North American RA-5C Vigilante #300

Permanently based at the entrance of Orlando-Sanford International Airport


When U.S. Navy warplanes challenged the North's defenses during the Vietnam War, the first aircraft in and last out was the photo-taking North American RA-5C Vigilante. Designed as a nuclear bomber, its strategic mission never materialized, but with a two-man crew the twin-engine "Vigi" became one of the great reconnaissance aircraft of all time.



Type:        Carrier based long-range bomber converted to reconnaissance.
Powerplant:  Two 17,822-lb-thrust General Electric J79-GE-10 afterburning turbojets.
Maximum Speed: 1,383 m.p.h. at 39,360 ft.
Service Ceiling:  63,960 ft.
Range: 2,976 with no fuel reserve.
Weights:  Empty 37,420 lb.; loaded 65,861 lb.
Weapons:  Early bomber version carried one free-fall nuclear bomb; reconnaissance versions were       equipped with side looking airborne radar, infrared sensors, cameras and electronic countermeasures equipment.
Dimensions: Span 53 ft.,  Length 76 ft., Height 19 ft., Wing Area 754 Sq. ft.


     The North American RA-5C Vigilante began life as an all-weather bomber known at first as the NAGPAW (North American General Purpose Attack Weapon), later as the A3J-1 and finally, under the 1963 unified U.S. designation system, as the A-5. It had a unique bomb bay that dispensed weapons out of the tail of the aircraft, but it never saw action in an offensive role.
     The A-5 had a graceful swept wing with no ailerons, achieving roll control with spoilers. It was the first airplane to introduce variable-geometry intakes for its two J79 engines, which were also used in the B-58 Hustler and F-104 Starfighter. Pilot and Radar Attack Navigator (RAN) never forgot the exhilaration of flying the most powerful aircraft ever to operate from carrier decks. The "Vigi" was big and beautiful. It radiated speed and purpose.
     The RA-5C Vigilante photo airplane served valiantly with half a dozen navy "heavy" reconnaissance (RVAH) squadrons. It arrived just in time for Vietnam and, like a brilliant shooting star, enjoyed a sensational career which was painfully brief. The last operational Vigilante was retired in 1979.


    The radar was general-purpose "J-band" set used for ground-mapping and weather information.

    The crew sat in tandem, in separate but connected cockpits. The pilot had an automated approach landing system for use in marginal weather.

    The Radar Attack Navigator operated the complex navigation, reconnaissance and weapon aiming systems, including the AN/ASB 12 bomb directing set.

    Streamlined "flasher" pods could be fitted beneath the wing roots of the RA-5C to allow night photography, but crews disliked using them as they attracted anti-aircraft fire.

    The advanced wing was "plumbed" with a hot air system for boundary layer control, and had a folding outer section to enable the big aircraft to use carrier-deck lifts.

    The two main fuselage fuel tanks carried a total of 940 gallons of fuel, with an additional 708 gallons in each wing tank.

    Variable-area inlets were essential at the high cruising speeds of the RA-5C.

    The advanced design of the Vigilante wing achieved high lift from a relatively small wing area.

    The Vigilante was one of the first jets to have an all-moving tail unit. The tail fin folded for storage.


Interesting Facts and Figures:

   The Vigilante was the first Mach-2, nuclear-capable carrier-launched bomber.

   The first of two A3J-1 "Vigi" prototypes flew on August 31, 1958.

   The Vigilante's carrier trials were completed aboard the USS Saratoga.

   The first A3J-1's were assigned in June, 1961 to VAH-3 at NAS, Sanford, Florida. This unit was a replacement Air Group, which was intended to train pilots and maintenance personnel on the new "Vigi" for the fleet.

   The first RA-5C reconnaissance model flew on June 30, 1962.

   The first squadron to fly the RA-5C was RVAH-5 "Savage Sons" aboard USS Ranger (CVA-61) in 1964.

   Other A-5 squadrons were RVAH-3 "Sea Dragons" and RVAH-9 "Hoot Owls."

   Vigilantes carried out long electronic reconnaissance missions over Vietnam, usually escorting Phantoms that often struggled to keep up.

       Of the 59 A-5A's built, 43 were reconfigured as RA-5C's. 36 additional RA-5C's were built per request of Navy during the Viet Nam war.

    Nine operational RVAH squadrons were ultimately issued with RA-5C's.

    At least nine RA-5C's have survived in museums and as gate guards.


     The Vigilante's combination of performance, infrared imaging, radar mapping, cameras and ECM equipment remains unequalled even today.

If there are any pilots, RAN's or crew members who would like to add your name, e-mail address, squadron or address to this document e-mail me with the information and I will add it to a linked page I am preparing. My e-mail address is  



Radar Attack Navigator  (1)

Crew Members (1)


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