North American A3J-3P/RA-5C Vigilante

Last revised November 20, 2001

The A3J-3P (redesignated RA-5C in 1962) was a photographic reconnaissance adaptation of the Vigilante. It incorporated most of the changes that had been introduced with the A3J-2, including the hump-backed fuselage with the extra fuel, the larger wing area, the blown flaps on the leading edge, and the four underwing hardpoints.

It differed by incorporated a long "canoe"-shaped faring underneath the fuselage to carry multiple sensors as well as optical and electronic equipment. These included an APD-7 side-looking radar, AAS-21 infrared sensors and electronic countermeasures equipment. The camera equipment included framing cameras which could produce a series of sequential photographs. Flasher pods could be carried underneath the wings to provide illumination for nighttime photographs, but these were not used very often during missions in Vietnam since they attracted unwelcome attention from enemy AAA. A KA-58A panoramic camera could be used for medium and high altitude work, and a KA-57A could be used for low-altitude work. The reconnaissance/attack navigator in the rear seat had primary responsibility for operating the cameras, but the pilot could control the oblique still picture cameras. The AN/ASB-12 bomb direction system was retained, and it assisted in stabilizing the cameras. The RAN could cage the system in the event of malfunction in stabilization. A viewfinder system in the cockpit allowed the RAN to monitor the accuracy of the camera settings.

The RA-5C retained the horizontal tube weapons bay of the earlier versions, but the bay usually accommodated a pair of fuel tanks and not the nuclear weapon. Whereas the tailcone in the A-5A was designed to be jettisoned prior to the launch of a weapon, the tailcone fitted to the RA-5C was permanent and was only removed for maintenance purposes.  However, it was not unknown for the entire load to fall out of the back of the tube during a catapult launch, landing on the flight deck and catching fire.

An AN/AAS-21 infrared detection system was installed aft of the camera windows. This system could provide a continuous strip image of infrared sources within a 140 degree field of view. This system could detect infrared radiation emitted by military vehicles or stockpiled supplies, and was most effective when operated at night.

The RA-5C could carry the AN/ALQ-61 electronic reconnaissance system. This could detect radio emissions from enemy radars and record their location, frequency, pulse repetition rate, and pulse width. This provided valuable intelligence on the location and nature of enemy radar sites.

The wing incorporated a fillet on the leading edge which improved low-speed handling. The engines were a pair of J79-GE-8 turbojets, each rated at 17,000 lb.s.t. with afterburning. A more rounded shape was provided to the upper fuselage to incorporate additional fuel.

Four external droptanks could be carried underneath the wings, although these were seldom carried because there was ample fuel capacity within the fuselage itself.

It was decided that earlier (now redundant) A-5As would be remanufactured to RA-5C standards, so the initial production of the RA-5C was restricted to only 43 planes. Of the 59 A-5As built, 43 were eventually reconfigured to RA-5Cs. In addition, all 18 of the A-5Bs that were ordered were delivered as RA-5Cs.

Deliveries of RVAH-3 began in July of 1963. The first RA-5C was delivered to NAS Sanford on December 10, 1963. By mid-1964, VAH-5 had begun converting to the RA-5C. From the spring of 1964, the Vigilante Heavy Attack Squadrons (VAH) that had been operating A-5As were issued with RA-5Cs and were redesignated Reconnissance Heavy Attack Squadrons (RVAH). Nine operational RVAH squadrons were issued with RA-5Cs.

During the Vietnam War, the Navy requested additional RA-5Cs, and the production line at North American-Columbus had to be reopened. 36 additional RA-5Cs (BuNos 155608/155643) were built, all of them manufactured with the 17,900 lb.s.t. J79-GE-10 engine.

Most RA-5Cs were painted with the standard Navy insignia white and gull gray scheme, but a few did experiment with various camouflage schemes. Some were painted with a medium green/shadow green/desert tan scheme, with lower surfaces. However, it was found that the use of camouflage actually made the aircraft more visible to AAA gunners on the ground, and experiments with camouflage were abandoned.

Specification of North American RA-5C Vigilante (late production)

Engines: Two General Electric J79-GE-10 turbojets, each rated at 17,900 lb.s.t with afterburning. Performance: Maximum speed 783 mph at sea level, Mach 1.96 (1290 mph) at 40,000 feet. Cruising speed 567 mph, stalling speed 154 mph. Initial climb rate 6600 feet per minute. An altitude of 30,000 feet could be reached in 7.7 minutes.  Service ceiling 49,000 feet. Combat radius 547 miles or 944 miles with four 400-gallon drop tanks. Maximum ferry range 2050 miles. Dimensions: Wingspan 53 feet, length 76 feet 6 inches, , height 19 feet 4 3/4 inches, wing area 753.7 square feet. Weights: 37,498 pounds empty,  65,590 pounds gross, 79,588 pounds maximum takeoff. Armament: Two pylons could be fitted underneath each wing, but the RA-5C normally carried no offensive armament, and these pylons could each carry a 400 US-gallon drop tank.

Serials of North American RA-5C Vigilante

150823/150842	North American A3J-3P Vigilante      (20)
				c/n NA279-1/20.  Redesignated RA-5C in 1962.
151615/151634	North American RA-5C Vigilante       (20)
				c/n NA283-21/40.
151726/151728	North American RA-5C Vigilante       (3)
				c/n NA283-41/43
151962/151969	North American RA-5C Vigilante
				Contract cancelled.
156608/156653	North American RA-5C Vigilante    (36)
				C/n NR316-1/46.  Most converted to RA-5C
				156644/156653 cancelled

Serials of conversions to RA-5C:

145157/145158	North American XA3J-1 Vigilante
				c/n NA247-1/2.  Later redesignated YA-5A-1-NH
				145157 converted to RA-5C and given new c/n NA296-44
146694/146708	North American A3J-1 Vigilante 
				c/n NA247-3/11.  Redesignated A-5A-5-NH in 1962
				146703/146708 cancelled
				146695, 146696, 146698, 146701, 146702 converted to RA-5C
					and given new c/ns NA296-45/49
147850/147863	North American A3J-1 Vigilante 
				c/n NA263-1/14.  Redesignated A-5A in 1962.  
				147850/147859 were A-5A-10-NH and 147860/147863 were A-5A-15-NH.
				147850, 147858 converted to RA-5C and given new c/n NA296-50/51.
				147852, 147853, 147854, 147856, 147857, 147859, 147860, 147861
					converted to RA-5C but kept original c/ns.
148924/148933	North American A3J-1 Vigilante 
				c/n NA269-1/10.  Redesignated A-5A in 1962.  
				148924/148930 were A-5A-20-NH, 148931 was A-5A-25-NH, 148932/148933 were
				148925, 148932, 148933 converted to RA-5C and given new c/ns 
				148926, 148928, 148929 converted to RA-5C and retained original c/ns.
149276/149299	North American A3J-1 Vigilante 
				c/n NA269-11/34.  Redesignated A-5A in 1962.
				149276/149281, 149283/149289, 149291, 149293, 149294 converted to 
					RA-5C and given new c/ns of NA296-55/70
				149295/149299 converted to RA-5C and kept original c/ns.
149300/149317	North American A3J-2 Vigilante 
				c/n NA269-35/52.  Redesignated A-5B in Sept 1962.  All converted to RA-5C configuration.


  1. North American Aircraft 1934-1999, Volume 2, Kevin Thompson, Narkiewicz//Thompson, 1999

  2. American Combat Planes, 3rd Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  3. United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  4. North American Rockwell A3J (A-5) Vigilante, M. Hill Goodspeed, Wings of Fame, Vol 19, 2001.