Last week’s discussion of attractive vintage propellor aircraft got me to thinking about sexy vintage jets. One of the first that always springs to my mind is the wonderfully-named North American A-5 Vigilante. A scarred veteran of some very hairy missions over Vietnam, total speed demon, and superb-looking to boot, the Vigilante’s small production numbers meant it was never to gain much recognition in the aviation world.
The A-5 grew out of a 1953 proposal by North American for an advanced carrier-borne Mach 2 nuclear strike aircraft. In 1956 the US Navy awarded a contract based on work they had done with North American on the proposal. The result was an extremely sophisticated design that was to become one of the largest and most complex aircraft ever to operate off a carrier deck.
Some of the firsts introduced on the A-5 were movable air-intake shock cones; a one-piece movable tail (rather than a conventional rudder); spoilers for roll control instead of ailerons; extensive use of titanium in the airframe and gold leaf for heat management in the engine bays. In addition, the A-5 was one of the first aircraft to introduce solid-state computers, fly-by-wire systems, and a head-up display in the cockpit.
Some of this complexity was to become problematic later, but it was clear from the first tests in 1958 that this was an amazing aircraft. Soon after testing began, the A-5 began to set speed and altitude records, including lifting 2,403lbs to an altitude of 91,451ft. The A-5′s top speed is generally listed as being around 1,350MPH but test pilots reported being able to easily exceed that figure. The Soviets were so nervous about the A-5′s potential that it’s thought the mentalist Mig-25 Foxbat was produced as a direct response.
Deliveries to frontline units took place from 1961 to 1963. But the type was not well-received, as its systems were difficult to maintain and the large airframe was cumbersome and took up too much room on a carrier-deck. Furthermore, the Polaris submarine fleet was just coming online to take over the role that had been served by nuclear strike aircraft. This meant the A-5 was both unpopular and suddenly not needed. However, rather than chucking out dozens of brand-new and enormously expensive airframes, the Navy decided to move the A-5 into a high-speed, low-level reconnaissance role. Weapons bays were filled with sensors, the airframe stuffed with cameras, and thus was born the RA-5.
The RA-5 entered service in June, 1964 and by August, 1964 had been deployed over Vietnam. The RA-5 was given a brutal mission: go in alone and snap some pictures at 8,000 feet over a target before and after an airstrike. The only protection the RA-5 had on these runs was its speed. But at that height pretty much anything that could be fired from the ground was aimed at that one aircraft and losses were heavy: eleven were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, two were hit by SAMs, and one was shot down by an AA missile shot by a Mig-21. This was not a good ratio, considering only 156 were built, but it was a measure of the dangerous situations it was thrown into, rather than an indication of any flaws in performance. In fact, escorting fighters had a hard time keeping up with RA-5s because of their speed, and the Vigilante was generally launched after everyone else on a mission because it had no difficulty catching up to the strike aircraft.
The Vigilante was retired in 1979 and is now a footnote in military aviation. It probably should have become as iconic as any other great naval aircraft, like the F-14 or the F-18, but its size, sophistication, and the rapid development of missile technology cost the Vigilante its rightful place in aviation history.