The inception of Turkish military aviation traces its origins to the year 1909 when French aviators were summoned to Istanbul to conduct aerial demonstrations, marking the commencement of dedicated studies in this burgeoning field by the Ottoman High Command. On the 2nd of December in that pivotal year, the Turkish skies witnessed the inaugural presence of an aircraft. In response to an invitation extended by the Minister of War, Mahmut Şevket Pasha, a Belgian pilot named Baron de Catters arrived in Istanbul, orchestrating an exhibition flight with his Voisin biplane.
Baron de Catters, navigating the skies above Istanbul, elicited profound 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)
The early studies yielded prompt results, culminating in a significant development marked by the dispatch of a delegation to the International Aviation Conference in Paris. By the conclusion of 1910, the Ottoman High Command made the decision to dispatch officers to Europe for pilot training. However, owing to prevailing financial constraints faced by the Empire during that period, the execution of this plan had to be postponed. Consequently, only a limited number of Turkish students residing in Paris pursued aviation studies and successfully obtained their certificates.
Mahmut Şevket Pasha displayed foresight in recognising the strategic significance of military aviation. Acutely aware of the ongoing race among European nations to fortify their air forces, he appointed Lieutenant Colonel Süreyya Bey in June 1911. Süreyya Bey's mandate encompassed the procurement of balloons and aircraft, the organisation of pilot training, and the coordination of aviation facility construction. Subsequently, the Aviation Commission was established under the auspices of the Scientific Research Unit within the Ottoman Ministry of War.
Eight years following the pioneering flight by the Wright Brothers, Turkey officially assumed its position alongside counterparts such as the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Russia within the realm of aviation.
The Aviation Commission acquired European aviation intelligence through Ottoman military attachés stationed in European capitals. Among the attachés contributing to the commission's efforts was Major Enver Bey, assigned in Berlin, who authored reports on balloons and anti-balloon artillery. In July 1911, the commission dispatched two distinguished officers, Cavalry Captain Fesa Bey and Engineer Lieutenant Yusuf Kenan Bey, to undergo pilot training at the Bleriot Flight School in France.
During the Italian invasion of Tripolitania, Turkey found itself inadequately prepared to deploy its aircraft for combat. Although initiatives were made to procure aircraft from France and transport them to the battlefield via Algeria, these plans failed to materialize. In contrast, the Italian army established an air force comprising 28 aircraft and 4 balloons, marking the pioneering utilization of military aviation in warfare.
The Turco-Italian War marked several milestones in the realm of military aviation. Notably, Turkish forces engaged an Italian aircraft on 15 December 1911, marking the inaugural anti-aircraft artillery operation in military history. Furthermore, Lieutenant Manzini's aircraft became the first to crash in a war on 25 August 1912, while Captain Moizo's aircraft achieved the distinction of being the first captured in warfare on 10 September 1912.
Pioneers of Turkish aviation
Captain Fesa Bey and Lieutenant Yusuf Kenan Bey completed their training in France in March 1912 and subsequently returned home. Upon their return, they assumed the esteemed position of Turkey's first military pilots. The acquisition of two Deperdussin planes marked a historic moment, as these aircraft were procured through donations collected from the public. On 27 April 1912, Fesa Bey and Yusuf Kenan Bey undertook a pioneering flight over Istanbul, thereby becoming the first Turkish aviators to soar over their native land.
The Ottoman High Command, recognizing the strategic importance of aviation, established the Flight Training School in Yeşilköy, a suburb of Istanbul, on 3 July 1912. Major Mehmet Cemal Bey assumed the role of the school's first director. This initiative represented a crucial stride in the advancement of Turkish military aviation.
Over time, Turkey's aviation studies have witnessed considerable advancements, characterized by a notable expansion in the number of trained personnel and the establishment of air squadrons within military units. Pilots were subsequently assigned active duties at various bases. During this period, the Ottoman Army operated with a fleet comprising 17 aircraft and supported by 18 pilots. Notably, Fesa and Yusuf Kenan received training at Bleriot Flight School, while Salim, Fevzi, Nuri, Refik, Mithat, Şükrü, Salim, and Cemal underwent training at REP Flight School. Additionally, Fethi, Aziz, Saffet, Fazıl, Abdullah, Sabri, and Mehmet Ali completed their training at Bristol Flight School.
