May 14, 2024

The North American Aviation RA-5C Vigilante played a crucial role in aerial reconnaissance during the Vietnam War. Read about the Vigilante and the history of BuNo 150839, then secure your own RA-5C PlaneTags.



What is the North American Aviation A-5 Vigilante?


North American RA-5C Vigilante . flickr photo by tormentor4555 shared with no copyright restrictions using Creative Commons Public Domain Mark (PDM)



The North American Aviation A-5 Vigilante was a carrier-based supersonic bomber designed and built by North American Aviation for the United States Navy. Introduced in the early 1960s, the A-5 was originally designed as a nuclear bomber, capable of delivering nuclear weapons at high speeds and over long distances with a sophisticated bomb-release mechanism.


RA-5C Vigilante



It was notable for its sleek, streamlined design and advanced technology, including its use of twin engines and a unique linear bomb bay that ejected the payload rearward between the engines. However, the Vigilante was later repurposed primarily for reconnaissance missions after the nuclear strike role was phased out, redesignated as the RA-5C, and extensively used during the Vietnam War for high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance, capturing valuable photographic intelligence.

Development of the Vigilante

The development of the A-5 Vigilante began in the late 1950s by North American Aviation as a response to the U.S. Navy's requirement for a new class of carrier-based nuclear bombers. Designed for high-speed, high-altitude penetration missions, the Vigilante incorporated cutting-edge technologies including a streamlined airframe and powerful twin engines, enabling supersonic speeds. It featured an innovative linear bomb bay that ejected the nuclear payload rearward, minimizing aerodynamic disruption during bomb release. Introduced into service in the early 1960s, the A-5 Vigilante quickly demonstrated its capabilities. 


Retired RA-5Cs in storage at Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center, Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona in November 1978. By U.S. Navy - U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo, Public Domain, Link



However, with shifting military strategies and the move towards ballistic missiles for nuclear deterrence, the Vigilante's role as a nuclear bomber diminished. By the mid-1960s, the aircraft was repurposed into the RA-5C, a dedicated reconnaissance platform. This version was equipped with advanced sensors and cameras, proving invaluable during the Vietnam War for its high-speed reconnaissance missions. The RA-5C continued to serve until the late 1970s, marking a notable chapter in naval aviation history.


RA-5C Vigilante: The Transformation into a Reconnaissance Platform


U.S. Navy flight deck personnel load camera equipment onto an North American RA-5C Vigilante. By U.S. Navy - U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.253.6761, Public Domain, Link


The RA-5C Vigilante represented a significant transformation of the original A-5 Vigilante, adapted primarily for reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War. Initially designed as a nuclear bomber, the RA-5C was refitted with sophisticated sensors and cameras in its elongated nose and linear bomb bay, which had been innovative for bomb delivery in its bomber configuration. This adaptation allowed it to perform detailed surveillance and target identification at high speeds and altitudes, making it a critical asset for gathering intelligence. The aircraft's advanced navigation and electronics systems, along with its capability to operate from aircraft carriers, made it exceptionally effective in its new role. 36 RA-5Cs were built. The RA-5C continued to serve with distinction, proving its value by providing crucial reconnaissance data until its retirement in the late 1970s.




RA-5C Vigilantes During the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, the RA-5C Vigilantes were extensively used for reconnaissance missions, becoming crucial for the U.S. Navy’s operations in the region. The RA-5C, with its advanced photographic and electronic surveillance equipment, was deployed to gather intelligence on North Vietnamese troop movements, defenses, and infrastructure. These high-speed, high-altitude missions allowed the RA-5C to cover large areas of territory quickly, minimizing exposure to enemy anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles.


A RA-5C Vigilante from RVAH-1 "Smokin' Tigers" lands on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga in May 1969. By U.S. Navy - Official U.S. Navy photo USN 1140473 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Public Domain, Link


The RA-5C's capabilities were particularly valuable for collecting real-time data that was essential for planning bombing raids and assessing their aftermath. This included detailed damage assessment which was critical for understanding the effectiveness of strikes and for planning subsequent attacks. Additionally, the RA-5C monitored the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, capturing images that helped interdict supplies being moved from North to South Vietnam.

