Service of North American A-5 Vigilante with US Navy

Last revised November 20, 2001

The first A3J-1s were assigned in June of 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 Vigilante for the Fleet. The operational debut of the Vigilante took place in August of 1962 when VAH-7 deployed aboard the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) for a short cruise in the Mediterranean, which was extended beyond its originally-scheduled duration by the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Deliveries to VAH-1 and VAH-3 followed shortly thereafter

The linear bomb bay release method of the A3J-1 was never very reliable. The release mechanism often did not work properly, and failures were frequent. The electrical connections were often faulty, the ejection gun was unreliable, and there was poor separation and post-ejection stability of the bomb-fuel tank train itself. In addition, it was not uncommon for the entire load to slide out of the bomb bay during a catapult launch, leaving the fuel tanks and bomb sitting on the carrier deck. Such were the difficulties encountered that the linear bomb bay system would never be used aboard aircraft carriers in fleet service.

In September of 1962, the A3J-1 was redesignated A-5A under the new Tri-Service designation system.

In the early 1960s, the submarine-launched ballistic missile became the primary Navy strategic deterrent, and the Navy no longer needed carrier-based strategic bombers.  Aircraft such as the A-5A no longer had a mission, and in  1963, the Navy decided to halt any further procurement of the A-5A, and the Vigilante aircraft was reconfigured as a dedicated reconnaissance platform under the designation RA-5C.

With RA-5C deliveries beginning in January of 1964, the A-5As were removed from the heavy attack inventory and relegated to training roles. Most of them were returned to North American for conversion to RA-5C standard. Of the 59 A-5As built, 43 were eventually reconfigured as RA-5Cs.

Deliveries of the RA-5C to the replacement squadron 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 ultimately issued with RA-5Cs.

The first RA-5Cs entered combat in Vietnam from the deck of the USS Ranger in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident. Most of the combat missions were photographic reconnaissance sorties over North Vietnam in preparation for air strikes and in post-strike damage assessment. The RA-5C was generally regarded as the best tactical photo-reconnaissance aircraft in the Navy--that is, when it was working properly. The aircraft was extremely complex, and was difficult to maintain properly, and numerous missions had to be cancelled because of maintenance problems.

During the Vietnam War, the Navy found that it was running short of RA-5Cs and requested that additional RA-5Cs be built, and the production line at North American-Columbus had to be reopened. 36 additional RA-5Cs were built.

During the Vietnam War, 8 RA-5C RVAH squadrons carried out a total of 32 combat cruises. 18 RA-5Cs were lost in combat during the war, most of them to AAA. A further 5 were lost in accidents. This was the highest loss rate of any Navy aircraft involved in the war. After the end of the Vietnam War, RA-5Cs continued to operate from carrier decks for a few years longer, serving aboard Navy carriers during cruises in the Mediterranean and Western Pacific.

On May 1, 1974, with US participation in the Vietnam War over, the first of the RA-5C squadrons (RVAH-14) was disestablished. Over the next few years, more and more RA-5C squadrons were disestablished, and their planes were transferred to the Military Air and Space Disposal Center (MASDC) at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona for storage and eventual disposal.

The last Vigilante catapult launch took place aboard the USS Ranger on September 21, 1979. The last Vigilante was delivered to the boneyards at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona on November 20, 1979, bringing the service of the Vigilante with the US Navy to an end.

The retirement of the RF-8 Crusader a couple of years later left the Navy with no dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. This gap has been filled by TARPS- equipped F-14 Tomcats.

36 RA-5Cs ended up at MASDC. Some were sold to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, which uses surplus aircraft for the testing of ballistics, projectiles and aircraft metals research. Others were sent to the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, California. In 1986, the last 20 airframes were turned over to the Air Force for use as range targets. However, at least nine have survived in museums and as gate guards.

Squadrons Operating the A-5 Vigilante


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  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.