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Vigilante pilot recalls giving a nearly Mach 2 ride to Jackie Cochran in the A3J

by Till Daisd
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The Vigilante

The North American A3J Vigilante was once intended to be a Mach 2 all-weather bomber with nuclear weapons capability. However, as nuclear submarines took over the Navy’s strategic deterrence mission, the Vigilante was converted into a fast reconnaissance aircraft. The resulting RA-5C Vigilante had advanced electronic equipment installed in its bomb bay, including vertical, oblique, and split-image cameras, passive electronic countermeasures, and side-looking airborne radar.

The Navy was eager for publicity after the Vigilante’s maiden flight in August 1958 and its numerous outstanding performance milestones by June 1960. According to Mark A. Frankel’s story in his book North American Aviation Jet Age: The Columbus Years 1941-1988, the public relations department of the NAA was authorized to invite noted aviatrix Jackie Cochran to ride in the rear cockpit of a Vigilante as it exceeded Mach 2.

A nearly Mach 2 ride to Jackie Cochran

Test pilot John Moore recalls the event:

‘We checked Jackie out in the rear seat of the A3J-1 Vigi. There were no flight controls in that cockpit, but she really did not care on this mission. She just wanted to achieve Mach 2. With the wisdom of a woman who held many aviation records, she carefully reviewed and digested cockpit matters related to the ejection system, radios, and the like. But she was impatient and wanted to get on with it.

‘The day was clear and warm, which caused me some concern. At 35,000 feet the temperature norm is minus 65 degrees[,] but on this day the weatherman gave us a minus 56 degree reading, which would be marginal for attaining Mach 2. Our performance guys said it might be close, but I should make that speed okay with my precious cargo in the back seat. So off we went. Our FAA[-]assigned supersonic corridor stretched from Knoxville, Tennessee[,] to Columbus, Ohio[,] with the provision that we be subsonic over both cities.

A3J Vigilante test pilot John Moore

‘About Mach 1.6 our acceleration rate became noticeably slower as the “Vigi” engines struggled with the warmer air. At Mach 1.9 we were accelerating very slowly, and I was running out of fuel and supersonic corridor at the same time. But I knew exactly what to do I pushed the intercom button and said with pride, “Jackie, here we are at Mach 2.” There was a moment’s silence, then she replied, “Buster, you may be at Mach 2 in the front cockpit, but I am only at Mach 1.96 in this cockpit.”

‘Rats! I had forgotten that she had a Mach meter on the instrument panel in her cockpit…’

At last, Jackie Cochran reaches Mach 2

Moore concludes;

‘She elected to stay another day to try again with more optimum temperatures projected along with a faster pilot. So, our boss, Jim Pearce, saved the day by taking his elegant passenger to Mach 2,01 in both cockpits of the Vigilante at the same time.’

North American Aviation Jet Age The Columbus Years 1941-1988 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Jackie Cochran

Photo by U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force

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