North American RA-5C Vigilante – the eyes of the Fleet

Some time ago, my friend David and I decided to go on a journey, which has become known as ‘The Infamous Ice Road Trip’. February in the Northern United States can be rather brutal at times, and the four days we spent visiting museums and airports contained bursts of rather less-than-clement weather. Never the less, we had a grand time, and saw some amazing aircraft.

We had made arrangements to visit the Empire State Aerosciences Museum, in Glenville in upper New York State. This facility is on a 27 acre site to one side of what is now the Schenectady County Airport, the former General Electric Flight Test Center. Obviously, ESAM has a strong GE flavor to their collections and displays, but their aircraft collection is diverse and well worth seeing.

Here you can see one of only 12 surviving North American A-5/RA-5 Vigilante aircraft, out of a total of 156 of these big carrier-borne nuclear strike and/or reconnaissance jets. North American had begun to design a supersonic bomber for the United States Navy in the mid 1950s. Originally designed to carry free-fall nuclear weapons, it used two General Electric J79 turbojets each producing 17,000 lbs thrust in afterburner (similar to those used on the F-4 Phantom) in an exceptionally clean airframe fitted with some of the most advanced flying controls. There were spoilers on the upper surface of the wings to control the aircraft in yaw, as well as a ‘slab’ tailfin, which moved in conjunction with the spoilers. The first flight took place 31 August 1958; at this time the Navy designation of the prototype was XA3J-1, however, the Vigilante became the A-5A under the Tri-Services Designation system, which was intended to rationalize the way U.S. military aircraft were refered to. The A-5 became one of the largest and heaviest jets ever to be launched, regularly, from the decks of US carriers.

Only 57 production A-5A aircraft were built, the first going into service in 1961. The timing could not have been worse. Although the US Navy had had a primitive sub-launched nuclear ‘cruise’ missile, the SSM-N-8A Regulus, which was on nuclear deterrent patrol from October 1959 and July 1964, these primitive missiles were being replaced by Polaris – a true ballistic missile – carried onboard ‘George Washington’ class submarines. The Navy had chosen the submarine as its primary nuclear delivery system, and the A-5 was out of a job.

The bane of the Vigilante – a long, tubular, bomb bay between the J79 engines – now became its salvation. The bomb bay from which a single freefall nuclear weapon, such as a Mk 28 bomb (the British equivalent would have been ‘Red Snow’) was ejected, along with two emptied overload fuel tanks, fitted in a ‘fuel-bomb-fuel’ arrangement, gave endless problems. Now it became home to an advanced reconnaissance package, as the A-5 morphed into the RA-5C. The first RA-5C aircraft were delivered to Reconnaissance Attack Squadron Three (RVA-3) in July, 1963, and eventually 10 squadrons were so equipped.

The North American production line, which had come to a halt in 1963, restarted in 1968 building 48 of the new variant, in part to make up for operational and accidental losses associated with the Vietnam War. The RA-5C’s Mach 2.1 dash speed, complete with early-generation ‘fly by wire’ controls allowed for precise approaches to, and coverage of, target areas. The already comprehensive avionics package was enhanced with a sidewise-looking radar – APD-7, an infra-red line-scanner – AAN-21, and various camera options to complete the aircraft’s transformation. The reason the RA-5C was conceived, was because the air war over Vietnam was intensifying, and the Pentagon needed pre- and post-strike target analysis. Many Vigilantes were flown from U.S. carriers on ‘Yankee Station’, in the Gulf of Tonkin, on the dangerous ‘pre-strike/post-strike’ missions used to assess target damage. The pre-flight ‘run’ was often unopposed, as North Vietnamese defences were unsure as to which area would be hit, but the post-strike run over the target was especially dangerous, as AAA, missile and fighter forces were well aware that such a run would be made. This mission profile undoubtedly contributed to the 18 RA-5C aircraft lost in combat up until the cease fire in 1973. On landing back on the carrier, the magnetic tape and camera film magazines would be rushed to the ship’s ‘Integrated Operations Intelligence Center’, where they would be analyzed.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the RA-5C fleet was wound down, with fighters such as the F-14 being able to carry dedicated reconnaissance pods, as electronics and optical devices became more and more miniaturized. The last Vigilante unit was RVAH-7, which was flown off the USS Ranger in 1979. However, 11 airframes (ten RA-5C and one A-5) have survived, and the aircraft seen above, BuNo 156621, is on display at ESAM in Glenville; it was originally on display at the former U.S. Naval Photographic School, NAS Pensacola, Florida. In 1986, it was transferred to a large barge and towed up the East Coast to be displayed at Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York Harbor – the former USS Intrepid, an Essex-class carrier. Whilst on the carrier, it was painted in the markings of the RA-5C Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), RVAH-3. In 1986, the Empire State Aerosciences Museum acquired the aircraft – as a loan from its owner, the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola – and so began a strange journey. Placed on slings (which caused some minor damage to the rear fuselage, behind the wing) she was lifted onto yet another barge, to begin a long haul up the Hudson River, through the Federal Lock at Troy, then along the Erie Canal to Glenville. The ESAM arranged a transit from the canal, along local roads, to the museum – a journey that would be followed later by the rare Supermarine Scimitar, formerly displayed on the same carrier deck in New York!

Now on display after repairs and renovation, the aircraft is wearing the markings of an aircraft of RVAH-5, embarqued on the USS Ranger, on ‘Yankee Station’, off Vietnam in December, 1972. The volunteers of ESAM, many of them highly skilled engineers, have done a great job.

The RA-5C Vigilante, an aircraft repurposed to great purpose!

5 comments on “North American RA-5C Vigilante – the eyes of the Fleet”

  1. Ross, you’ve condensed information from several sources into a cogent concise summation. Thanks! The Vigilante was also extremely loud — or so I’ve read. The personal experience I had was when one flew less than 100 feet over me while landing — and the RA-5C was screeching! Who knows what it must have sounded on taking off or on a recce run over people who were recently made extremely agitated! There is also a nice example if an RA-5C on a plinth as one arrives at Orlando Sanford International Airport — formerly Naval Air Station Sanford — not to be confused with Orlando International Airport — formerly McCoy Air Force Base — which has a nicely done B-52D in the tucked away Orlando B-52 Memorial Park there. I especially like your attention to context with the telling of this Vigilante’s traveling tales 🙂

    BTW — after your primer on Dr. Who I began watching the series which came out in 2005 and it is enjoyable — thanks 🙂


    • Thanks very much! I found it most enjoyable to tour aviation museums with David – one of the most knowledgeable aviation persons on the face of the planet!


      • This museum is on my wish list 🙂 Perhaps I should interview David for TPM project sometime?


      • That would be great! Let me know when you intend to travel to upper NY State – I’ll drive across! (We HAVE to hit Geneseo, as well).


  2. Amazingly advanced for its day with so many inovations that became standard, just a shame it has to displayed outside to the elements.


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