The A-5 Vigilante made its maiden flight on August 31, 1958, entered service in June 1961, and retired in 1979.
After World War II, the world of aviation experienced great developments in the supersonic era. North American Aviation was one of many companies that have sought to exploit these recent innovations in the development of a new generation of aircraft. In early 1954, the company embarked on a separate study of a long-range, all-weather, carrier-based strike bomber capable of reaching supersonic speeds while carrying a sizable payload. This led to the creation of the A-5 Vigilante, one of the largest carrier-based aircraft in the United States Navy, which saw extensive service during the Vietnam War.
At the time of its introduction, the Vigilante was one of the largest and by far the most complex aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier. It was furnished with a high-mounted swept wing with a boundary-layer control system to improve low-speed lift. Twin intakes were used to aspirate two engines, the pairing providing the necessary power while also increasing survivability over vast ocean spaces and enemy territory. The two-man crew was arranged in tandem seating, with the pilot in the front and the navigator in the rear.
The A-5 Vigilante was designed to be a high-performance heavy bomber that could operate from the constrained environments typical of naval aircraft carriers. It has a length of 76 ft 6 in (23.32 m), a wingspan of 53 ft 0 in (16.16 m), a height of 19 ft 5 in (5.91 m), an empty weight of 32,783 lb (14.870 kg), and Maximum take-off weight is 63,085 lb (28,615 kg). The widespread use of a new aluminum-lithium alloy for the wing skins made the Vigilante significantly lighter than aerospace aluminum alone. Other parts of the airframe use expensive but strong and light titanium components.
Powering the A-5 are two General Electric J79-GE-8 after-burning turbojet engines, with 10,900 lbf (48 kN) of dry thrust each, and 17,000 lbf (76 kN) with afterburner. The Vigilante can reach a top speed of 1,149 kn (1,322 mph, 2,128 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,000 m), or Mach 2. Range is approximately 974 nmi (1,121 mi, 1,804 km), service ceiling is 52,100 ft (15,900 m), and the rate of climb is 8,000 ft/min (41 m/s).
The Vigilante was one of the first bombers to use electronic fly-by-wire flight controls as well as a computerized head-up type pilot display and an onboard digital computer to aid the pilot in operating the extensive onboard electronics. To accommodate carrier operations, the wingtips, nose cone, and vertical stabilizer could fold inward, making the large jet bomber somewhat more compact.
As the Vigilante was primarily a heavy bomber, it was equipped to deliver the nuclear payload, though in an unusual configuration. The Vigilante’s two, relatively widely spaced engines allowed the large bomber to carry additional fuel as well as a single B27, B28 or B43 freefall nuclear bomb in a central, cylindrically-shaped weapons bay between them.