Fact Check

A New Breed of Gunner

Fauxtography: Photograph purportedly shows the first female Air Force aerial gunner.

Published Nov 1, 2012

Claim:   Photograph shows the first female Air Force aerial gunner.


Example:   [Collected on the Internet, November 2012]

Click photo to enlarge

Vanessa Dobos is a gunner on a USAF AC-130 gunship. She has seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. She likes long walks on the beach, men who aren't afraid to cry and puppies.

Her dislikes include feed tray stoppages, tracer flareout of her NVGs and premature fixed-wing strikes scattering her high-value targets.


Origins:   The captioning on this photograph may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the person pictured is indeed real: This picture was used to accompany a November 2003 profile published in the Air Force magazine Airman about Airman 1st Class Vanessa Dobos, the Air Force's first female aerial gunner:

As a present day modern aerial gunner, Airman 1st Class Vanessa Dobos has little in common with gunners from World War I. Though Dobos does fire a massive machine gun from the deck of ... well ... helicopter, perhaps her greatest distinction is the fact she's a woman — the Air Force's first female aerial gunner.

While her job as an enlisted aircrew member on the HH-60 helicopter may be different, Dobos is remarkably similar to her predecessors. She wants to fly.

Raised in the small town of Valley View, Ohio, her interest in the military was sparked by her father. Described by Dobos as a "history buff," her dad talked a lot about America’s past heroes while they often watched classic war movies.

"He instilled in me so much respect for our country’s past heroes," she said.

Near the end of her senior year in high school, she found herself talking to a recruiter. She told him she wouldn’t consider a job if it wasn't flying-related.

"I had no intention of joining," she said. "I didn’t realize how few enlisted aircrew jobs there were."

Nothing appealed to Dobos until another recruiter mentioned a career field that had just opened to new recruits — 1A7X1, or aerial gunner.

“Just the title caught my eye,” she said, and to her parents’ surprise, as well as her own, she signed up that day.

A few months later, Dobos found herself in basic military training and later at the basic aerial gunner course at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. She was not aware she was on her way to becoming the Air Force’s first female gunner until midway through training.

"I went from being another airman in the crowd to someone who people would always be watching and analyzing," she said. "In some ways, I was afraid that people in the helicopter world were already prepared to be disappointed in me. I figured there were some people with hard feelings about a girl in the job. I was determined not to let them down."

And she didn’t.

As a member of the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Dobos "mans" a .50-caliber machine gun aboard an HH-60 Pave Hawk. Her main role is caring for the guns and other defensive systems. However, she’s also responsible for briefing passengers and helping other crewmembers with the weapons, defensive systems, hoist and other equipment.

It’s the job her predecessors from World Wars I and II performed as they flew in their bombers through the flak-filled skies swarming with enemy fighters. It’s the job she’s prepared to perform in her helicopter during combat rescue missions while receiving enemy ground fire and dodging rocket-propelled grenades. But that’s not a reasonable comparison, according to Dobos.

"I really love my job," she said. "I enjoy learning about the history of my career field, but I don’t compare myself to gunners from [World Wars I and II]. Those men deserve a lot more credit than I do."

Airman Dobos' unit was deployed to the Persian Gulf region for possible action against Iraq in January 2003, and in October 2004 she was part of the crew of a helicopter that crashed during a mission in Afghanistan:

An investigation into the death of a helicopter flight engineer in Afghanistan shows how a mission of "moderate risk" turned fatal in a matter of seconds.

Killed in the Oct. 20 crash of an HH-60G Pave Hawk was Airman 1st Class Jesse Samek of the 66th Rescue Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

According to the accident investigation board report released Dec. 27, Samek died after he was thrown from the helicopter as the Pave Hawk tumbled downhill for 180 feet, rolling over five to seven times.

Badly injured in the crash was pararescueman Staff Sgt. Scott Bilyeu of the 48th Rescue Squadron, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Bilyeu continues to undergo outpatient treatment for a brain injury.

When the Kandahar-based rescue team accepted the nighttime mission, it was rated at "moderate risk," investigators found.

The mission was to evacuate an Afghan elections monitor who had been accidentally shot in the right arm. The rescue package of two HH-60Gs made the 2-hour flight without incident, the report said.

When they arrived over the landing zone 160 miles northwest of Kandahar, they found the area was in a narrow valley, with steep slopes on three sides.

The crews wanted the wounded civilian and Afghan police escorts to move to an open landing spot. But because of poor communication, the Afghans didn't move.

The aircrews then decided to airlift the wounded man out by hoisting him aboard a hovering Pave Hawk using a motorized winch and a Stokes litter.

While one Pave Hawk circled above, Samek's helicopter, piloted by Maj. Kevin R. Haff and 1st Lt. Benjamin R. Scheutzow, both of the 66th, descended to about 200 feet. The downwash from the rotor blades kicked up a cloud of sand that enveloped the Pave Hawk, creating a condition called a "brownout."

Sitting on the left side of the Pave Hawk, Senior Airman Vanessa E. Dobos saw sparks as the rotor blades struck the valley walls, the report said. At the same time, the Pave Hawk's two engines started to overheat, automatically preventing more power from coming from the engines.

No one had expected the cloud of sand to reach that high. Investigators concluded the valley walls funneled the sand upward.

After about five seconds in the brownout, Haff decided to fly out of the swirling sand. Within two seconds of leaving the hover, the helicopter flew into a hillside at a speed of 20 to 40 knots, the report said.

The aircraft blades were the first to hit the ground, followed by a belly of the fuselage. The aircraft 'skipped up' the side of the hill before losing forward momentum, the report said. The Pave Hawk then rolled downhill.

Samek was ejected from the helicopter, coming to rest about 7 feet downhill of the helicopter.

When Samek's body was found, he wasn't wearing his helmet, body armor or survival vest.

Investigators concluded Samek had been wearing the safety gear, but hadn't connected the vest's two leg straps around his legs. During the roll, the tension on the strap connecting Samek to the helicopter was so great that it stripped the safety gear off Samek and he was flung out of the Pave Hawk.

Some copies of the photograph shown above have been accompanied by an erroneous text description which was originally circulated in conjunction with a picture of Senior Airman Polly-Jan Bobseine back in 2008:

This 19 year old ex-cheerleader now an Air Force Security Forces Sniper,
was watching a road in Pakistan that led to a NATO military base when she
observed a man digging by the road. She engaged the target (she shot him).
Turned out he was a bomb maker for the Taliban, and he was burying an IED
that was to be detonated when a U.S. patrol walked by 30 minutes later. It
would have certainly killed and wounded several soldiers. The interesting
fact of this story is the shot was measured at 725 yards. She shot him as
he was bent over burying the bomb. The shot went through his rectum and
into the bomb which detonated; he was blown to bits.
The Air Force made a motivational poster of her. Folks, that's a shot 25
yards longer than seven football fields. There is a proud dad out there

Last updated:   27 March 2015


    Rogers, Keith.   "Deployment Begins in Earnest."

    Las Vegas Review-Journal.   15 January 2003.

    Rolfsen, Bruce.   "Report: Brownout, Ejection Factors in Crash Death."

    Air Force Times.   10 January 2005.

    Widener, Chuck.   "A New Breed of Gunner."

    Airman.   November 2003.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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