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North American A-5 Vigilante

Operational History:

Designated A3J-1, the Vigilante first entered squadron service with Heavy Attack Squadron THREE (VAH-3) in June 1961 at NAS Sanford, Florida, replacing the A-3 Skywarrior in the heavy attack role. All variants of the Vigilante were built at North American Aviation's facility at Port Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ohio, alongside the T-2 Buckeye and OV-10 Bronco.

Under the Tri-Services Designation plan implemented under Robert McNamara in September 1962, the Vigilante was redesignated A-5, with the initial A3J-1 becoming A-5A and the updated A3J-2 becoming A-5B. The subsequent reconnaissance version, originally AJ3-3P, became the RA-5C.

The Vigilante's early service proved troublesome, with many teething problems for its advanced systems. It also arrived in service during a major policy shift in the U.S. Navy's strategic role, which switched to emphasize submarine launched ballistic missiles rather than manned bombers. As a result, in 1963 procurement of the A-5 was ended and the type was converted to the fast reconnaissance role. The first RA-5Cs were delivered the Replacement Air Group (RAG)/Fleet Replacement squadron (FRS), Reconnaissance Attack Squadron THREE (RVAH-3) at NAS Sanford in July 1963, with all Vigilante squadrons subsequently redesignated RVAH. Under the cognizance of Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE, a total of ten RA-5C squadrons were ultimately commissioned. RVAH-3 continued to be responsible for the stateside-based RA-5C training mission of both flight crews, maintenance and support personnel, while RVAH-1, RVAH-5, RVAH-6, RVAH-7, RVAH-9, RVAH-11, RVAH-12, RVAH-13 and RVAH-14 routinely deployed aboa rd Forrestal, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise, America/John F. Kennedy and eventually Nimitz class aircraft carriers to the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Western Pacific.

Eight of ten squadrons of RA-5C Vigilantes also saw extensive service in Vietnam starting in August 1964, carrying out hazardous medium-level reconnaissance missions. Although it proved fast and agile, 18 RA-5Cs were lost in combat: fourteen to anti-aircraft fire, three to surface-to-air missiles, and one to a MiG-21 during Operation Linebacker II. Nine more were lost in operational accidents while serving with Task Force 77. Due, in part, to these combat losses, 36 additional RA-5C aircraft were built from 1968-1970 as attrition replacements.

In 1968, Congress closed the aircraft's original operating base of NAS Sanford, Florida and transferred the parent wing, Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE, all subordinate squadrons and all aircraft and personnel to Turner AFB, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 and KC-135 base in Albany, Georgia. The tenant SAC bomb wing was then deactivated and control of Turner AFB was transferred to the Navy with the installation renamed NAS Albany. In 1974, after barely six years of service as a naval air station, Congress opted to close NAS Albany as part of a post-Vietnam force reduction, transferring all RA-5C units and personnel to NAS Key West, Florida.

Despite the Vigilante's useful service, it was expensive and complex to operate [and occupied significant amounts of precious flight deck and hangar deck space aboard both conventional and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers].With the end of the Vietnam War, disestablishment of RVAH squadrons began in 1974, with the last Vigilante squadron, RVAH-7, completing their final deployment to the Western Pacific aboard USS Ranger in 1979. Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE was subsequently disestablished at NAS Key West, Florida in 1980.

The Vigilante did not end the career of the A-3 Skywarriors, which would carry on as electronic warfare platforms and tankers, designated as EA-3B and KA-3B. Fighters replaced the RA-5C in the carrier-based reconnaissance role, with the F-8 Crusader modified with internal cameras and designated RF-8G, while select models of the F-14 Tomcat would carry the multi-sensor Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod (TARPS) and the Digital Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod (D-TARPS). Following up to present day, the weight of fighters such as the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet have evolved into the same 62,950 lb class as the Vigilante. With the retirement of the F-14, the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft are planned to cover the strike, reconnaissance, tanker and electronic warfare roles of the F-14, A-6, A-7, RF-8G, RA-5C, KA-6D, S-3B, ES-3A and EA-3B.

Although the Vigilante served in the attack and reconnaissance roles, its design and configuration was believed to be a major influence on one of the world's most famous postwar interceptors: the Soviet MiG-25 "Foxbat" was apparently heavily influenced by the A-5's design.. (The MiG-25 would look even more familiar if the Vigilante had retained the twin vertical fins of the prototype; although North American originally specified two fins [like the later Foxbat], that part of the design was vetoed by the Navy in favor of one folding tailfin.) Other western aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle would also adopt a high mounted wing and wedge-shaped intake geometry.


Sources:
Wikipedia: A-5 Vigilante

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