North American A-5 Vigilante

Aircraft Profile

Key Facts

Main Role:
Carrier-based Long-Range All-Weather Attack Aircraft
High-mounted delta-winged jet
United States
Current Status:
Out of Service, Out of Production

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RA-5C 150831 of RVAH-11 from USS Kittyhawk
(photo, US Navy)


Just hours after the United States Army Air Forces massive B-29 bombers had delivered the atom bomb to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the US Navy began to realize that its position as the forefront of America’s defense and first strike capability could be in jeopardy. The continued development of the long distance bomber as a first strike platform and its perceive efficiency in bringing both Germany and Japan to their knees, made the Navy’s top brass very worried about losing the service’s primary position within the US Armed Forces. Things were more worrisome when the newly formed US Department of Defense separated the air force section from the Army; creating a brand new service: the US Air Force. Within months after its creation, the Air Force assumed primary role on the use of the country’s nuclear arsenal. This development, added to the perception that with the coming of the jet age, the navy would be relegated to a more littoral duty; forced the Navy’s leaders to find a weapon platform capable of providing the service with a nuclear option of its own. The Navy’s first attempt to field this concept was to equip its main strike force, the aircraft carriers; with aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The acquisition of North American’s AJ Savage and the Douglas Company A-3 Skywarrior bombers in the late 1940s and early 50s, both subsonic aircraft; represented a first step toward nuclear strike independency. But due to the increasing pace of aircraft developments, each example became obsolete after a just a few years of front line service. The Navy needed a new aircraft, and North American Corporation was once again ready to provide the service with its requirement.

In mid November 1953, a group of North American engineers commenced preliminary work on the development of a new type of aircraft. An aircraft more similar to the Air Force’s medium bomber concept than with the Navy’s history of carrier based bomber planes. North American designers proposed a radical departure from the current carrier aircraft situation. An all-weather, long range carrier based bomber capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 2 was envisioned at North American and that vision was eagerly expected to become a reality by the Navy. To meet the Navy’s and their own company expectations, the designers, lead by a brilliant engineer named Frank G. Compton; began the work promptly on what was referred to as North American General Purpose Attack Weapon System (NAGPAW) or designated project NA-233. After months of close consultation with Navy engineers, North American decided to base its new airplane on a twin engine concept. The idea behind the dual propulsion system was the aircraft’s survivability in case of one of the power plants failing. Another requirement for the concept was the ability to reach Mach 2 speed. To achieve this parameter, the aircraft was fitted with two of the most powerful engine systems available at the time: the General Electric J79-2 afterburning jet engine, capable of providing the aircraft with 15,150lb of thrust. To ensure the airframe’s integrity at high flying speeds and the aerodynamic conditions encountered by the airframe at those speeds, some heat sensitive areas of the fuselage were covered by titanium plates. The wings surfaces were machined as one complete piece from a combination of aluminum/lithium alloys. Nitrogen, not conventional hydraulic fluids, was used by the 233 in some of the hottest areas of the airframe. Even gold was utilized as heat reflectors in the engine’s bays. In order to capture high aerodynamic angles, the 233 was fitted with a small highly-loaded swept wing configuration with a powerful flap system and a one piece powered vertical tail. The wingtips folded up to allow the aircraft to be housed in an aircraft carrier hangar. The single, vertical tail structure also folded for hangar deck operations. The NA was one of the first aircraft to use a fully variable engine inlet system installed to reduce supersonic air to subsonic levels before it reached the engine main chamber, thus providing the engines with ultimate performance at any speed level. Beside the innovations on the airframe, the latest technology was implemented on the 233 avionics package. A state-of-the-art Versatile Digital Analyzer or VERDAN computer, one of the first solid state computer systems ever utilized on an aircraft; was fitted under the pilot’s seat. But the real technology breakthrough was the North American Autonetics System. The AN-ASB 12 System, as the package was referred as, included a multiple mode radar system housed in the aircraft’s nose cone. The radar was fitted with the Pilot’s Projected Display Indicator or PPDI, an early generation head-up display. A close captioned TV camera mechanism was installed under the nose for daylight targeting operations. Its image transferred directly to the pilot’s HUD and the rear seated navigator radar display. A first of its kind, terrain avoidance radar system, similar to that on the Navaho Cruise Missile, was used to guide the plane while on night operations. The aircraft’s also had the distinction of being one of the first designs to be fitted with a partial fly-by-wire system. The 233 was manned by an after mentioned crew of two. A pilot and a bombardier/navigator. The pilot was seated in the front of the pressurized cabin and the navigator on the rear, atop the advanced electronic package assigned to the aircraft. Original, the navigator canopy did not posses any view windows or reflective mirrors because company engineers estimated that the navigator’s instruments would be easy to ready in darkness and to protect them from the anticipated EM emissions expected from a detonated nuclear bomb. The whole cabin was housed on a structure fitted with an HS-1 rocket design to boost the ejection seats in case of an emergency.

