North American RF-5C VigilanteThe A3J Vigilante was originally developed as a replacement for the Douglas A3D Skywarrior bomber. Designed as a delivery system for nuclear weapons, the Vigilante contained an unusual and unique bomb delivery system in which the weapons was ejected from a linear bomb bay tunnel situated at the rear of the aircraft, between the engines. However, despite persistent attempts to develop the system, the linear bomb bay concept was never perfected and the tunnel was eventually used to house additional fuel cells. The final blow to the A3J was the decision for the US Navy to relinquish its carrier-borne nuclear strike role. Eventually on 29 Apr 62, after 18 A3J-2 Vigilante’s had been completed, it was announced that the remaining Vigilante’s would be built as dedicated reconnaissance aircraft and given the designation RA-5C – eventually a total of 79 aircraft were delivered. In addition, a number of A3J bombers were converted to RA-5C standard and around 140 Vigilante aircraft operated in the reconnaissance role.
The majority of the intelligence gathering sensors on the Vigilante were housed in a long removable fairing or ‘canoe’ under the centre of the fuselage. A mixture of optical and electronic devices allocated to ‘stations’ located in the ‘canoe’, in the fuselage or under the wing. Nine different modular packages were available, configurations varying according to mission requirements. Ten stations existed, generally numbered in sequence from the front of the ‘canoe’ – three were set aside for optical equipment. Station 1, in the nose, housed a forward oblique KA-51A or KA-51B serial frame camera for daylight use only. To the rear was Station 2 which contained an azimuth/vertical serial frame camera, the type of camera varied according to whether it was intended for use by day or night. Station 3 contained AN/AQL-61 passive electronic countermeasures equipment (PECM) as did Station 3A at the rear of the ‘canoe’. Station 4, in the centre of the ‘canoe’ was dedicated to optical equipment and could be used by one of three identically shaped modules. These modules included right and left oblique serial frame cameras for daytime work, a pair of panoramic cameras, two stabilised serial frame cameras for use by day or night or two serial frame cameras in split-vertical configuration. Station 9 was the inborad wing pylons and these could be equipped with pods dispensing ‘flash bombs’ to allow night photography. Additional electronice equipment was located at Stations 5 & 6. The former fuselage space directly above Station 4 housed electronics associated with the reconnaissance equipment, including a camera control unit, a recorder amplifier and a data converter as well as a couple of receivers. Also in the fuselage to the rear of Station 5 was Station 6 which contained PECM canisters. Finally, Station 7 was a small blister on the rear of the ‘canoe’ which housed the AN/AAS-21 infra-red mapping radar and Station 8 which comprised the main body of the rear half of the ‘canoe’ and contained an AN/APD-7 side looking airborne radar (SLAR).
The multitude of sensors mounted on the RA-5C meant that it only needed to make a single pass over a target at supersonic speed at high or low level with all sensors running in order to acquire continuous full-spectrum PECM, IR, SLAR and optical intelligence. Associated on-board equipment also added a matrix data block displaying data detailing the geographical location and time, allowing easier and quicker subsequent correlation and analysis by intelligence specialists.
The RA-5C saw considerable active service during the Vietnam War where, alongside the RF-8A Crusader, the aircraft provided the USN with its main reconnaissance capability. Over Vietnam the RA-5C was mainly used to provide pre-strike and post- strike reconnaissance. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take the Vietcong AAA gunners long to realise that, following a raid, a Vigilante or Crusader would appear all alone to take photographs of the damage inflicted and they could then give this unfortunate aircraft their undivided attention. At least 23 RA-5C’s were lost during the course of the Vietnam War, 18 were combat losses with 11 confirmed losses to AAA. The SAM threat was less successful with only 2 aircraft falling victim to SA-2 Guideline missiles. Two other Vigilante’s were also lost to ground fire, but whether it was a SAM or AAA could not be determined. One RA-5C was lost in an air-to-air encounter with an Atoll-armed MiG-21. Two other aircraft were lost to unknown causes.
The end of the Vietnam War saw the gradual retirement of the RA-5C from operational service. Between 1975 and 1979 the surviving RA-5C’s were retired, the squadrons operating them were dis-established and on 7 Jan 80 Reconnaissance Attack Wing One, responsible for the final Vigilante fleet, eventually disbanded marking the end of the Vigilante era.