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US Navy RA-5C Vigilante Reconnaissance Fighter Jet.

on the deck of the navy aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, CV-63.

This is the Baddest to the Bones jet we had on the ship.


Bad to the Bones, Stripped for Action,  navy Vigilante RA-5C

Photo by C. Jeff Dyrek

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This A-5 Vigilante aircraft has no weapons and yet it has one of the most important weapons in the military today, a camera. 

This Vigilantes equipment includes, as we stated, cameras but also a side looking radar which is excellent for ground mapping and imaging. Look at the bottom of the fuselage just behind the nose wheel. This is the front 0004860ALT="US Navy RA-5C Vigilante Book" HSPACE=10 VSPACE=10 BORDER=2 height=308 width=200 align=RIGHT>of the side looking radar antenna pod. Now look behind the cockpit. Do you see a small square window? This where the RIO (Rear Instrument Operator sits and operates all of the radar and camera equipment. This airplane is classified! Do not tell anyone about what you have read here or you must shoot them, with a camera, of course.

This plane is also very fast. It is lean and mean. I doubt that anything short of the SR-71 Blackbird could out run it. The Vigilante in the reconnaissance version has on weapons and no weapon pylons either. It is totally stripped for action and is designed to get in and out, fast. It was built to out run anything the enemy could put into the air.


Come across your site and the photo of Heavy 7's vigi on the Kitty Hawk. Brought back a lot of memories since I was in Heavy 7 from 1977 to the end. Made both its last cruises aboard the Kitty Hawk and the Ranger including being on the Transpac crew in 79 I believe. I made AMEC while on the Ranger and I was the last maintenance chief in the squadron when it decommissioned. Since I was the only AME left in Key West I TAD to NAS Memphis to remove the ejection seats and de-armed the aircraft we sent there for a static display (which by the way is still there) and I also de-armed 612 which we sent to Pensacola's Naval Air Museum. While I hated working on the RA-5C I loved the squadron we had a lot of very competent maintainer's, a great crew to work with and the liberty wasn't bad either. I ended up spending another twelve years in the Navy after my tour with the Heavy's and RVAH-7 will always have a special place in my memories.

Bill Harris AMEC.


I was a Reconnaissance Attack Navigator in Vigi's from 1969 to 1977.  After  that, I was an F-14 RIO until my retirement in 1985. When we flew the  Vigi, we were the fastest thing in the world at sea level. You could easily go  supersonic at sea level. At normal cruising altitude, you could go  supersonic for an hour or more continuously. As Frank said, it was a Mach 2  bird in name only. In the training squadron, we'd set up a special  mission  with the aircraft cleaned up and fly a specific profile so we could  nudge  the bird past Mach 2 for a few minutes and then tell everyone we had   flown at Mach 2.

The F-14 was indeed faster for short bursts, but only in full  afterburner, and if you did that, you used up all your fuel in 8 minutes. Which bird  was the faster is an argument that depends on how you define the terms. The Vigi would win a long distance race against the F-14. The F-14 could outsprint the Vigi.

almost 40 years after I started flying the Vigi, I'm still impressed  with  its capabilities. It was an amazing airplane--really pushed the state of the art. It was also very dangerous.

Pilot Frank, Are you Frank Waters? If so, hi. This is Bill Scott.   Webmaster, would you mind forwarding my email address to Frank?

Write to Bill Scott


This is of the RVAH-7 (Reconnaissance 7, "The Peacemakers of the Fleet")

Reconnaissance Attack Squadron Seven, a unit of the Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, was originally commissioned as Composite Squadron Seven at NAS Moffet Field. ... RVAH-7 became known as "The Peacemakers of the Fleet.". In December '64 the squadron was redesignated as Reconnaissance Attack Squadron Seven... and I was stationed on RVAH-7 on the USS Ranger in 1979, which also became the last standing Vigilante to go to war...

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. 

Charlie Warren

More from Charlie

I also deployed with the Kitty Hawk with the same RVAH-7, 
(Reconnaissance Attack Squadron Seven, RECONATKRON Seven, Heavy Seven, Heavy-7, etc...) on WesPac 77-78. So, we were probably onboard together, may have even  eaten together.