The transformative period culminated in October 1912 when the Balkan states declared war on the Ottoman Empire. In response, nine Turkish fighter planes, alongside four training planes, actively participated in the Balkan War. Regrettably, the initial phase of the conflict did not yield significant successes for Turkish pilots, resulting in the loss of four planes. However, the subsequent phase witnessed a notable shift with the execution of successful patrol flights by pilots such as Fesa Bey, Salim Bey, Fethi Bey, Fazıl Bey, and Kemal Bey. These individuals played pivotal roles in contributing substantially to the Turkish counter-offensive against the Balkan nations.
The inaugural balloon procured by the Ottoman Army, namely the Parseval PL-9, ascended from Yeşilköy on 23 July 1913. A collaborative effort involving German and Turkish officers and engineers facilitated the balloon's journey, achieving an elevation of 300 meters.
Long distance flights
Following the culmination of the Balkan War, which left the Ottoman Army devoid of any operational aircraft, initiatives were launched to revamp and enhance Turkish military aviation. The services of French Air Force Captain Marquis de Gois de Mazeyrac were enlisted as an instructor, new aircraft were procured, and the Naval Aviation School was inaugurated in Yeşilköy. Concurrently, Lieutenant Nuri Bey and Lieutenant Hami Bey undertook a momentous flight from Edirne to Istanbul aboard a Deperdussin aircraft. This pioneering long-distance journey by Turkish military aviators spanned three hours and five minutes.
Five days subsequent to the triumph of their inaugural flight, on 29 October 1913, Captain Salim Bey and Captain Kemal Bey embarked on an aviation venture over the Sea of Marmara. Following this, on 30 November 1913, Belkıs Şevket Hanım, the chairwoman of the Association of Women’s Rights, etched her name in history as the first Turkish woman to navigate a military aircraft.
This epoch marked the ascendancy of aviation pioneers and intrepid aviators, individuals who, with unwavering resolve, pushed both themselves and their aircraft to unprecedented limits. In the early days of 1914, as the world lauded the accomplishments of French aviators successfully navigating from Paris to Cairo, Turkish authorities resolved to undertake comparable expeditions across the Empire. In February 1914, an expedition was inaugurated with the ambitious objective of traversing the 2,370-kilometer expanse from Istanbul to Alexandria in Egypt. The officially sanctioned route encompassed the following waypoints: Istanbul-Eskişehir-Afyon-Ulukışla-Adana-Aleppo-Homs-Beirut-Damascus-Jerusalem-El Arish-Port Said-Cairo-Alexandria. This expedition bore significant import, providing Turkish aviators the platform to demonstrate their proficiency in executing extensive aerial routes, thereby fostering greater cohesion among the provinces within the empire. Moreover, it was viewed as an opportunity to accrue prestige. The onus of this ambitious mission rested upon two teams of Turkish army officers. Captain Fethi Bey and Captain Sadık Bey were designated to pilot a Bleriot XI monoplane named Muavenet-i Milliye, while Lieutenant Nuri Bey and Lieutenant İsmail Hakkı Bey were entrusted with the Deperdussin B monoplane named Prens Celaleddin.
On 8 February 1914, Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey commenced their journey from Istanbul, reaching Beirut within a span of seven days. Subsequent to their departure from Beirut, an enforced landing became imperative due to engine malfunctions. After undergoing requisite repairs, the aviators resumed their odyssey towards Damascus. However, on 3 March, amidst arduous flying conditions over the Golan Heights, their aircraft met an unfortunate fate, crashing near Samakh, east of the Sea of Galilee. Tragically, Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey succumbed to the crash, finding their eternal rest in Damascus, near the mausoleum of Salahaddin Ayyubi adjacent to the Umayyad Mosque.
Nuri Bey and İsmail Hakkı Bey embarked on their journey from Istanbul alongside Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey. Despite encountering technical issues with their Deperdussin B, they successfully reached Damascus on 27 February and Jaffa on 10 March. While en route to Jerusalem the following day, their aircraft failed to attain sufficient altitude, resulting in a crash against the rocky terrain near the sea. Tragically, Nuri Bey succumbed to the weight of his soaked clothing during an attempt to swim ashore. His final resting place is in Damascus, where he is interred alongside Fethi Bey and Sadık Bey. İsmail Hakkı Bey, though rescued, endured severe trauma from the incident.
