Development of Turkish Aviation

The first Ottoman plane, April 21, 1912
| İsa Akbaş collection

The history of Turkish military aviation dates back to 1909 when French aviators were invited to Istanbul to perform demonstrations and the Ottoman High Command began with studies in this field. On December 2 the same year, Turkish skies welcomed the first ever aircraft, when, upon the invitation of the Minister of War, Mahmut Şevket Pasha, a Belgian pilot named 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. (quoted by Stuart Kline)

Results of the early studies started to bear fruits soon, and an important step was 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 Ottoman High Command to send officers to Europe to be trained as pilots; however due to the financial difficulties faced the Empire at that time, this plan had to be postponed. Only a handful of Turkish students residing in Paris attended flight schools and obtained their certificates there.

Mahmut Şevket Pasha in front of Fesa Bey's REP and a Deperdussin | Yeşilköy Air Museum

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

The Aviation Commission collected information on European aviation through the Ottoman military attachés in European capitals. One of the attachés reporting to the commission was the one in Berlin, Maj. Enver Bey, who wrote on balloons and anti-balloon artillery. In July 1911, two elite officers, Cavalry Cpt. Fesa Bey and Engineer Lt. Yusuf Kenan Bey, were sent to Bleriot Flight School in France to be trained as pilots.

Turkish aviators

When Italy invaded Tripolitania, Turkey was far from being ready to use its aircraft in battle. There have been attempts to purchase aircraft from France and to send them to the battlefield via Algeria, but these plans failed to materialize. Meanwhile, the Italian army employed an air force of 28 aircraft 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 December 15, 1911, which became the first anti-aircraft artillery operation in military history. The first aircraft to crash in a war was the one of Lt. Manzini, shot down on August 25, 1912 and the first aircraft to be captured was that of Cpt. Moizo, on September 10, 1912.

Pioneers of Turkish aviation

Cpt. Fesa Bey and Lt. Yusuf Kenan Bey have successfull completed their training in France in March 1912 and returned home. They became the first military pilots of Turkey, and they were given two Deperdussin REP planes, which were among the 15 planes bought through the donations collected from among the people. With these aircraft, Fesa Bey and Yusuf Kenan Bey flew over Istanbul on April 27, 1912, becoming the first Turkish aviators to fly over their home soil.

Flight trainees at the school in Yeşilköy | Yeşilköy Air Museum

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

In time, there has been significant progress in Turkey's aviation studies, 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 Ottoman Army had 17 aircraft 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. Nine Turkish fighter planes and four training planes took part in the Balkan War. During the first phase of the war there has been no significant success for the Turkish pilots and four planes 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, who have substantially contributed to the outcome of the Turkish counter-offensive against the Balkan nations.

Inaugural flight of the Parseval balloon | Dilara General Fevzioğlu collection

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

Long distance flights

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

Belkıs Hanım mounting on her Deperdussin | Yeşilköy Air Museum

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

It was the era of aviation pioneers and courageous pilots, who were pushing themselves and their aircraft 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 in Egypt. The following route was approved by the authorities: Istanbul-Eskişehir-Afyon-Ulukışla-Adana-Aleppo-Homs-Beirut-Damascus-Jerusalem-El Arish-Port Said-Cairo -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. Cpt. Fethi Bey and Cpt. Sadık Bey were to fly a Bleriot XI monoplane named Muavenet-i Milliye, while Lt. Nuri Bey and Lt. İsmail Hakkı Bey were to fly a Deperdussin B monoplane named Prens Celaleddin.

Nuri Bey and İsmail Hakkı Bey arriving in Beirut | Turkish Radio Television

Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey departed from Istanbul on February 8, 1914, and reached Beirut in seven days. 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 March 3, amidst difficult flying conditions on the Golan Heights, the aircraft crashed near Samakh, east of the Sea of Galilee. 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 February 27 and Jaffa on March 10. As they left Jaffa for Jerusalem the next day, their plane did not gain enough altitude and crashed on 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 May 15, 1914.

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. (Salim Bey)

The World War

Captain Erich Serno with Ali Rıza Bey | Dilara General Fevzioğlu collection

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

Responding to a request from the Ottoman High Command, a number of German pilots visited the Ottoman Air Force in 1915 and Turkish officers began to be sent to Germany for flight training. At the same time, Cpt. Erich Serno from the German Air Force was given the task of reforming the Turkish military aviation. He came with 12 planes, 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 was in war with Serbia, whereas Bulgaria and Romania remained neutral, which meant that the land routes were blocked. For this reason, aircraft 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 that these logistics problems were solved. German contribution in terms of both aircraft 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 aircraft during the course of the war, flown by 100 Turkish and 150 German pilots.

Turkish pilots training in Germany in front of an Albatros | Dilara General Fevzioğlu collection

In 1915, as new aircraft were being purchased and pilots were being trained at the Flight School, the Ottoman 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 others. Meanwhile, a small number of independent German air units, known as the Pascha units (Filegerabteilungen 300-305) operated parallel to the Turkish units in Syria and Palestine.

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. (Captain Serno in his memoirs)

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.

War time aerial photographs of Çanakkale | Harp Mecmuası

When Allied landings began in Gallipoli, the command of Çanakkale Fortified Zone had an air squadron of four planes (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 March 18, 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 aircraft, 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.

A group of Turkish aviators | "I. Dünya Savaşı'nda Osmanlı Cepheleri" (Istanbul Military Museum)

On July 5, 1915, a small naval aviation unit consisting of Gothaseaplanes arrived from Germany. A week later, four new aircraft reinforced the first squadron, commanded by German Lt. Ludwig Preussner, later followed by Cpt. 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 planes arrived in Gallipoli. They were all flown by German pilots, and although they took part in the action for a short time, they have been extremely successful. Commander of this group, Lt. Hans Joachim Buddecke took down four enemy planes, in addition to the five enemy planes shot by other pilots, Schulz, Meinecke and Muhra. As the Allied troops were evacuating the peninsula, Fokkers were still hunting British seaplanes.

In Palestine, an air squadron of four planes was initially supporting the Fourth Army. 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 aircraft. Lt. Fazıl Bey was sent from Palestine to Iraq to organize these operations, however most British aircraft were useless, because many parts were missing as they were captured. Later, in December 1915, the Ottoman High Command sent an air squadron to the Mesopotamian front.

Enver Pasha in front of the wreckage of a British plane | Harp Mecmuası

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 Ottoman High Command. In December 1916, the air force consisted of 90 aircrafts, 81 pilots and 57 observers.

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 aircraft, 14 of which were seaplanes. There were also 13 pilot and 22 observer trainees and 21 training aircraft at Yeşilköy.

On October 30, 1918, armistice was signed and Allied forces began to occupy the regions of Turkey. With the entry into effect of the decrees of the armistice, discharging activities began in the 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 June 25, 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.