Kit No. H-134:100
Decals: One version, U.S. Navy’s VAH-7 aboard U.S.S. Enterprise
Comments: 1968 re-release of 1961 kit, engraved panel lines, flush rivets
The North American A-5A Vigilante arose out of a desire by the U.S. Navy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s to develop a nuclear strike capability independent of any other branch of the armed services. Partly because it was rushed into service before a sufficiently thorough evaluation of its ability to perform the specified mission, the Vigilante was designed as a carrier-based strategic nuclear bomber, but would see action over Vietnam as a fast reconnaissance aircraft. In the 1950’s, the Navy’s nuclear strike capability was handled by first the North American AJ Savage, and later the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior. Both were subsonic aircraft, but since aircraft design was evolving quickly at the time, they soon became obsolete for the missions for which they had originally been designed. The Navy wanted a nuclear bomber capable of supersonic speed.
North American Aviation (NAA) felt it could deliver, and in November 1953 the company’s Columbus, Ohio, division began a program on its own initiative using company funds to build an advanced carrier-based nuclear-strike bomber. Designated NA-233, the new design was a twin-engine aircraft with advanced combat avionics, Mach 2 performance, and an unusual “linear bomb bay” in which a nuclear weapon was popped out of the tail to give the aircraft a better chance of escaping the atomic blast. North American engineers also considered fitting the aircraft with an auxiliary rocket engine powered by jet fuel and hydrogen peroxide for an additional burst of speed over the target area, but the Navy wasn’t eager to handle a toxic, reactive, and unstable substance like hydrogen peroxide on board a ship, so the Vigilante’s rocket booster never materialized.
The Navy ordered two prototypes from North American in mid-1956. The first prototype of the YA3J-1 Vigilante, as it was formally designated, was rolled out on May 16, 1958. Its first flight was on August 31, 1958, with North American chief test pilot Dick Wenzel at the controls. The Vigilante was long and sleek, with a relatively small shoulder-mounted swept-back wing, and all-moving slab tailplanes and tailfin. It had tricycle landing gear, with the main gear retracting into the fuselage. All three landing gear had single wheels and retracted forward, with the main gear rotating 90 degrees during retraction to fit into the wheel wells. The Vigilante was powered by twin General Electric YJ79-GE-2 engines, with engine bays made mostly of titanium, and covered with gold film to reflect heat. The aircraft had a large fuel capacity, giving it long range and permitting extended flight with afterburner.
The Vigilante featured a long list of new technologies: wing skins made of aluminum-lithium alloy; critical structures made of titanium; variable ramp engine inlets; a windshield of stretched acrylics; and a retractable mid-air refueling probe. The two crewmen flew in tandem cockpits with individual “clamshell” canopies, sitting in North American HS-1 rocket-boosted ejection seats. The pilot could control ejection for both crewmen, though the back-seater could also eject on his own if necessary. While the pilot had a good forward view, the bombardier-navigator in the back seat had only a small window on each side. Originally, North American engineers hadn’t intended to provide any windows for the back-seater on the assumption that he would be able to see his displays better in the dark and would be protected from nuclear flash, but feedback on the idea from prospective bombardier-navigators was very negative. The engineers added the two little windows as a concession.
The first production A3J-1 Vigilante flew in 1960. Production aircraft were progressively fitted with more powerful J79 engine variants, leading to J79-GE-8 engines, with 48.5 kN (4,945 kgp / 10,900 lbf) dry thrust and 75.6 kN (7,710 kgp / 17,000 lbf) afterburning thrust. These were the same engines used on the Navy’s McDonnell Douglas F4H-1 (F-4B) Phantom fighters, simplifying logistics and maintenance.
Carrier trials began in July 1960. To promote the Vigilante with the U.S. Congress, the Navy established several speed and altitude records with the newaircraft. On December 13, 1960, Navy test pilots Commander Leroy Heath and Lieutenant Larry Monroe took their Vigilante to Mach 2.1 and then nosed it up into a climb that brought it to a record 27,750 meters (91,000 feet). At that altitude, the aircraft was no longer aerodynamic and tumbled onto its back as it fell down the far side of the arc, with the engines flaming out in the thin atmosphere. However, such problems had been encountered in practice flights leading up to the attempt and the flight crew knew what to expect. Heath simply neutralized the controls; once the Vigilante reached thicker air halfway through its fall, it naturally adopted a nose-down attitude, and Heath was able to relight the engines.
Deliveries of the A3J-1 to operational units began in 1961, with last deliveries of the type in 1963. By that time it had been redesignated the A-5A, due to a Defense Department directive for common designation schemes for all US military aircraft, implemented in September 1962.
Carrier air group commanders were not entirely pleased with the Vigilante. Although it had excellent performance and the airframe proved reliable, it was full of cutting edge electronic technologies that still had their share of bugs to be worked out, and was a maintenance headache. During the testing phase, the VERDAN computer (Versatile Digital Analyzer), the first solid-state computer fitted aboard an aircraft, had a “mean time between failure (MTBF)” of 15 minutes. Within a few years the computer’s MTBF was up to a reasonable 240 hours.
The Vigilante was also something of a handful to land on a carrier, since it was not only big but also very sleek and “hot”. On a hard landing, the aircraft would “bounce”, with the nosewheel tire bursting and tearing apart on the second strike to shed pieces of rubber which were then sucked into the engines. In addition, the nosewheel strut proved weak and had to be reinforced. Some Vigilante pilots claimed that the aircraft’s reputation for being difficult to land was exaggerated, but did admit that it was unforgiving. The “Viggie” acquired a reputation as something of a beast that required particular skill to fly, and Vigilante pilots were reputedly quick to agree.
