Story of Turkish Aviation


The history of Turkish military aviation dates back to 1909, when French aviators were invited to Istanbul to perform demonstrations and the Turkish High Command began with studies in this field. On 2 December the same year, the Turkish skies welcomed the first ever aircraft, when, upon the invitation of the Minister of War Mahmut Şevket Paşa, the Belgian pilot Baron de Catters came to Istanbul and performed an exhibition flight with his Voisin biplane.

As Baron de Catters was flying above Istanbul, there was a great enthusiasm among Turkish officers: “The flying machines that we observed are still rather simple. Though it is not possible to predict right now to what extent these flying machines will develop in the future, we are of the solid opinion that people will be able to safely wander through the air in the near future. Though it might not be appropriate to procure various types of these vehicles in the immediate future, it shall not be long before they play an active role on the war front."1

Results of the early studies started to bear fruits soon, with an important step taken with the sending of a delegation to the International Aviation Conference in Paris. At the end of 1910, a decision was made by the Turkish High Command to send officers to Europe to be trained as pilots; however due to the financial difficulties of the Empire at that time, this plan had to be postponed. However, a few Turkish students in Paris still attended flight schools and obtained their certificates there.

The first Ottoman plane, 21 April 1912

Source: İsa Akbaş collection


The Minister of War Mahmut Şevket Paşa could anticipate the importance of military aviation and was aware of the fact that European nations were in a race to strengthen their air forces. In June 1911, he appointed Lieutenant Colonel Süreyya Bey to procure balloons and aircraft and to organize the training of pilots and the construction of aviation facilities. Eventually the Aviation Commission was established under the umbrella of the Scientific Research Unit of the Turkish Ministry of War. Eight years after the successful flight of Wright Brothers, Turkey took its place among its peers, USA, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Russia in the field of aviation.

Mahmut Şevket Paşa in front of
Fesa Bey's REP and a Deperdussin

Source: Yeşilköy Air Museum


The first thing the Aviation Commission has done was to collect information on European aviation from the Ottoman military attaches in European capitals. One of the attaches reporting to the commission was the one in Berlin, Major  Enver Bey, who wrote on balloons and anti-balloon artillery. In July 1911, two elite officers, Cavalry Captain Fesa Bey and Engineer Lieutenant Yusuf Kenan Bey, were sent to Bleriot Flight School in France to be trained as pilots.

When Italy invaded Trablusgarp (modern day Libya), Turkey was not ready to use its aircrafts in battle. There have been attempts to purchase aircrafts from France and to send them to the battlefield via Algeria, but they did not materialize. Meanwhile, the Italian army used an air force of 28 aircrafts and 4 balloons, becoming the first nation ever to use military aviation in a war.

The Turco-Italian War was indeed a war of “firsts” in terms of military aviation. Turkish troops opened fire on an Italian aircraft on 15 December 1911, which became the first anti-aircraft artillery effort in military history. The first aircraft to crash in a war was the one of Lieutenant Manzini, shot down on 25 August 1912 and the first aircraft to be captured was that of Captain Moizo, on 10 September 1912.

The First Turkish Pilots

Captain Fesa Bey and Lieutenant Yusuf Kenan Bey completed their training in France successfully in March 1912 and returned home. They became the first military pilots of Turkey and they were given two Deperdussin REP aircrafts, which were among the 15 aircrafts bought through the donations collected with a campaign among people.  With these aircrafts Fesa Bey and Yusuf Kenan Bey flew over Istanbul on 27 April 1912. This was the first time that Turkish aircrafts were flying through the Turkish skies.


The Turkish High Command began to train its own pilots with the opening of a Flight Training School in Yeşilköy, a suburb of Istanbul, on 3 July 1912. The first director of the school laws Major Mehmet Cemal Bey. It was a significant step towards the development and strengthening of Turkish military aviation.

