(Dung Tran)

When you hear the term 'vigilante,' you think of someone who self-righteously takes it upon themselves to deliver violence to the bad guys. But there was one vigilante that made its mark not by bringing death and destruction to those who've earned it, but by spying.

The North American A-5 Vigilante was originally designed to be a nuclear-attack plane that would eject a nuclear bomb, attached to a pair of fuel tanks, out of the plane's rear. The plane could also carry some bombs on the wings, but it's intended purpose was to deliver a nuke from high altitude at Mach 2.


An RA-5C lands on USS Saratoga (CV 60). Only 156 A-5s of all variants were built, most as the RA-5C.

(US Navy)

Well, that plan didn't pan out — the program was marred with complications. First of all, the bomb and fuel tanks would sometimes come out when the Vigilante was launched from an aircraft carrier's catapult. If you were to make a list of things you didn't want to happen, accidentally dumping a live nuke on a carrier deck would rank pretty damn high.

Other times, the system simply wouldn't eject the bomb as expected or the bomb/fuel tank package wouldn't stay stable. Meanwhile, the ballistic missile submarine was coming into its own, proving to be a far more reliable nuclear delivery system.

Now, most projects characterized by these kinds of problems would be in for a world of hurt, but the A-5's speed and high-altitude performance instead gave it a second life — as a reconnaissance plane.

While it is flying sedately now, the RA-5C was capable of going very fast and very high.

The RA-5C became the definitive version. It dispensed with the bomb and the weapons bay was used for fuel tanks. Catapult launches, though, still sometimes meant the tanks got left behind, starting a fire. But this plane used cameras, infrared sensors, and electronic warfare sensors to monitor enemy activities.

A total of 156 A-5s were built over the production run. Of those, 91 were built as RA-5Cs — 49 other models were later converted to that variant. The plane left service in 1979. Though some consider it a disappointment — the A-3 Skywarrior family of planes outlasted it by over a decade — but none can deny that it was an excellent reconnaissance aircraft.

Learn more about this vigilante turned spy in the video below!