When the first pictures of the A3J-1 were published in Aviation Week, I thought it was the most beautiful airplane that I had ever seen. It was intended to replace the carrier-based, long-range atomic bomb delivery capability then provided by the Douglas A3D Skywarrior, except it was supersonic with a unique weapon delivery system. As it happened, only 59 were built, including the two prototypes, since it was the victim of a budget battle won by the proponents of the submarine-launched Polaris missile.
The nuclear bomb was carried internally but not dropped. Instead it was propelled rearward, attached to empty fuel tanks, out the back of the airplane at about 30 knots (not at the same speed as the aircraft as is frequently reported). Development of satisfactory accuracy of the bombing system was not achieved by the time it was apparent that Polaris was the better alternative for the requirement.
These two pictures illustrate the difference in wing planform between the A3J-1 and the RA-5C.
The RA-5C was probably the best, certainly the most capable, reconnaissance airplane the Navy ever operated from carriers. It has never been replaced with anything comparable. It was fast, with good range/endurance, and big enough to carry an internal equipment pallet and a belly pod that could be fitted with cameras, side-looking radar, and electronic signal detectors. It retained the weapon delivery capability using the stores pylons but it is unlikely that it was ever used as an attack airplane, considering the RA-5C's value as a reconnaissance platform and that relatively few were assigned to each carrier air wing.
Counting the 12 A3J-2s that were completed as RA-5Cs, 91 RA-5Cs were built for a total of 156 aircraft:
2 XA3J-1s BuNos 145157/8
57 A3J-1s (A-5As) BuNos 146694/708, 147850/863, 148924/933, 149276/299
2 A3J-2 prototypes BuNos 149300/1
4 YRA-5C (YA3J-3P) BuNos 149302/5
12 RA-5C (A3J-3P) BuNos 149306/17
43 RA-5C (J79-GE-8) BuNos 150823/842, 151615/634, 151726/151728
36 RA-5C (J79-GE-10) BuNos 156608/653
The nomenclature above is not precise in all cases since it is intended to differentiate between the various contracts, initial intentions, etc. Note that -3 is not a typo.
The 91 RA-5Cs built were augmented by conversions of earlier production. Not all sources agree, but Joe Baugher's website provides a list of conversions by BuNo. According to his tally, there were 43 A-5As converted including one of the A3J-1 prototypes. In addition, the first six of the original order of 18 A3J-2s were rebuilt to the RA-5C configuration, for a total fleet of 140. Some sources state 134, with the difference likely being the omission of the two A3J-2 prototypes and the four YA3J-3Ps. Of course, due to attrition (almost half of the A-5s built were destroyed in accidents and combat), the fleet never totaled 140 aircraft at any time. In fact, the production line was restarted, a very rare event, to build the last block of aircraft in order to bring the numbers back up to a satisfactory level.
The last new-build RA-5Cs were slightly different in addition to being powered by the J79-GE-10, which had a notably different afterburner nozzle.
The engine inlet of the last new-build aircraft also had a different outboard shape, being straight instead of curved, and a small leading edge extension was added to the wing.
Early RA-5C inlet:
Late RA-5C inlet and leading edge extension:
There were, of course, detail changes over time to the ECM antennas, tail cone, etc. It also appears that some of the conversions from A-5As (and a couple of early build RA-5Cs) were to the later build inlet configuration with the leading edge extension like BuNo 146702 shown here. Note that the RA-5C vertical fin tip slopes downward from front to back due to the addition of an IFF antenna.
Trumpeter has produced both 1/72nd and 1/48th kits of the RA-5C. It is reportedly a mix of features of the early and late configurations, but the major knock on the kit is the shape of the forward fuselage and vertical fin. For comparison, here are Rockwell drawings. (The first one shows the tip of the vertical fin as being roughly straight across, which is incorrect for almost all, if not all, of the RA-5Cs.)
As usual, Steve Ginter offers one of the best monographs on the subject, North American A-5A/RA-5C Vigilante Naval Fighters Number 64. It is also generally available from Sprue Brothers, along with lots of other Vigilante kits and stuff.
To be continued...