North American A-5 Vigilante

TypeNuclear strike bomber, reconnaissance aircraft
Country of originUnited States
ManufacturerNorth American Aviation
First flight31 August 1958
IntroducedJune 1961
Numbers built156
Unit costs
Max speedMach 2.0 (1,149 knots, 1,320 mph, 2,123 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,200 m)
Max rangeFerry range: 1,571 nmi (1,807 mi, 2,909 km)
DimensionsLength: 76 ft 6 in (23.32 m)
Wingspan: 53 ft 0 in (16.16 m)
Height: 19 ft 4¾ in (5.91 m)
Wing area: 700 ft² (65.1 m²)
WeightEmpty weight: 32,714 lb (14,870 kg)
Loaded weight: 47,530 lb (21,605 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 62,953 lb (28,615 kg)
PowerplantPowerplant: 2 x General Electric J79-GE-8 afterburning turbojets
Dry thrust: 10,900 lbf (48 kN) each
Thrust with afterburner: 17,000 lbf (76 kN) each
1x Mark 27 nuclear bomb, B28 or B43 freefall nuclear bomb in internal weapons bay
2x B43, Mark 83, or Mark 84 bombs on two external hardpoints
OperatorsFormer Operator:
United States

The North American A-5 Vigilante was a supersonic twin-engined, carrier-based nuclear strike bomber developed for the United States Navy. The A-5 Vigilante was built to substitute the A-3 Skywarrior. The reconnaissance variant RA-5C saw considerable service throughout the Vietnam War. In advance of the unification of the Navy designation series with the Air Force sequence in 1962, the bomber was designated the A3J Vigilante.

The Design and Development of A-5 Vigilante

The A-5 Vigilante was firstly designed and developed in 1953 by North American Aviation. It was a private study for an all-weather, long-range, carrier-based strike bomber which able to bring nuclear weapons at supersonic speeds. The manufacturer then proposed the NAGPAW (North American General Purpose Attack Weapon) concept, and finally accepted by the United States Navy in 1955. A contract was given in August 1956. The first model took its first flight in August 1958.

The bomber was one of the largest and the most complex aircraft to serve with the United States Navy aircraft carrier. The Vigilante featured a high-mounted swept wing with a boundary-layer control system (blown flaps) to enhance low-speed lift and there were no ailerons.

At the time, the usage of aluminum-lithium alloy for wing skins and titanium for critical structures were also a radical design. The A-5 was powered by two General Electric J79 turbojet engines similar to the engines for McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter. The Vigilante had a single large all-moving vertical stabilizer. The Vigilante was manned by two crews seated in tandem, a pilot and a bombardier-navigator (BN). The task of the BN was replaced by reconnaissance/attack navigator (RAN) on later recon variants.

The Vigilante was an agile large aircraft. However, its high approach speed and high angle of attack in the landing configuration was a challenge for inexperienced or imprudent pilots.

The Vigilante was armed with Mk28 nuclear bomb and equipped with two wing pylons for drop tanks.

The reconnaissance variant of the Vigilante, the RA-5C, featured a bit larger wing area and incorporated with a long canoe-shaped fairing beneath the fuselage for a multi-sensor reconnaissance pack. The Vigilante used an APD-7 side-looking airborne radar, AAS-21 infrared linescanner, and camera packs, along with enhanced ECM. An AN/ALQ-61 electronic intelligence system might also be brought. The RA-5Cs was powered by more powerful J79-10 engines. The reconnaissance Vigilante was almost five tons heavier than the strike version with practically the same thrust and a merely slightly larger wing. These modifications reduced its acceleration and climb rate, although it was still fast in level flight.

The Variants of A-5 Vigilante

Following are some variants of the A-5 Vigilante:

  • XA3J-1: Prototypes, two built, one converted to RA-5C.
  • A-5A (A3J-1): Production nuclear bomber variant. Some were converted to RA-5C.
  • A-5B (A3J-2): Nuclear bomber with extended range. Two prototypes, both converted to RA-5C.
  • YA-5C (XA3J-3P): A-5B without reconnaissance systems and assigned to pilot familiarization, later changed to RA-5C.
  • RA-5C (A3J-3P): Reconnaissance version.
  • NR-349 Retaliator: Proposed Improved Manned Interceptor (IMI) for U.S. Air Force with two, later three engines and an armament of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles.

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