The first 233 prototype rolled out from North American’s Columbus, Ohio factory on the afternoon of May 16th, 1958; when it was officially named the Vigilante. The first fly took place on August 31st, 1958. The aircraft performed as good as advertise by the North American design team. It achieved supersonic speed for the first time on September 5th of that year. Carrier trials began on the USS Saratoga on the morning of July 1960 with fourteen take-off and landing test flights performed by the sixth Vigilante prototype built. On the afternoon of December 13th, 1960, with Commander Leroy Heath at the controls and Lieutenant Larry Monroe in the back seat, the Vigilante, flying at Mach 2.1, set a new world altitude record for a bomber type aircraft when it climbed above 91,451ft while carrying a payload of 2,403lb. The Vigilante’s payload was storage in an unorthodox internal bomb bay without external doors, located in the airframe underbelly. This unique system was installed on the Vigilante because of the aircraft’s main purpose: the deliverance of nuclear ordinance. The engineers at North American figured that the aircraft had an enhanced chance of escaping a blast from the new thermonuclear weapons if the ordinance was ejected to the rear instead of a direct level drop. This was achieved with the assistance of a complex long duct system that extended back between the two engines. The duct would house the nuclear ordinance until the order for release was given. The aircraft was designed to carry one of the Mk 27, Mk 28, or Mk 43 free fall nuclear bombs in its internal bomb bay. Additionally, a pair of smaller, Mk 83 or Mk 84 nuclear bombs could be fitted on pylons underneath each wing.

Deliveries of the A3J Vigilante commenced in the spring of 1961 and lasted until the summer of 1963, when the US Navy shifted its main nuclear deterrent platform from its carrier fleet to the new Polaris augmented submarine force. When the production line was terminated in 1963, fifty nine examples had been delivered to the navy. The Vigilante’s first carrier deployment occurred when they were assigned to the USS Enterprise on its maiden cruise in August 1962. In September of that year, the US Defense Department changed the new aircraft designation A-5A, due to the decision to standardize all US Armed Forces aircraft designations. Once the Vigilante entered front line service, the aircraft was not well received by carrier air commanders who, although impressed with the aircraft payload capacity and airframe structure, felt that an aircraft filled such advanced technologies were primed to become a major maintenance problem. They were right. Constant shutdowns by the VERDAN system meant that the aircraft’s turn-around capabilities were severely curtailed. Problems also arose with the use of its fly-by-wire system that required many man hours to prepare to full operational mode. Also the aircraft’s large size made it difficult for airmen to operate during take off and landing situations. With the shift of the US Navy’s nuclear deterrence platform, the days of the Vigilante as an offensive aircraft were numbered. Rather than scrapping the examples they already possesed, the Navy devised a new role for the Vigilante, a role that would made the aircraft’s name “fit the bill”. The Navy’s deep reconnaissance mission had been neglected partially by the lack of a long range aircraft; this role was tailor-made for the A-5A. All of the Navy’s Vigilantes were returned to North American for conversion to RA platforms. Eventually, fifty three examples were converted between early 1963 and the spring of 1963. They were augmented by a batch of fifty five newly produced aircraft and given the RA-5C designation. The RA-5C retained the A-5A performance capabilities as well as its avionic package. The main upgrade to the system was the installation of optical, electronic, and electromagnetic sensors storage on the aircraft’s once exposed bomb bay. They included an AN-ASS21 infrared sensor for the continued filming of thermal targets images at angles of 140 degrees, a Westinghouse Side Looking Airborne Radar or SLAR for all side-by-side image mapping; an AN-ALQ61 Electronic Intelligence Unit System that would pick-up radar emissions and triangulate their originating coordinates, frequencies, and electronic signal patters. A vast array of optical camera systems such as panoramic, oblique or vertical; were fitted around the airframe. The complete reconnaissance system was under the control of the Recon Officer seated were the bombardier/navigator used to be.

