Specialty Press' Vigilante!


Robert Powell


Specialty Press


$42.95 from Specialty Press


Scott Van Aken

Notes: ISBN 978-1-58007-261-8, 192 pages, 267 images, hardbound, 10 x 10 inches

In the early 1950s, naval planners were always thinking ahead to what was next. The Navy had two carrier capable nuclear bombers. One was the A3J Savage and the other was the A3D Skywarrior. The Savage was really just a stop-gap with the Skywarrior being built in fairly large numbers. Both were designed around a fairly large and heavy nuclear device. As the bombs got smaller, it was seen that not only could the aircraft carrying the bomb be a bit smaller, but the need was seen to have something that was supersonic, which the previous aircraft were not. As with all new aircraft, the Vigilante tested the skills of its designers and the skills of the people doing the tooling. For instance, the wing, save for the folding tips, was cut from a single section of aluminum.

What resulted was the A3J Vigilante. It was a sleek, supersonic bomber with the bomb bay in between its two engines. The single bomb was designed to fall out of the back of the aircraft, attached to two then-empty fuel cans which helped to stabilize the bomb's trajectory. The aircraft would then speed away, safe from the effects of the blast. It's initial deployments were quite a success, while the aircraft had a few teething issues that are typical of new military hardware. 

It was eventually determined that this wasn't really the best way to go and that submarines were a better way to deliver nuclear ordnance. As such, the Vigilante was repurposed into a supersonic tactical reconnaissance aircraft. Extant A-5s were rebuilt into RA-5s. As it was seen that more aircraft were needed than were available, the production line was reopened to meet the requirements. Eventually these aircraft were augmented and later replaced by the RF-4.

The book's author has 1,200 hours in the aircraft so is a real subject matter experts on the type. His insights into the   operation of the aircraft add a lot of interest to the reader. He fully covers the initial requirement and the development of the type. Then we are provided with basically a year by year account of the operations of both the bomber and the recce versions. Much of this involves its operations in Vietnam where the aircraft proved itself to be a valuable asset for the Navy. Through these operations some were lost and some crew members became POWs. Even post war, the Vigilante operated until finally retired in the late 1970s. Its main reason for retirement wasn't airframe fatigue, but the fact that it simply became too expensive to operate. People I knew while in the Navy who worked on the aircraft told me that it required more maintenance man hours per flight hour than any other aircraft. Those left after retirement were either placed in museums or given to the Air Force to use as ground targets.

So what we have is the best book on the type that I have ever read. It is not only interesting, but provides hundreds of great photos, all of which makes this a book that enthusiasts really need to own. I give it my highest recommendation. 

February 2021

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