Aviation studies gained momentum, the number of trained personnel increased, air squadrons were formed in military units and pilots were given active duties at the bases. At that time, the Turkish Army had 17 aircrafts and 18 pilots (Fesa and Yusuf Kenan trained at Bleriot Flight School; Salim, Fevzi, Nuri, Refik, Mithat, Şükrü, Salim and Cemal trained at Rep Flight School; Fethi, Aziz, Saffet, Fazıl, Abdullah, Sabri and Mehmet Ali trained at Bristol Flight School).

In October 1912, Balkan states declared war on the Ottoman Empire. 9 Turkish fighter aircrafts and 4 training aircrafts took part in the Balkan War. The first phase of the war has been without a significant success for the Turkish pilots and 4 aircrafts were lost. However, the second phase was marked with successful patrol flights executed by pilots such as Fesa Bey, Salim Bey, Fethi Bey, Fazıl Bey and Kemal Bey, which contributed to the outcome of Turkish counter-offensive against the Balkan nations.

The first balloon acquired by the Turkish Army, the Parseval PL-9 was sent aloft in Yeşilköy on 23 July 1913. A crew of German and Turkish officers and engineers manned the balloon, which managed to reach an altitude of 300 meters.


Flight trainees at the school in Yeşilköy

Source: Yeşilköy Air Museum

 


Inaugural flight of Parseval balloon
5 August 1913

Source: Dilara General Fevzioğlu collection

 


Long Distance Flights

With the conclusion of the Balkan War, which left the Turkish Army with no functioning aircraft, studies began for reforming and developing the Turkish military aviation. A French air force captain, Marquis de Gois de Mazeyrac was appointed as an instructor, new aircrafts were bought and the Naval Aviation School opened in Yeşilköy. Meanwhile Lieutenant Nuri Bey and Lieutenant Hami Bey flew on a Deperdussin aircraft between Edirne and Istanbul. This first long distance flight of Turkish military aviators took 3 hours and 5 minutes.

Five days after this successful flight, on 29 October 1913, Captain Salim Bey and Captain Kemal Bey flew over the Sea of Marmara and on 30 November 1913, Belkıs Şevket Hanım, the chairwoman of the Association of Women’s Rights became the first Turkish woman to fly a military aircraft.


Belkıs Hanım mounting on her Deperdussin

Source: Yeşilköy Air Museum

 


It was a time of aviation pioneers and courageous pilots who were pushing themselves and their aircrafts to the limits. In the early days of 1914, when the world was applauding the French pilots who managed to fly from Paris to Cairo, Turkish authorities decided to undertake similar flights across the Empire. In February 1914, an expedition was launched with the objective of covering in flight the 2,370 km distance from Istanbul to Alexandria (TR: İskenderiye) in Egypt. The following route was approved by the authorities: Istanbul-Eskişehir-Afyon-Ulukışla-Adana-Aleppo (TR: Halep)-Homs-Beirut (TR: Beyrut)-Damascus (TR: Şam)-Jerusalem (TR: Kudüs)-El Arish-Port Said-Cairo (TR: Kahire)-Alexandria.

The expedition was of particular importance since it would allow the Turkish pilots to prove their ability in flying long distance routes, bringing closer the provinces within the empire. It was also seen as an opportunity to gain prestige. The ambitious mission was trusted to two teams of Turkish army officers. Captain Fethi Bey and Captain Sadık Bey were to fly a Bleriot XI monoplane named “Muavenet-i Milliye”, while Lieutenant Nuri Bey and Lieutenant İsmail Hakkı Bey were to fly a Deperdussin B monoplane named “Prens Celaleddin”.


Nuri Bey and İsmail Hakkı Bey arriving in Beirut

Source: Turkish Radio Television

 


Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey took off from Istanbul on 8 February 1914. They reached Beirut on 15 February. After they took off from Beirut, they had to make a forced landing due to engine damage. The Bleriot underwent repairs and the pilots continued their journey to Damascus. On 3 March, amidst difficult flying conditions on the Golan Heights, the aircraft crashed near Samakh, east of the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey did not survive the crash. They lost their lives there and later they were buried in Damascus, next to the mausoleum of Salahaddin Ayyubi near the Umayyad Mosque, which is still their final resting place.