The first RA-5A entered carrier service in 1964. It went on to see duty in the Vietnam War. The RA version proved to be more successful than its predecessor. Usually, the Vigilante was the last aircraft launched from the carrier during an operation, since its speed allowed it to catch-up quickly with the mission package. Eventually, the US Navy ordered the Vigilante production line to re-open and the first of a new batch of Vigilantes were delivered to the Navy. Forty four examples were ordered, but only thirty-six units were actually completed by the time the line was closed again in August 1970. The last operational RA-5C Vigilante squadron was disbanded in September 1979. A short lifespan for such a revolutionary aircraft design. In the end, it was a magnificent aircraft, but without a clear mission, it was an unsupported plane.

A-5A 147856 with the Naval Weapons
Evaluation Facility in 1961.
(photo, NWC China Lake)
RA-5C NL/704 of RVAH-6 in 1966 showing the ventral recce equipment fairing.
(photo, US Navy)


Requirement Specification:
Manufacturers Designation: (see below)

Development History:
NAGPAW Projected 2-seat low-level attack bomber.
XA3J-1 Initial designation for the two prototype aircraft.
YA3J-1 Two prototype aircraft with YJ78-GE-2 engines of 15,000 lb st (66.71 kN) afterburning. Blown trailing edge flaps.
A3J-1 Initial production version. J79-GE-2, -4 or -8 engines. Provision for underwing fuel tanks.
A3J-2 Improved production version with hump-backed fuselage for additional internal fuel capacity. Blown leading & trailing edge flaps. 2 additional wing pylons.
A3J-3 Photo-reconnaissance version of the A3J-2. Ventral ‘canoe’ fairing for cameras, SLAR and ELINT/ECM sensors.
A-5A Designation of A3J-1 after September 1962.
A-5B Designation of A3J-2 after September 1962.
YA-5C Designation of first four conversions of A-5B to RA-5C configuration. No photo-recce equipment carried – used as trainers. Later fully upgraded.
RA-5C Designation of A3J-3P after September 1962.
RA-5C ‘Phase II’ Improved RA-5C with J79-GE-10 engines, improved engine intakes and wing/nacelle fillets added.
NA-233 Company designation for original NAGPAW project proposal. Not built.
NA-247 Company designation for YA3J-1 & initial A3J-1 batch.
NA-263 Company designation for second A3J-1 batch.
NA-269 Company designation for remaining A3J-1 & A3J-2 batches.
NA-279 Company designation for first A3J-3 batch.
NA-283 Company designation for second and third A3J-3 batch.
NA-296 Company designation for A-5A conversion to RA-5C – first batch.
NA-298 Company designation for A-5A conversion to RA-5C – second batch.
NA-316 Company designation for RA-5C ‘Phase II’.
‘Retaliator’ Projected interceptor fighter version of A-5 for USAF with rocket engine in place of weapons bay. 1960. Not built.
NA-349 Projected interceptor fighter version of A-5 for USAF with three J79 engines. 1971. Not built.