Fighter pilots naturally tended to look down on the big bomber, comparing it to an elephant, partly for the wild sounds made by the Vigilante’s twin J79 engines when they were throttled up or down during landing approach, with some suggesting that the beast sounded like it was in heat. Leroy Heath, back in normal fleet service, picked up the comparison and ran with it, naming his Vigilante the PASSIONATE PACHYDERM. He bought a wind-up toy elephant, painted the PACHYDERM’s aircraft number “701” on its side, and took to setting it on strolls across the closed-circuit TV camera that gave the pilot ready rooms a view of carrier-deck landings.
One A-5A pilot, Lieutenant Commander Ken Enney, decided to fight back more aggressively by engaging a Vought F-8 Crusader fighter one day. The fighter pilot eventually called out over radio: “I can’t get rid of this guy!” This set off quite a buzz among the flight crews, though Enney himself later admitted that his Vigilante was lightly loaded and that he could only have gotten away with such a stunt at altitudes above 6,000 meters (20,000 feet).
By 1963 when the last A-5As were delivered to the fleet, there was no interest in using the Vigilante for nuclear strike, or even conventional attack. There were both political and technical reaons for this. The political issue was that the Navy’s Polaris submarines were coming on line, and the Navy decided to focus on Polaris as the service’s strategic nuclear strike weapon. The Vigilante development program had cost about $200 million at the time, with the pricetag of each aircraft rising to about $10 million — a princely sum in the early ’60’s. The Navy felt that their other existing strike aircraft, such as the new Grumman Intruder, were more cost-effective for conventional strike missions.
The technical issue was that the Vigilante wasn’t looking very promising in the strike role anyway. The linear bomb bay scheme sounded nice on paper, but was a nightmare in practice. The bomb bay tube ran up the fuselage between the engines, and since it was much longer than the nuclear bomb, expendable fuel tanks were added in the rear of the tube. During a strike, the entire assembly was to be ejected from the tail with an explosive cartridge driving it down launch rails. Not only did the scheme prove unreliable, but laying a bomb on target with precision was very difficult with this method of delivery. The innovative linear bomb bay was never actually used for weapons delivery in practice. The Vigilante had become an expensive aircraft without a clear mission. But instead of simply dumping it, and probably motivated by a desire to justify the expense of its development, the Navy decided that the Vigilante would be used for a different mission, the fast reconnaissance role. This was the birth of the RA-5C, the more well-known version of this aircraft. While the sleek Vigilante is largely forgotten, it was an impressive aircraft, with many similarities to the controversial British BAC TSR-2 strike aircraft, designed and canceled a few years after the introduction of the Vigilante.
Revell’s A-5A Vigilante was part of their Strategic Air Power series and was released in 1968, according to the copyright date on the box. Revell initially released it in 1961 under the old A3J designation. The 1968 kit appears to be a re-tooling of the 1961 kit (see photo), which was the last “S” kit that Revell produced — and has one key difference from its predecessor: The 1961 A3J kit had movable control surfaces, the 1968 kit does not. Other than that, the kits appear to be identical, based on the features described on the A3J box art.
The kit is injection molded in grey plastic and consists of 37 parts. A surprising feature given the kit’s age are the engraved panel lines and flush rivets, something that would not be commonly seen in injection molded aircraft models for another 30 to 40 years. No scale is given, but the kit appears to be 1/72 or 1/76 scale. Although this is the initial bomber version of the Vigilante, the kit has no ordnance, since its primary weapon, a single nuclear bomb or a single conventional high-explosive, was carried internally in a tubular bomb bay between the two engines. Curiously Revell opted not to include the bomb bay or a bomb, although the kit does provide two fairly detailed General Electric J79 engines (the same powerplant as the F-4 Phantom). The decision to skip both the bomb and unique bomb bay arrangement is even stranger when you get to Step 4 of the instructions, “Engine Installation,” and discover that the rear of the fuselage is removable to display the engines!
The tubular bomb bay was an intriguing sounding innovation, but given that the kit was first released in 1961, the same year the Vigilante entered service, it could be that Revell (or North American) deemed it unwise to include such a detail in a kit depicting cutting edge military hardware. In any event, in operational service the tubular bomb bay was a flop. The aircrew, seats and floorboard of the cockpit are a single piece, something that harks back a decade earlier to the Revell X-planes, but unlike those crude 1950’s pilot figures, the Vigilante’s crew figures are devoid of flash and well-detailed, with clearly definable visors, face masks, and air hoses. The pilot is gripping a control stick, and the navigator in the back seat has what appears to be a chart or log book on his lap! The quality of the figures is unusually good for the 1960’s. There is no internal cockpit detail, however. The forward cockpit has a two part canopy, and the rear cockpit has a “canopy” that on the actual aircraft was solid metal, with two windows in it on either side. The fuselage consists of top and bottom halves, and each wing and horizontal stabilizer is a single part. The landing gear is of average detail, and the kit is designed so that the two canopies can be opened at willl — making it a shame that the cockpits are not more detailed.
Prior to the introduction of the Trumpeter RA-5C Vigilante, the Revell “Viggie” was one of the simplest yet relatively detailed kits of this type, superior to an earlier 1959 release by Monogram. Of course, the Airfx and Hasegawa kits of the Vigilante are a definite improvement over the Revell and Monogram kits, but both those kits are more complex. For the best example of simplicity combined with cosmetic appeal, the Revell kit is the best of the early Vigilante kits. Highly recommended.
- www.vectorsite.net: “The North American A-5/RA-5 Vigilante”