aircraft, many of which fell under former auto executive and inveterate penny-pincher Robert McNamara’s unpopular cost-cutting initiative known as the Tri-Services Designation Plan.
The program’s main aim was to produce multi-role aircraft that could be used by a number of different services like the Air Force, Navy and Marines, but in a weird twist of fate, the resulting Franken-planes were often expensive, unpopular, and incapable of doing anything particularly well.
Early Vigilante service proved troublesome, thanks to the implementation of largely untested systems.
But though many of these issues were resolved with successive variants, throughout their short careers Vigilantes were always plagued by spotty reliability as well as high operating and maintenance costs when benchmarked against actual flight hours.
In addition, A-5’s were introduced at a relatively inopportune time when the Navy and Air Force were shifting their focus away from manned bombers in favor of land and sub-based cruise missiles.
As a result, Vigilante bomber production was halted in 1963, and all subsequent planes that rolled off North American’s assembly line were reconnaissance craft.
In August of 1964 RA-5Cs began carrying out post-strike medium-altitude reconnaissance missions over Vietnam..
They performed this role well, but despite their speed, agility and advanced systems, 18 were lost in combat, of which 14 were downed by anti-aircraft fire, 3 by Russian-built surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), and one by a MiG-21 during operation Linebacker II.
In addition, nine were lost in non-combat accidents, though between 1968 and 1970 an additional 36 aircraft were delivered to the Navy to make up for the losses.
All told, ten RA-5C squadrons operated from the carriers Forrestal, Ranger, Saratoga, Independence, Constellation, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise, America, John F. Kennedy, and later from the Nimitz-class boats.
Just a few weeks before Christmas in 1960, Navy pilot Leroy Heath and bombardier/navigator Lieutenant Larry Monroe set a world altitude record that beat the previous mark by more than 4 miles (6.4 km).
And even more stunningly, it would stand for more than 13 years until being shattered in 1973 when a Russian Ye-155 – predecessor of the famed MiG-25 interceptor – climbed to an astonishing 108,720 feet (32,918 m).
Carrying a 2,200-pound (1,000 kg) payload at more than 50,000 feet (15,240 m), Heath pushed his Vigilante past Mach 2.1 before yanking back on the stick.
Thanks to momentum and the continuous outpouring of thrust from its two GE engines, the Vigilante shot into a steep ballistic ascent which propelled it well past the altitude at which its wings were capable of creating lift.
Shortly thereafter the engines flamed out due to oxygen deprivation, and the plane rolled over on its back, but Heath was expecting this hair-raising scenario since he’d experienced it before.
To right the aircraft he casually let go of the stick, and as it plummeted into ever thicker air it eventually righted itself, and when the wings were once again creating lift he was able to regain control and make the transition to level flight.
Photographing a Russian SAM
In early March of 1971 while performing a reconnaissance run over North Vietnam, pilot Lieutenant Commander Barry Gastrock and navigator Lieutenant Emy Conrad took one of the most memorable pictures of the conflict – entirely by accident.
Flying from the USS Kitty Hawk in their RA-5C, the pair were making their second pass over the same ground near the Song Ca River when Lieutenant Conrad witnessed a flash and heard the telltale “thump” of an SA-2 being fired below.
Fractions of a second later, the huge missile rocketed from its launcher and streamed toward them at more than Mach 3.
Gastrock mashed the throttles forward, took evasive action and headed for the coast, and later made a safe landing back on the Kitty Hawk.
Examining the photographs on the ship later, an analyst made a startling discovery.
Nearly perfectly centered in one of the frames was a remarkably clear picture of the SA-2, still under boost from its rocket motor as evidenced by the billowy plume behind it.
Unaware of just how close they’d been to getting hit, when the crew was called in to view the photo they learned that the missile had passed just 100 feet (30 m) under the Vigilante’s fuselage.
It was estimated that if it had been launched just two seconds sooner it would have taken them out, but when the photo was snapped it hadn’t had time to arm itself.
The End of the Vigilante
All told, of the 167 units built, only six were bombers.
Despite admirable service, in the waning years of the war in Vietnam the writing was on the wall for the sleek supersonic Vigilante.
Though its service life was relatively short, considering it almost exclusively fulfilled a role for which it was never intended, it had a darn good run.
That said, most carriers of the era carried approximately 90 aircraft, nearly all of which were much larger than their predecessors.
The fact was, there just wasn’t enough room on the flat tops for all the airplanes the Navy had in its inventory, and a great culling began.
It was also about this time that more well-rounded aircraft like F-14 Tomcats, F-8 Crusaders and A-3 Skywarriors began fulfilling even more roles like photo reconnaissance, and they took up less space and were cheaper to maintain and operate than the big Vigilantes.
As a result, even before the war ended the Navy began axing the remaining Vigilante squadrons, though the last deployment would take place aboard the USS Ranger at the end of 1979, when an RA-5C departed on a routine training mission off the coast of Key West, Florida.