Key Dates:
Nov 1953    NAGPAW project studies to replace A3D started.
Jan 1954    NAGPAW project presented to US Navy – design changes later requested.
March 1956    Engineering mockup inspected. Twin vertical fins soon changed to single fin.
29 August 1956    USN contract placed for 2 prototypes.
16 May 1958    First YA3J-1 completed
31 Aug 1958    Maiden flight of first YA3J-1
5 Sept 1958    YA3J-1 exceeds Mach 1.
2 Nov 1958    Second YA3J-1 flies.
15 Jan 1959    Production contract awarded.
Jan 1960    First flight of first A-5A.
July 1960    Sea trials aboard USS Saratoga.
13 Dec 1960    Altitude record of 91,451 ft achieved while carrying a 1,000 kg (2,205 lb) load.
June 1961    A3J-1 enters squadron service with VAH-7.
29 April 1962    A-5B first flight.
30 June 1962    First flight of RA-5C.
Sept 1962    A3J-1 redesignated A-5A and A3J-3 becomes RA-5C.
June 1964    RA-5C enters squadron service with RVAH-5.
August 1964    First RA-5C unit deployed to Vietnam.
March 1969    First production RA-5C Phase II first flight.
August 1970    Last delivery to US Navy.
21 Sept 1979    Final carrier deployment ends.
20 November 1979    Last RA-5C retired from US Navy service.
A-5A 147858 on loan to NASA in 1963.
(photo, NASA Dryden)
RA-5C Phase II 156608 of RVAH-5 with ashore tailcode ‘GK’. (photo, US Navy)


Military Operators

U.S. Navy 10 Squadrons 1961-1979

Government Agencies

NASA 1 A-5A loaned March-May 1963

Civilian Operators



North American A3J-1 (A-5A) Vigilante
Crew: Pilot (front) and Navigator (rear)
Dimensions: Length 76 ft 6 in (23.35 m); Height 19 ft 4.75 in (5.91 m); Wing Span 53 ft 0 in (16.15 m) open, 42 ft 0 in (12.8 m) folded; Wing Area 700 sq ft (65.03 sq m) 700?
Engines: Two General Electric J79-GE-2 or -4 turbojets, rated at 10,350 lb.s.t. (4695 kg) dry and 16,150 lb.s.t. (7,325 kg) with maximum afterburner, or (last production batch) two J79-GE-8 turbojets rated at 17,000 lb st (7711 kg) with maximum afterburner.
Weights: Empty 32,714 lb (14,839 kg); Normal Loaded 47,530 lb (21,559 kg); Maximum Take-off 56,293 lb (25,534 kg)
Performance: Maximum level speed Mach 2.1, 1320 mph (2124 kph) at 40,000 ft (12,192 m), 806 mph (1297 kph) at sea level; Initial climb rate 8,000 ft/min (2438 m/min) at sea level; Service Ceiling 58,100 ft (15,880 m); Combat radius (attack) 1,289 miles (2026 km); Range 1,807 miles (2908 km) on internal fuel, 3,200 miles (5,150 km) with external fuel tanks
Armament: One Mk 27, Mk 28 or Mk 43 thermo-nuclear bomb in linear weapons bay, plus one Mk 43 nuclear weapon on a weapon pylon under each wing, or 5,000 lb (2,270 kg) of conventional bombs.
North American RA-5C Vigilante
Crew: Pilot (front) and Recon. Officer (rear)
Dimensions: Length 76 ft 6 in (23.32 m); Height 19 ft 4.75 in (5.91 m); Wing Span 53 ft 0 in (16.15 m) open, 42 ft 0 in (12.8 m) folded; Wing Area 753.7 sq ft (70.02 sq m)
Engines: Two General Electric J79-GE-8 turbojets, rated at 10,900 lb st (4944 kg) and 17,000 lb.s.t. (7711 kg) with maximum afterburner, or (post-1969) two J79-GE-10 turbojets rated at 17,860 lb st (8118 kg) with maximum afterburner.
Weights: Empty 37,498 lb (17,024 kg); Loaded ‘clean’ 55,617 lb (25,227 kg); Maximum Take-off 79,588 lb (36,133 kg)
Performance: Maximum level speed Mach 2.1, 1320 mph (2124 kph) at 40,000 ft (12,192 m), 806 mph (1297 kph) at sea level; Initial climb rate 6,600 ft/min (2012 m/min) at sea level; Service Ceiling 49,000 ft (14935 m); Combat radius 1,508 miles (2427 km); Range 2,050 miles (3299 km) on internal fuel, 3,000 miles (4,828 km) with external fuel tanks
Armament: None normally carried, although a full weapons delivery capability was retained.


