US Navy and Marine Corps Fast-Jet Reconnaissance (Jun 1964)
The US Navy’s fast-jet photographic reconnaissance assets in Vietnam consisted of RF-8 Crusaders and RA-5C Vigilantes. Most of the RF-8s that flew reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam were flown from aircraft carriers by detachments from the Navy’s Pacific Fleet light photographic squadron, VFP-63. This squadron was the only US Navy unit to serve in Southeast Asia continuously throughout the war. The RF-8s were usually escorted on their missions by fighters, either F-4s or F-8s. The original version of the reconnaissance Crusader was the RF-8A but this was largely replaced in 1966 by the improved RF-8G version which had a more powerful engine, ventral strakes, a new navigation system and wing hardpoints for drop tanks. An RF-8A flown by Lt C F Klusmann was the first American jet aircraft to be lost during the war when his aircraft was shot down over Laos during a Yankee Team mission on 6 June 1964. A total of 31 Navy RF-8s were lost during the war, all but one were from VFP-63. The exception was a VFP-62 aircraft which crashed on 6 September 1966 during the Atlantic Fleet carrier USS Franklin D Roosevelt’s only tour off Vietnam.
The North American Vigilante was originally designed as a nuclear strike aircraft and was one of the largest and fastest aircraft operated from carriers during the 1960s and 1970s. Originally designated the A3J (changed to A-5 in 1962), the Vigilante first entered service in June 1961. Only 63 of the A-5A and A-5B strike aircraft were built as technical problems and a change of Navy policy which saw the nuclear mission change to the missile-equipped submarines meant that the Vigilante strike aircraft was withdrawn from service. Sixty one of the photographic reconnaissance version, the RA-5C, were built as new and 43 A-5As were also converted to this configuration. It has been stated in some sources that the RA-5C had the highest loss rate of any Navy aircraft during the war. Despite its impressive speed, the RA-5C proved just as vulnerable to AAA and SAMs as most other aircraft. A total of 18 aircraft were lost on missions to North Vietnam with eight more destroyed in accidents (three of them during the Forrestal fire).
While the Navy used its fast jet reconnaissance aircraft primarily for pre and post-strike reconnaissance of targets in North Vietnam and Laos, the Marine Corps used its aircraft mainly in support of ground troops in South Vietnam although it sometimes flew over Laos and across the DMZ into North Vietnam as well. The only Marine Corps reconnaissance squadron deployed to Southeast Asia during the war was VMCJ-1 which arrived at Da Nang in April 1965. The squadron was equipped with the EF-10B Skyknight electronic warfare aircraft and the RF-8A Crusader for the photographic reconnaissance role. The only Marine Corps RF-8 lost during the war on was abandoned on 22 August 1965 due to an undercarriage problem. In September 1966 the Marines replaced their RF-8s at Da Nang with the RF-4B Phantom, similar in most respects to the USAF’s RF-4C. Only four RF-4Bs were lost, the last one on 18 October 1968 when flying a mission just north of the DMZ.