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North American A-5 Vigilante Reconnaissance / Strike Bomber (1961)

Authored By Staff Writer | Last Updated: 9/8/2009

The A-5 saw a less-than-stellar mission success rate in the skies over Vietnam.

The A-5 Vigilante bomber actually began as a private venture by the North American Aviation Company as early as 1953. This development centered around the design of an all-weather, high-level, long range bomber capable of carrier operations for the United States Navy. After some initial communication that included some minor modifications from the USN based on need, the proposal was accepted and the Vigilante was born.

From the outset, the Vigilante was to be designed with advanced systems throughout and capable of nuclear strikes. This path produced some technological issues early in the development of the weapon system, so much so that the program was, in essence, terminated in favor of nuclear-capable submarines. As a result, the A-5 was relegated to the secondary role of supersonic carrier-based reconnaissance aircraft as the RA-5C.

At its core, the A-5 Vigilante was a two-seat, twin-engine long range bomber with a single tailfin component (a dual tailfin component was rejected by the USN in favor of a single folding setup for carrier storage). The twin General Electric J79-GE-8 turbojets were capable of afterburn and could generate up to 17,000lbs of thrust. An internal weapons bay, most notably reserved for carrying nuclear-tipped weapons, was complimented by two external hardpoints that could carry additional bombs as needed.

The A-5 saw extensive service in the following Vietnam War from 1964 onwards in the reconnaissance role. Its base speed and impressive agility played a small role in the limited successes above the skies of Vietnam with an unacceptable amount of aircraft lost to enemy fire (ground and air). The Vigilante, facing the budgetary crunch of any war machine, was deployed for the last time in 1979.

With a less-than-stellar service record, high maintenance costs and sub-system complexity issues, the Vigilante was doomed to failure from the outset it seems. The fact that the aircraft was relegated to fulfill a secondary role did not endear history to the machine and leaves one wondering what type of weapon system the A-5 would have been should it have fulfilled the primary role of high-level nuclear bomber, facing off against the best that Soviet air defenses could offer. It is believed that the MiG-25 "Foxbat" was produced as a direct result of the A-5's capabilities in high-level combat. To that end, at least 158 A-5 Vigilante's of varying types are reported to have been produced during the production run of the aircraft.

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Specifications for the
North American A-5 Vigilante
Reconnaissance / Strike Bomber

Focus Model: North American A-5A Vigilante
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: North American Aviation - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1961
Production: 158

Crew: 2

Length: 76.51 ft (23.32 m)
Width: 52.99 ft (16.15 m)
Height: 19.36ft (5.90 m)
Weight (Empty): 32,628 lb (14,800 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 47,576 lb (21,580 kg)

Powerplant: 2 x General Electric J79-GE-8 turbojets with afterburn generating 17,000lbs of thrust.

Maximum Speed: 1,319 mph (2,123kmh; 1,146 kts)
Maximum Range: 1,289 miles (2,075km)
Service Ceiling: 52,100 ft (15,880 m; 9.9 miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 8,000 feet per minute (2,438 m/min)

Hardpoints: 2
Armament Suite:
Mission-specific armament may include the following:

1 x B28 nuclear bomb carried internally
1 x B43 nuclear bomb carried internally

2 x B43 bombs on external hardpoints
2 x Mark 83 bombs on external hardpoints
2 x Mark 84 bombs on external hardpoints

YA3J-1 - Prototype Model Designation of which two produced.

A3J-1 - Initial Production Model

A3J-2 - Updated Model based on the A3J-1

A3J-3P - Photographic Reconnaissance Model

A-5A - Redesignated from A3J-1; initial Production Model of which 59 were produced.

A-5B - Redesignated from A3J-2; at least six produced of this model.

RA-5C - Redesignated from A3J-3P; specialized Reconnaissance Model of which 134 were produced (43 converted from existing A-5A models).

United States