In the aftermath, the responsibility of completing the mission fell upon Salim Bey and Kemal Bey. Departing from Istanbul in a Bleriot XI, they encountered a crash but resiliently persevered, securing a new aircraft and successfully concluding their expedition in Alexandria on 15 May 1914.
"The untimely demise of our colleagues did not permit an abandonment of the expedition midway. The Cairo journey, rooted in national and public aspirations, transformed into an esteemed obligation for us aviators." (Salim Bey)
The World War
When the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War, it possessed a meager fleet of merely seven aircraft and a complement of ten pilots. Promptly following the Empire's engagement in the conflict, the Russians initiated an offensive on the Caucasus front. In response, the Third Army stationed in that region urgently requisitioned aircraft suitable for reconnaissance missions. Two Bleriot planes, named Edremit and Tarık bin Ziyad, were designated for this purpose, with Fesa Bey and Salim Bey designated as the pilots. Unfortunately, these aircraft were loaded onto a transport ship that fell victim to a Russian attack, resulting in the loss of the planes and the subsequent capture of the pilots, who found themselves interned in Siberian prisoner camps.
In response to a plea from the Ottoman High Command, a cohort of German pilots arrived at the Ottoman Air Force in 1915. Concurrently, Turkish officers commenced their journey to Germany for flight training. Captain Erich Serno of the German Air Force assumed the responsibility of reorganizing Turkish military aviation. Accompanied by 12 planes, pilots, and technicians, he was appointed as the director of the Flight School.
During the initial war years, significant logistical challenges arose concerning the transportation of aircraft from Germany to Turkey. The ongoing conflict between Germany and Serbia, coupled with the neutrality of Bulgaria and Romania, obstructed land routes. Consequently, aircraft were transported by train to Southern Hungary before being flown to Turkey. Resolution of these logistical issues awaited the defeat of Serbia and the entry of Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Central Powers. The pivotal role played by Germany, contributing both aircraft and skilled pilots, significantly bolstered Turkish aviation efforts. The number of aircraft reached 40 in 1915 and increased to 90 in 1916. Throughout the war, a total of 450 aircraft were utilized by the army, piloted by a cohort comprising 100 Turkish and 150 German aviators.
In 1915, concurrent with the procurement of new aircraft and the training of pilots at the Flight School, the Ottoman High Command undertook a restructuring of the air force. Air squadrons were established in Çanakkale, Uzunköprü, Keşan, Adana, Damascus, Iraq, and the Caucasus. While some squadrons exclusively comprised Turkish pilots, others saw collaborative service involving both Turkish and German aviators. Simultaneously, a handful of autonomous German air units, designated as the Pascha units (Filegerabteilungen 300-305), operated in tandem with Turkish units in Syria and Palestine.
"The collaboration between the German and Turkish forces during this period stands as an exemplary alliance. This partnership unfolded seamlessly, devoid of any significant impediments. A genuine sense of camaraderie flourished among them. Turkish aviators willingly sacrificed personal comforts to alleviate the challenges faced by their German counterparts, aiding them in overcoming their relative inexperience and the sense of being strangers in a foreign land. The Turkish aviators held deep appreciation for the technical expertise and superior equipment possessed by the Germans. Consequently, numerous Turkish aviators diligently and passionately devoted themselves to assimilating this knowledge. Among them, some emerged as outstanding fighter pilots, while others excelled in reconnaissance operations." (Captain Serno in his memoirs)
During this period, the Ottoman Air Force comprised entities 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 operated under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Navy.
In the commencement of Allied landings in Gallipoli, the command of Çanakkale Fortified Zone possessed an air squadron consisting of four planes (three Albatros B1 and one Rumpler B1). This squadron played a pivotal role in reconnaissance, patrol, and support duties. Aerial reconnaissance assumed significance on 18 March 1915, during the Allied fleet's unsuccessful attempt to breach the Dardanelles. Subsequently, the initial aircraft squadron, augmented with Turkish and German observers and a few additional aircraft, continued reconnaissance and bombarding operations against British and French forces on the offshore islands. The deployment of bombs by manual release and the ineffectiveness of aircraft armament were notable challenges. The incorporation of machine guns, situated in the rear cockpit of aircraft, materialized in August 1915.