Interesting that you said the Kitty Hawk... because I went back to my old Albums, and on the Ranger our tail insignia was NE, and on the Picture  it was NH. On the Kitty Hawk our tail insignia was NH. So, you are correct in saying that this photo was taken on the Kitty Hawk, (I thought I was  reading the history of the USS Ranger, but perhaps liberties have been taken  just to show what planes deployed with the USS Ranger, even if the photo was taken onboard the USS Kitty Hawk).

I can't make out the names under the windows, that would give me clues  to the exact time frame.

I don't know the rated speed, probably Mach 2.3. We all believed and wanted to believe that it could go much faster. But, looking back on it now  that was more proud and arrogance. Folks in the main frames said that if  the plane took a high G turn, it popped a lot of rivets, and unlike the  high flying reconnaissance SR-71 where the high speed, caused extreme heat  that case-hardened the structure, our low flying reconnaissance plane grew old, and as slick as it looked, it was a 1958 or 1959 model, badly needing  for it's career to come to a halt.

What the pilot Frank said, seems right. Because of the heaviness and length of this plane, it was a little more difficult to land on an aircraft carrier. The F-14's were just as long, but with less weight and could retract their wings to come in slower. The RA-5C came in fast, and because of that, it demanded and got the best pilots in the fleet. But, this also is where the Vigi got her legend. These top gun pilots loved to fly on  the edge and they would take the Vigilante to the limit on every flight.  The whole shipped loved to be up on Vulture's row to watch the "Vigi on the Ball", or to take off. Again, unlike the F-14, the RA-5C because of her weight and length, had to take off with Stage 3 Afterburner, which is impressive to watch. You could always tell even while eating in the  gallery 4 decks below when a Vigi launched, because the ship would lunge so.

However, during several run-ins where the F-14's and us had to fly side-by-side to take photo's of the Harpoon-Ex or over Nevada, I heard from the pilots that we could accelerate faster and even out run the F-14's.

 (this is a photo of RVAH-7's  aircraft, the white tail with the black star... insignia NE, (USS Ranger)...  looks like it's over Nevada to me). Probably the same plane that you took a  photo of on the USS Kitty Hawk.

Click Here we are again...

Reason being is because the RA-5C was originally designed to carry an A-Bomb, but that bombed... and would bend the fuselage during exit. Engineers solved that problem, and then the Bomb would trail the plane, and before that problem could be resolved, it was decided to convert the Attack Bird to a Vigi. They put a "Canoe" on the bottom for the camera's and extended the nose.

I say all this, because the available fuselage is part of the secret to  the success of this plane. By re-designing, the engineers put the fuel cells in the center fuselage, and the large amount of fuel for extended travel, great for quick pictures of Vietnam from an aircraft carrier.

But, what happened as a bonus in contrast to other aircraft whose fuel tanks were in their wings, the Vigilante did not need to have the fuel tanks balanced before it could go to full 3rd stage afterburner. This would allow the Vigi to accelerate faster than most other airplanes of it's day.   In addition, equipped with a J79B, (to reduce the smoke trail), the Vigi could always out-fly, out-turn the F-4 Phantom that was using the same J79B engine.

This was due in part to the sleek design, but mostly to the Vertical and Horizontal tail wings. Instead of having ailerons, and rudders on the  rear section, the whole wing or wings pivoted. This worked so well that the F-111 incorporated a lot of this design. Most of the other RVAH squadrons were decommissioning, and we got their scrap parts, and the best  airplanes, and we were stationed in Key West, Florida, with an unrestricted airspace, and I've seen the Vigi go from standing still to a vertical climb   through the clouds in a blink of an eye. Sonic Booms were not uncommon.

I looked up "RA 5C Vigilante reconnaissance" and found many hits on web sites (don't put in the dash, as that limits the search to those that put in the dash). Perhaps one of these sites knows how fast it could go.

Our wing tips could fold up, for travel on a carrier, but not as thin  as the  F-14.