Nuri Bey and İsmail Hakkı Bey had taken off from Istanbul on the same day with their colleagues Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey. Their Deperdussin B experienced some technical difficulties, but they managed to reach Damascus on 27 February and Jaffa on 10 March. As they took-off from Jaffa to Jerusalem the next day, their Deperdussin B did not gain enough altitude and crashed to the rocks as it headed towards the sea. Nuri Bey drowned, weighed down by his clothes as he tried to swim back to the shore. He was buried in Damascus next to Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey. İsmail Hakkı Bey was rescued but suffered from severe trauma.


The task was then given to Salim Bey and Kemal Bey who took off from Istanbul, flying a Bleriot XI. They crashed once, survived the crash, continued with a new aircraft and completed the expedition in Alexandria on 15 May 1914. Years later, Salim Bey would write: “The trip could not be abandoned halfway after the death of my colleagues. The Cairo voyage, which was a national and public desire, also became an honorable duty for us aviators."2


The World War and the German Support

When the Ottoman Empire entered the World War, it had only 7 aircrafts and 10 pilots available. As soon as the Empire found itself in the war, the Russians launched an offensive in the Caucasus front and the Third Army stationed there asked for aircrafts that would fly reconnaissance flights. Two Bleriot aircrafts named “Edremit” and “Tarık bin Ziyad”, to be flown by Fesa Bey and Salim Bey were loaded on a transport ship, which was then sunk by Russians. The aircrafts were lost and the pilots were taken prisoner, ending up in Siberia.

Responding to a request from the Turkish High Command, a number of German pilots visited the Turkish Air Force in 1915 and Turkish officers began to be sent to Germany for flight training. At the same time, Captain Erich Serno from the German Air Force was given the task of reforming the Turkish military aviation. He came with 12 aircrafts, pilots, technicians and he was appointed as the director of the Flight School.

In those early years of the war there were serious problems with regard to the transportation of the planes from Germany to Turkey. Germany as in war with Serbia, whereas Bulgaria and Romania had remained neutral, which meant that the land routes were blocked. For this reason, aircrafts were taken to Southern Hungary by train and then flown to Turkey. It was only after Serbia was defeated and Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers when these logistics problems were solved. German contributions in terms of both aircrafts and pilots played a crucial role in strengthening Turkish aviation efforts in the war. The number of aircrafts eventually rose to 40 in 1915, and 90 in 1916. The army used a total of 450 aircrafts during the course of the war, flown by 100 Turkish and 150 German pilots.3



Captain Erich Serno with Ali Rıza Bey

Source: Dilara General Fevzioğlu collection


In 1915, as new aircrafts were being purchased and pilots were being trained at the Flight School, the Turkish High Command also re-organized the structure of the air force. Air squadrons were established in Çanakkale, Uzunköprü, Keşan, Adana, Damascus, Iraq and the Caucasus. Only Turkish pilots served in some of the squadrons, whereas Turkish and German pilots served together in the others. Meanwhile, a small number of independent German air units, known as the “Pascha” units (Filegerabteilungen 300-305) operated parallel to the Turkish in Syria and Palestine. Captain Serno wrote in his memoirs: “The collaboration of Germans and Turks has been one to be admired. It went on without facing any obstacles. There were true bonds of comradeship between them. Turkish aviators sacrificed their own comfort just to relieve the burden on their German comrades and help them overcome their inexperience and the feeling of being a stranger. They appreciated German technical knowledge and superior equipment. Several Turkish aviators worked hard with determination and love in order to fully absorb the knowledge. Some of them became brilliant fighter pilots, others undertook excellent reconnaissance operations.”

During this period, the Turkish Air Force was made up of units such as the Flight School, Air Stations, Air Squadrons, Stable Balloon Squadrons, Anti-Aircraft Artillery and Meteorology Stations. The Naval Air Squadrons and the Naval Aviation School served under the Ministry of Navy.