On 5 July 1915, a modest naval aviation unit comprising Gotha seaplanes arrived from Germany. A week later, four new aircraft reinforced the inaugural squadron, under the command of German Lieutenant Ludwig Preussner, subsequently succeeded by Captain Tahsin Bey. This unit consistently furnished air support to the Fifth Army throughout the remainder of the Gallipoli campaign. The autumn season saw an enhancement in reconnaissance report quality with the receipt of purpose-designed cameras, markedly improving the documentation of pertinent information.
Between September and December 1915, German Fokker aircraft made their debut in Gallipoli, operated exclusively by German pilots. Despite their brief engagement, they achieved notable success. Leading this contingent was Lieutenant Hans Joachim Buddecke, credited with downing four enemy planes. Additional victories were secured by fellow pilots Schulz, Meinecke, and Muhra, who collectively shot down five enemy planes. Even as Allied forces were in the process of evacuating the peninsula, Fokkers continued to pursue British seaplanes.
In Palestine, a squadron comprising four planes initially supported the Fourth Army but proved largely ineffectual. One aircraft succumbed to a crash during training, while the remaining planes fell into disuse. Originally, no air units were allocated for the Mesopotamia campaign. However, the realization dawned that captured British aircraft could be repurposed. Lieutenant Fazıl Bey was dispatched from Palestine to Iraq to oversee these operations. Unfortunately, many of the seized British aircraft were rendered unusable due to missing components. Consequently, in December 1915, the Ottoman High Command dispatched an air squadron to the Mesopotamian front.
It was only in 1916 that the Turkish Air Force attained full operational capacity. The consolidation of all aviation units occurred in May of that year, bringing them under the purview of the Air Affairs Bureau of Inspections within the Ottoman High Command. By December 1916, the air force comprised 90 aircraft, 81 pilots, and 57 observers.
The signing of the armistice on 30 October 1918 marked a pivotal moment, leading to the occupation of Turkish territories by Allied forces. As the armistice decrees took effect, discharge activities commenced within the Turkish military, resulting in the departure of German pilots from the country. The Safraköy Air Station, situated just north of Yeşilköy, was assumed by Allied forces, who positioned their own air units there. The Air Force General Bureau of Inspections was decommissioned and retained merely as a nominal entity.
Subsequent efforts by Turkish pilots aimed to establish three air stations (in Istanbul, Izmir, and Konya) and two air squadrons (in Elazığ and Diyarbakır) using equipment remnants from the war. Regrettably, on 25 June 1920, the Ministry of War ordered the complete closure of the Air Force General Bureau of Inspections, leading to the disbandment of its personnel. This event marked the conclusion of the Ottoman era in Turkish military aviation.
- Buddecke, H.J., “Çanakkale Üzerinde Bir Şahin” (A Falcon over Çanakkale), Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, Istanbul, 2009 (translated by Erdemoğlu, B. from the German original titled “El Schahin” published in 1918).
- Hürkuş, V., “Havada 1915-1925” (In the Air 1915-1925), Tayyareci Vecihi Hürkuş Müzesi Derneği, Istanbul, 2008 (originally published in 1942).
- İlmen, S., "Türkiye'de Tayyarecilik ve Balonculuk Tarihi" (History of Aviation and Aeronautism in Turkey), Hilmi Kitabevi, Istanbul, 1947.
- Kansu, Y., Şensöz, S. and Öztuna, Y., “Havacılık Tarihinde Türkler” (The Turks in the History of Aviation), Hava Kuvvetleri Komutanlığı, Ankara, 1971.
- Kline, S., “A Chronicle of Turkish Aviation”, Havaş, Istanbul, 2002.
- Okar, A., “Türkiye’de Tayyarecilik 1910-1924” (Aviation in Turkey 1910-1924), Yapı Kredi Yayınları, Istanbul, 2010 (first published in 2004).
- Official History, “Birinci Dünya Savaşı’nda Türk Harbi – Türk Hava Harekatı” (Turkish Battles in the First World War – Turkish Aerial Operations), Genelkurmay Yayınları, Ankara, 1969.
- Yalçın, O., “Türk Hava Gücü: Kuruluşu, İlk Seferleri ve Yükselişi 1911-1950” (Turkish Air Force: Foundation, First Flights and its Rise 1911-1950”, Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, Istanbul, 2017.