If you can find footage of the Air Show put on for President John F.  Kennedy aboard the USS Kitty Hawk or USS Enterprise, (Air Show of June 6, 1963 onboard USS Kitty Hawk, with President John F. Kennedy.), I'd  think  you'd like the fact that the high speed made the rear part of the plane disappear. But, what was just plain awesome was the way that the Vigi  could  instantly dump fuel to land on an Aircraft Carrier, and this fuel  could ignite and look like this huge rocket behind the plane, (although it  really didn't help the speed, but when doing a vertical spiral this looked  better than the F-14's).



I was doing some web surfing and came across your Vigilante site. I spent two years with the RVAH-9 Hoot Owls from 1970 to 1972. 

During that time we made two Med cruises on the USS Saratoga (CVA-60). I worked the flight deck as a Plane Captain. I have always been an airplane nut and I must say that the Vigilante is one of the coolest planes ever. When you think about the fact that the design was developed in the mid 60's and that it was capable of mach 2+ and held the world altitude record of 92,000 ft. It was certainly an amazing airplane. There was a lot of discussion (arguments) at the Acey Deucy club between the vigilante and phantom guys about which was the faster airplane. But when it came to a contest of speed, the Vigilante would always out run the Phantom. It was even worse when the Phantom carried external stores which was their normal configuration. I have many great memories from those days. Great people, a great ship and a great airplane. Heavy 9 flew the newest version of the Vigilante in those days. They were the series that had Bureau numbers with 156 as the first three digits. Those planes had the J79-10 engines. The earlier planes had Bureau numbers starting with the digits 149 and were powered by J79-8 engines. The RA5C was a very complicated aircraft. As I recall they would require about 20 maintenance hours for every flight hour. The airframe was solid, the engines were solid, the electronics weren't so solid. As solid as the airframe was there were still a few problems. I think it was on my first cruise when there was a tail hook failure in one of the planes operating in Viet Nam. All of the vigilantes were grounded until the tail hooks could be removed and X-rayed. We also had an incident on the flight deck one night when one of our planes had a nosewheel fork fail on landing. Pieces of the fork, wheel and tire were ingested by both engines. It was spectacular! Then there was the incident where a tail hook snubber failed which allowed the tail hook to strike the #742 frame in the fuselage. This is a cast steel frame which carried the pivots for the vertical stabilizer, both halves of the horizontal stabilizer, the aft engine mounts and the snubber itself. The #742 frame was broken in a number of places and pieces were found in the bottom of the bomb bay. We were at the end of the cruise and had been operating between Rota Spain and the ship. The squadron was scheduled to fly the planes back to the USA rather than ride the ship back. One of the pilots was so anxious to get back that he offered to fly the plane with the broken frame back home. The skipper said "no way" so some of us had to stay behind to fix the thing...but that's another story. I'll end this now by saying that those two years with Heavy 9 were some very special years in my life and I don't regret a minute of it.

Steve Kretschmer 


I served in RVAH-11 ("Checkertails") out of Sanford, Florida, from 1966-1968. When we were enroute to Vietnam aboard USS Forrestal (CVA-59) in 1967 we made a goodwill visit to Brazil.

Before dropping anchor in Rio de Janeiro we had brought dignitaries aboard for an air show. The grand finale was an F-4 Phantom chasing one of our RA-5C Vigilantes past Forrestal at about 50 feet off the deck; both at a speed of Mach 1+ (breaking the sound barrier). They passed us on the port side in level flight. Once past, they shot straight up...the sonic boom came soon thereafter.

Don't let anyone tell you the RA-5C Vigilante wasn't fast! The aircraft that was involved in the above event not only had its reconnaissance canoe in place, but it also had both night flasher pods (one under each wing) in place. The paint was peeled back and I had to repair the damage to the turbine gener- ators that powered each pod. Wish someone had asked before they chose that bird for the show!

Finally, I believe that the "RIO" flew in Phantoms and, now, in Tomcats; the
Vigilante had a "RAN". There IS a difference!

Brad Jones (Heavy Eleven)

A Second Letter from Brad

Dear Jeff,

"RAN" was "Reconnaissance Attack Navigator". He was a Line Officer and his rank was usually LT(jg) through LCDR. Based on those I knew, many were a pilot "wannabe", but vision, etc. kept them from that job. So, RAN, RIO, etc. were jobs that at least provided them a way to still fly. Admirable and noble!