Turkish pilots training in Germany in front of an Albatros

Source: Dilara General Fevzioğlu collection


When Allied landings began in Gallipoli, the command of Çanakkale Fortified Zone had an air squadron of four aircrafts (three Albatros B1 and one Rumpler B1). This squadron proved to be very useful in reconnaissance, patrol and support duties. Aerial reconnaissance had played an important role on 18 March 1915 when the Allied fleet attempted to break through the Dardanelles, without success. Later the first aircraft squadron, reinforced with Turkish and German observers and a few aircrafts, continued reconnaissance and bombarding duties over British and French forces on the offshore islands. Bombs were dropped by hand and aircraft armament was ineffective. The first aircraft to be equipped with machine guns, at the rear cockpit entered the service in August 1915.

On 5 July 1915, a small naval aviation unit consisting of Gotha seaplanes arrived from Germany. A week later, four new aircrafts reinforced the first squadron, commanded by German Lieutenant Ludwig Preussner, later followed by Captain Tahsin Bey. This unit continued to provide air support to the Fifth Army for the remainder of the Gallipoli campaign. The quality of information provided by written reconnaissance reports was improved by excellent photography after cameras designed for this purpose were received in autumn.


Between September-December 1915, German Fokker aircrafts arrived in Gallipoli. They were all piloted by German pilots and although they took part in the action for a short time, they have been extremely successful. Commander of this group, Lieutenant Hans Joachim Buddecke took down 4 enemy aircrafts, in addition to the 5 enemy aircrafts shot by other pilots, Schulz, Meinecke and Muhra. As the Allied troops were evacuating the peninsula, Fokkers were still hunting British seaplanes.

An air squadron of four aircrafts was initially supporting the Fourth Army in the Palestine campaign. However, they were far from being of any use. One of them crashed down during training, the others were desolate. No air units were originally provided for the Mesopotamia campaign, however soon it was realized that it was possible to use the captured British aircrafts. Lieutenant Fazıl Bey was sent from Palestine to Iraq to organize these operations, however most British aircrafts were useless, because many parts were missing as they were captured. Later, in December 1915, the Turkish High Command sent an air squadron to the Mesopotamian front.


The Turkish Air Force gained full power only in 1916. In May 1916, all the aviation units were combined under the Air Affairs Bureau of Inspections of the Turkish High Command. In December 1916, the air force consisted of 90 aircrafts, 81 pilots and 57 observers:5


Enver Paşa in front of the wreckage of a British plane

Source: Harp Mecmuası

 

A major restructuring of Turkish military aviation took place in July 1918. At that time the Turkish Air Force had 46 pilots, 59 observers, three observation balloon units and 92 aircrafts, 14 of which were seaplanes. There were also 13 pilot and 22 observer trainees and 21 training aircrafts at Yeşilköy.4


On 30 October 1918, armistice was signed and Allied forces began to occupy regions of Turkey. With the application of the decrees of the armistice, discharging activities began in Turkish military and the German pilots left the country. Allied forces took over the Safraköy Air Station just north to Yeşilköy and positioned their own air units there. The Air Force General Bureau of Inspections was discharged and remained as a name plate. Later on, there have been attempts to establish three air stations (in Istanbul, Izmir and Konya) and two air squadrons (in Elazığ and Diyarbakır) through the efforts of Turkish pilots and with equipment left over from the war. However, on 25 June 1920, the Ministry of War closed down the Air Force General Bureau of Inspections entirely and disbanded the personnel. This brought an end to the Ottoman period of Turkish military aviation.


Notes:
1. Kline, S., 2002. A Chronicle of Turkish Aviation. Istanbul: Havaş.
2. Kline.
3. Kline.
4. Kline.

5. Turkish Chief of Staff, 1969. Birinci Dünya Harbinde Türk Hava Harekatı (Official History).


Turkeyswar.com / © Altay Atlı, 2004-2008 / This page is last updated on: 01.08.2008.