Their operations were not without risk; the RA-5Cs often attracted considerable enemy fire due to their importance and the high-value intelligence they gathered. Despite these dangers, their contributions provided significant tactical advantages, making the RA-5C Vigilantes an indispensable component of naval operations throughout the conflict.

RA-5C At A Glance


RA-5C Specifications

  • Manufacturer: North American Aviation
  • Model: RA-5C
  • BuNo: 150839
  • Crew: 2 (1 Pilot, 1 Reconnaissance Attack Navigator)
  • Wing Span: 53 Ft 0 In
  • Length: 76 Ft 6 In 
  • Height: 19 Ft 5 In

RA-5C Performance

  • Combat Range: 974 Nmi
  • Top Speed: 1,146 Kts (Mach 2.0)
  • Ceiling: 52,100 Ft
  • Empty Weight: 37,489 Lb
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 79,588 Lb
  • Rate Of Climb: 8,000 Ft/Min
  • Engine: 2x General Electric J79-Ge-10 Turbojets


BuNo 150839

BuNo 150839 was built by North American Aviation in Columbus, Ohio as a RA-5C, one of 36 built. It was delivered to the U.S. Navy in February 1964. During its active career years of 1964 through 1970, 150839 served with several units, including VAH-3 Heavy Attack Squadron Three, RVAH-11 Reconnaissance Attack Heavy, RVAH-1, RVAH-3, and RVAH-13. 


BuNo 150839

BuNo 150839 of Reconnaissance Heavy Attack Squadron 5 (RVAH-5) "Savage Sons" took off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60) on 17 April 1964. Public Domain photo by the National Museum of the U.S. Navy

It was assigned to several aircraft carriers, including the USS Ranger, USS America, USS Enterprise, USS Forrestal, and USS Saratoga. During these years, RA-5C Vigilantes were integral to U.S. Navy operations aboard aircraft carriers, primarily serving as high-speed reconnaissance aircraft. They were launched from carriers to conduct pre-strike and post-strike reconnaissance missions, gathering detailed photographic and electronic intelligence on enemy targets. 

The RA-5C's ability to fly at high altitudes and speeds made it ideal for these missions, allowing it to evade enemy radar and anti-aircraft defenses. The aircraft's sophisticated sensors and cameras could capture high-resolution images of vast areas, providing crucial information for mission planning and assessment. With these capabilities, BuNo 150839 was a vital asset for maintaining situational awareness and enhancing the effectiveness of carrier strike groups. In 1970, BuNo 150839 was struck off charge and put into storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. 

MotoArt Gets A Vigilante




 "We were thrilled to find the RA-5C Vigilante so close to home. It’s not just a remarkable addition to our collection but a valuable entry in our encyclopedia of aircraft," said Dave Hall, owner of MotoArt PlaneTags, expressing the whole team’s excitement finding this historical plane. The decommissioned Vigilante was transported back to MotoArt Studios in Torrance, California, with the intention of creating their signature PlaneTags from its material. 



A-5 Vigilante PlaneTags


North American Aviation RA-5C PlaneTags


Vigilante PlaneTags


RA-5C airframe


BuNo 150839


Vigilante canopy



North American Aviation RA-5C Vigilante PlaneTags

North American Vigilante PlaneTags will be available on and the PlaneTags app beginning Thursday, May 16, 2024 at 12 PM PDT. Collectors should seize the opportunity to secure their RA-5C Vigilante PlaneTags as soon as they are released Thursday, as these unique artifacts will sell out quickly. 

North American Aviation PlaneTags


Over the years, several North American Aviation PlaneTags have been released - and at this writing, many of them have sold out. Don’t miss your chance to own a Vigilante!