Design Centre

Head of Design Team: Frank G. Compton
Design Office: North American Aviation Inc., Columbus, OH, USA.


North American Aviation
(Columbus, OH, USA. Later North American Rockwell)
Version Quantity Assembly Location Time Period
YA3J-1 (NA-247) 2 Columbus, OH Aug 1956-Aug 1958
A3J-1 (NA-247) 9 Columbus, OH 1961-1962
A3J-1 (NA-263) 14 Columbus, OH 1961-1962
A3J-1 (NA-269) 34 Columbus, OH 1961-1962
A3J-2 (NA-269) 18* Columbus, OH Apr 1962-June 1962
RA-5C (NA-279) 20 Columbus, OH June 1962-1964
RA-5C (NA-283) 23 Columbus, OH 1962-1964
RA-5C Phase II (NA-316) 36 Columbus, OH 1968-Aug 1970
Total: 156    

* Only 6 built as A3J-2, remainder converted to RA-5C on the production line.

Total Produced: 152 a/c (YA3J-1: 2, A3J-1/A-5A: 57, A3J-2/A-5B: 18, A3J-3/RA-5C: 79)
43 A3J-1/A-5A and 18 A3J-2/A-5B converted to RA-5C – total of 61 conversions.

Production List

To be added.

More Information


‘North American Rockwell A3J / A-5 Vigilante – Aerofax Minigraph 9’ [Order this book from Amazon UK]
by Micheal Grove & Jay Miller
Published by Aerofax, Sept 1989 ISBN: 0 94254 814 0
* Well illustrated profile of the Vigilante.

‘RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat – Osprey Combat Aircraft 51’ [Order this book from Amazon UK]
by Robert R. ‘Boom’ Powell
Published by Osprey Publishing, 29 Oct 2004 ISBN: 1 84176 749 2
* Detailed examination of the operational career of the RA-5C.

‘North American A-5A RA-5C Vigilante – Naval Fighters No.64’ [Order this book from Amazon UK]
by Steve Ginter
Published by Ginter Books, 2003 ISBN: 0-942612-64-7
* In-depth pictorial look at all variants.

‘A/RA-5 Vigilante – Mini In Action No.3’ [Order this book from Amazon UK]
by Terry Love
Published by Squadron/Signal Publications, March 1995 ISBN: 0 89747 334 5
* Concise profile of the A-5.

‘Wings of Fame Volume 19’
Published by Aerospace Publishing, 2000 ISBN: 1 8614 049 7 (PB)
* Includes 65 page detailed feature article on the A-5.

‘North American Aircraft 1934-1999, Volume 2’ [Order this book from Amazon UK]
by Kevin Thompson
Published by Flying Books, 1999 ISBN: 0913322067
* Excellent history of the North American company and it’s aircraft.


To be added.


North American A3J-1 Vigilante
North American A3J-2 Vigilante
North American A3J-3P/RA-5C Vigilante
(Good profile of all major versions – no pics)

wikipedia: A-5 Vigilante
(Useful profile of the A-5)

The North American A-5/RA-5 Vigilante
(Nice concise profile of the A-5)

Wing’s Palette
(Several A-5/RA-5 colour profiles)
(4 pages of A-5 photos – mostly museum examples)

North American RA-5C “Vigilante”
(Good multi-page profile)

North American A-5 Vigilante
(Short profile with some photos)

A-5 Vigilante
(2 pages of RA-5C photos – including a walkaround with close-up shots)

Le North American A3J Vigilante
(Good French-language profile)

Secret Projects
(Discussion on NA-349 interceptor)


Flight Simulator Models:
To be added.

Scale Models:
To be added.

Scale Drawings:
Aviation News Vol.5 No.6


To be added.

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