Review- RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat – Robert R. “Boom” Powell
The North American Aviation RA-5C Vigilante is the kind of airplane that deserves to be written about based just on its aesthetic properties. This is a beautiful airplane. With its cutting-edge and supersonic aerodynamics, the profile of the well-balanced and symmetrical RA-5C looks like a venerable and gallant marlin out of water.
Like many ambitious airplane designs, the RA-5C Vigilante underwent many design changes and operational re-configurations that were based on the needs of the US Navy, and which were dictated by the rapidly evolving threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The aircraft was originally called A3J, and first flew in August 1958. It was later re-named A-5A.
Aesthetically, the RA-5C Vigilante is reminiscent of another North American experimental bomber, the XB-70. The XB-70 was to be the planned B-70 supersonic bomber, but the program proved to be unfeasible and was discontinued in 1961.
Part of the dilemma that large bombers faced after the start of the Cold War is that bombers had to be big given the large size of nuclear bombs. In addition, nuclear capable bombers also needed to be fast. The XB-70 and 5A-5C Vigilante were both supersonic.
Robert R. “Boom” Powell’s 5A-5C Vigilante Units in Combat is another informative and captivating book from military history publisher Osprey. Powell explains that the RA-5C Vigilante was an airplane that “introduced more new technological features than any other aircraft in history.” These innovations are too many to list here. One important feature of the Vigilante is that part of its structure and frame were “built out of titanium.” Another, is that the RA-5C was one of the first airplanes to employ a ‘fly-by-wire” system, even though it also had a mechanical/hydraulic backup.
The Vigilante was designed as a carrier-based supersonic bomber. The bomb bay of the RA-5C was revolutionary because it was hidden inside the airplane, lodged between the two General Electric J79 turbojet engines. This design feature was called a “linear bomb bay.” This meant that the RA-5C experienced less drag given that there were no bombs attached under the wings or fuselage. However, the system was not very reliable and was never used in combat.
The A-5A bomber designation was changed to RA-5C, when the aircraft took on the role of a reconnaissance aircraft. This version of the A-5 first flew in June 1962. The reconnaissance version of the A-5A was several tons heavier than its original bomber version. The Vigilante had a crew of two in tandem, pilot and a Bombardier-Navigator (BN).
The vast excitement felt by aviation enthusiasts when studying aviation history and the history of individual aircrafts has to do with understanding the time period when a given aircraft was active and its operational history. Part of the appeal is to gain knowledge of history in retrospect, for history in the making – what can be considered ground zero history – is too dynamic to be easily put into historical perspective. Books like RA-5C Vigilante Units in Combat enable readers and historians alike to close-off, as it were, a given portion of history and make sense of the significance of that aspect of history in the great scope of human civilization.
For instance, the RA-5C Vigilante’s role in operation Rolling Thunder in the Vietnam War to Tora, Tora, Tora, among others, enable the diligent reader to better grasp the events and players of events during a by-gone world that has substantially shaped own time.
The rapid development of jet-powered fighters and bombers after WWII is astounding. The streamlined, sweeping lines of airplanes like the Vigilante are truly incredible, especially when we keep in perspective that many of these jet designs date back to the 1950s.