American postwar aircraft
North American A-5 Vigilante
The A-5 was a very advanced supersonic attack aircraft, optimized for low-level attacks
at high speed. It was long and angular, with rectangular air intakes, small, thin swept
wings incorporating large full-span flaps, and all-moving tail surfaces. But the A-5, one
of the biggest aircraft ever operated from a carrier, was not successful in its intended
role as nuclear bomber, because the bomb ejection mechanism was unsatisfactory. The bomb
bay was between the engines, and the plan was to expell the bomb rearwards, together with
two empty fuel tanks. 63 bombers were built, but all but ten were converted to RA-5C
reconnaissance aircraft. There were also 55 new RA-5Cs built. These were very effective
and served until 1974.
The first prototype of the YA3J-1 Vigilante, as it was formally designated, was rolled
out on 16 May 1958, with first flight on 31 August 1958. The aircraft was long and sleek,
with a relatively small swept-back wing, and all-moving horizontal and vertical
tailplanes. The Vigilante was powered by twin General Electric YJ79-GE-2 engines, and had
a large fuel capacity to give it range and permit extended flight in afterburner. The two
crewmen flew in tandem cockpits equipped with North American HS-1 rocket ejection seats.
The first production A3J-1 Vigilantes flew in 1960. Production aircraft were
progressively fitted with more powerful J-79 engine variants, leading to the definitive
J-79-GE-8 engines, with 7,480 kilograms (16,500 pounds) thrust. These were the same
engines used on common variants of the McDonnell-Douglas F-4
fighter, simplifying Navy logistics and maintenance.
Carrier trials began in July 1960, and revealed no severe problems. To promote the
aircraft to the US Congress, the Navy also established several speed and altitude records
with the aircraft.
The A-3J1 Vigilante began to flow to operational units in 1961, with last deliveries of
the variant in 1963, when it was redesignated the A-5A due to a Defense Department
decision to come up with a common designation scheme for US military aircraft.
The decision to develop the Vigilante strictly as a reconnaissance aircraft was taken
while efforts were being made to enhance its attack abilities, as well as modify it for
reconnaissance. An improved attack variant, the A3J-2 (later the A-5B), and a
reconnaissance version, the RA-5C, were both built.
Work began on the A-5B in 1961, with the first example flying at the end of April 1962.
The most visible change from the A-5A was a modified "humpback" fuselage that
offered a substantial increase in fuel capacity. Longer and wider flaps were fitted, as
well as a improved "blown flaps" scheme, in which high-pressure engine bleed was
fed forward to the front of the wing to enhance flap performance.
The RA-5C proved so useful in Vietnam, however, that the Navy ordered 46 new RA-5Cs in
1968. Only 36 would be actually completed, however, with the last rolling off the
production line in August 1970. This final batch featured J-79-GE-10 engines with 8,100
kilograms (17,860 pounds) thrust, as well as a leading-edge wing extension trailing back
from the air intakes and slightly modified air intakes.
A total of 156 Vigilantes were built, including prototypes. One is known to survive on
display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. A number were used as
nonflying targets, including one that was used a target for the Tomahawk cruise missile
whose destruction is documented by well-known imagery.
||Tactical reconnaissance, carrier-based attack aircraft
||North American / Rockwell
||Two turbojet General Electric J79-GE-8 engines
||2x 10,800 lb
||2x 48 kN
||2x 17,000 lb
||2x 75.6 kN
||76 ft 6 in
|Max. takeoff weight
||Two (pilot, navigator)