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What Does a Tail Gunner Do?

A tail gunner operates the defensive gunnery equipment located at the rear of military aircraft, providing critical protection against enemy attacks. Their role requires precision, courage, and quick decision-making. But how did tail gunners contribute to historical military operations? Let's delve deeper.
Lori Kilchermann
Lori Kilchermann

A tail gunner operates the rearward-most gun on a military aircraft. Protecting the aircraft against attack from the rear, the tail gunner fires at approaching enemy aircraft and alerts the other gunners of any impending threats approaching from the rear. Commonly equipped with two, .50-caliber machine guns or an electric Gatling® gun, the tail gunner possesses enough firepower to thwart off most threats. The accuracy of the tail-mounted gun is so great that many pilots do not wish to engage any aircraft equipped with such a gun. On bombing missions, the tail gun position also records the success and accuracy of the bombing run as the airplane speeds away from the target.

An airplane is typically most vulnerable from the rear since the pilot commonly has little or no view of approaching aircraft from the rear. By placing a tail gunner at the rear of the plane, attacking aircraft must contend with a barrage of bullets if they attempt to bring the plane down with a rear assault. Unlike a waist gunner that must factor lead into his aiming at a fast-moving plane, the tail gunner is able to fire directly at an approaching aircraft, resulting in a much better hit and kill ratio.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The tail gunner position is also responsible for warning the other members of the crew of any aircraft or formation of planes that are approaching the plane from the rear. This advanced warning from the rear-facing gunner allows the crew to ready their guns and be alerted to the forthcoming assault. By virtue of having the best view of a target as the plane exits the target area, the tail gunner records the bomb strikes, estimates damage to the target and often takes photographs of the target area. These photos and reports are commonly used to determine the requirements for return strikes on a target.

Unfortunately, the tail gunner position is also a very vulnerable position as approaching aircraft are able to fire directly into the rear of the plane. Lacking heavy armor plating, the tail gunner is often one of the first casualties in the aircraft's crew. This is also true when an airplane is struck by ground fire or the crew is forced to bail out for any reason. The cramped position in the tail of the plane often makes it difficult or impossible for the rear gunner to escape through the rear hatch. Especially difficult is an escape from a flat-spinning plane as the inertia makes it nearly impossible for the gunner to exit the plane.

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