History of the Turkish Air Force

  • Published
  • By Mehmet Birbiri
  • 39th Air Base Wing Host Nation Adviser
(Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series.)

The first Turkish encounter with hostile military aircraft took place in 1911 when Italy invaded Libya, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. During the war with Libya,
the Italians used aircraft for reconnaissance and dropping bombs on Turkish military
units. The Turkish Army, therefore, had the distinction of being the first ever to be bombed. On the other hand, the same Turkish forces had the honor of being the first to force down a war plane and capture the pilot.

Shortly before the war with Libya, the Turkish Minister of War, Mahmut Sevket Pasa, instructed Lt. Col. Sureyya Bey to establish an aircraft station and aircraft commission in Istanbul. Thus began in 1911, the history of the Turkish Air Force. This was the same ear in which England established an Air Force and two years after Germany, France and Italy had done so. Volunteer Army officers were sought for pilot training and the first two were sent to France. One result of this was that many aviation terms in Turkish derived from French.

The first airfield was set up at the village of Yesilkoy in Istanbul. Today it is Ataturk International Airport. Two hangars were built and the two officers who had gone to France returned with two Deperdussin aircraft, one military and the other a trainer. There was close cooperation with France. The French aircraft company REP sold and gave additional planes to the Turks, who in turn, sent more officers to that company for training.

Officers were also sent to the Bristol Aircraft School in England. British and German aircraft were purchased as well as French. On April 28, 1912, the two Deperdussin aircraft made a fly-by in Istanbul as part of the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of Sultan Resat's accession to the throne.

The young Turkish Air Force almost immediately saw action in the Balkan War from September 1912 to October 1913. Although too small to be very effective, the Air Force,
with some 17 planes, provided valuable reconnaissance services. One Turkish pilot, Fethi Bey, became legendary for his many exploits. It was during this war that the first balloon company was established at Yesilkoy. Additional aircraft were bought from France. These included seaplanes for which a school was opened at Yesilkoy.

Indeed, the first U.S. aircraft sold to Turkey was a Curtiss seaplane which was brought to Istanbul by an American pilot in 1914. After the war, as a demonstration of Ottoman power and prestige, Fethi Bey and another Turkish pilot, Nuri Bey, set out on Feb. 8, 1914, in two French planes, on a flight from Istanbul to Cairo.

The flight consisted of a number of hops around the Mediterranean. In addition, these planes carried Turkey's first air mail. Unfortunately, Fethi Bey crashed near the Sea of Galilee and was killed. Nuri Bey was later killed when he crashed into the sea near Jaffa. Afterwards, a third plane piloted by Kemal Bey and Salim Bey was sent to finish the trip. It reached Cairo on May 9, 1914. It should also be mentioned that on Oct. 30, 1913, Belkis Sevket Hanim, a feminist leader, was taken on a flight by Fethi Bey, thus becoming the first Turkish and Moslem woman to fly.

A few months later, World War I began. At that time Turkey only had four or five operational aircraft and six pilots. But with the help of her German and Austrian allies, Turkey's Air Force rapidly expanded. Some 450 aircraft served with the Turkish Army during the war, many piloted by Germans. By the end of the war, the Turkish Air force had approximately 100 pilots and 17 land-based and three seaplane companies of four planes each. Turkish air operations consisted primarily of reconnaissance, bombing, interception, air defense and ground support missions. Turkish aircraft were active along the Straits, above all during the Gallipoli campaign, the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, and on the Caucasian, Palestinian and Iraqi fronts. They
even served in Arabia against Lawrence and others. Virtually all planes were German, including Albatros, Fokker and Gotha models.

Among the notable actions by Turkish and German pilots in the Turkish Air Force was the sinking of several British ships, perhaps even a submarine, in the Aegean and the
shoot-down of numerous British, French and Russian aircraft.

Following Turkey's defeat in the war, most of her Army, including her Air Force, was disarmed.

Various parts of the Ottoman Empire became independent or were occupied by the Western Powers. When an attempt was made to occupy different regions of Anatolia, especially by an invading Greek army, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, rallied his countrymen, drove out the invaders and founded the modern republic of Turkey. In 1919, at the beginning of this national struggle, the Turks had no aircraft. In March 1920, the Turkish Air Force was reestablished when pilots and other personnel met in Konya and Eskisehir and began to assemble their own planes from smuggled parts.

The first national air force was founded with two planes in Adana and the first national aircraft maintenance facility was established in the Eskisehir railroad maintenance shop. The number of aircraft soon rose to 16. They conducted reconnaissance missions and limited strikes on enemy targets and air units in support of the army. The aircraft used were Albatros, Breguet, Fiat, De Havilland and Spad models.