I do have photos (somewhere) of our Vigilantes in flight, launching, recovery, plus photos taken by them of places like Haiphong Harbor, power plants, and so forth. Since I was the one who maintained all the photo electronics, optics, etc. the Photo Interpreters were good about bringing me samples so I could keep things "fine tuned".

I was with RVAH-11 (RECONATKRONELEVEN) out of Sanford, Florida, from early 1966 into 1968. We deployed to Vietnam twice while I was there; first aboard USS Forrestal (CVA-59), then aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63). 

On 29 July 1967 (my 23rd birthday), we experienced the well-known "Forrestal Fire" and lost many of our Vigilantes (at least 3 of the 6 as I recall, but I want to say 4 or 5). We also lost most of our gear. We returned to the States, had a week or so "stand down", were told to resupply, flew to the West Coast, and went back to Vietnam aboard Kitty Hawk in place of
RVAH-13. In one year, we in RVAH-11 had traversed the globe.

A very busy time that helped an enlistment pass quickly...I'll never forget.


A letter from
Donald Bechard 5-30-2000
Just a few notes. I was on the Ranger 67 - 68 with VAW 13. Two A-5 Vigilante 's on board. 0007299ALT="Beautiful RA-5 Vigilante Aviation Art" HSPACE=10 VSPACE=10 BORDER=2 height=175 width=317 align=RIGHT>
When the North Koreans "hijacked" the USS Pueblo, we were ordered to the Sea of Japan. Even before we arrived on line, our A5's began 24 hour flight ops. Now, the Navy said the A5 top speed was just under Mach 2. We know better since our A5's consistently outran the faster MiG's (in fact, our F4's did too). We figured, at altitude, this plane would do close to mach 3. Awesome. 



On Tue, 26 Dec 2000 13:23:56 -0500, buzzsaw wrote:

since bubble burstin seems the order of the day, the leading portion of the canoe just behind the nose wheel contains cameras. Of which i have changed more than a few. The vigy pictured has the main camera module removed .(the gaping hole behind the first cameras) and behind that the rest of the canoe contained the slr (side looking radar). Served as a photo mate two tours Heavy 7 and two Heavy 6 


I just came across your web page and read some of the letters you have received.
I flew "Viggies" from 1967 to 1971, including a WestPac (read Vietnam) tour in '68-'69. I was the guy in the front seat (pilot)...the guy in the back seat was called the "RAN", Reconnaissance Attack Navigator.

There seems to be some questions regarding the speed of the Viggie. It was the fastest tactical thing, with a man in it, in the air during the Vietnam War ( "tactical" excludes the SR-71). This includes the F4 and Mig 21. To set the record straight, the aircraft was capable of Mach 2, but not a sea level. To get Mach 2 out of it, you had to be above 30,000 ft and in max afterburner and with about a half a tank of fuel. I flew the aircraft at Mach 2 only a couple of times since that wasn't where the missions were flown. Below 10,000 ft where we spent most of our time over the beach, the bird could reach Mach 1 if you were relatively light.

Because of its size and weight, a tight turn even at max "G" still took forever.......the best and only defense when over the beach on a recce run was go "FAB" and jink to make yourself feel good. We used F4 as escorts and they needed external tanks to make the cycle times (usually 1.5 hrs). This slowed them down considerably and we Viggie drivers used to say they were there to mark the spot if we got bagged.

Hope this was of interest.....

Best regards,


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Incredible Adventures - Zero-G/Weightless in Space

Manufacturer Rockwell International
Length 76'6"
Height 19'5"
Span 53'
Area 754 sq. ft.
Empty Weight 37498 lbs.
Max. Weight 80,000 lbs.
Engines 2
Powerplant GE J79-GE-8
Thrust 10800 lbs. each
Range  NA
Max. Speed 1205 kts
Please Note: These specs are for the fighter version, not the Recon Version which may be faster also different versions of this aircraft will have different specs. I just found out that the Recon Version had a top speed of 1,320 mph


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