The Turkish air force, like the Swiss navy, was until recently more of a quip than a fact. Now the chances are that few contemptuous references have been made abroad, particularly in Berlin, to the rising air power of the grimly determined guardian of the historic land bridge of invasion between Europe and Asia.
Struggling to prevent their island of neutrality from being engulfed in a sea of war, the Turks themselves have been extremely reticent over the progress they have made in military aviation under the shadow of long-threatened aggression. Pointed hints of their mounting readiness in the air to cope with attack are given, nevertheless, by a number of developments to which foreign capitals are keenly alert.
For a year or so, American lend-lease war materials, including planes and equipment as well as tanks and guns, have flowed into Turkey. On the eve of the direct involvement of the United States in the world conflict, it was understood that munitions costing $100,000,000 or more were involved, and subsequently the total may have been materially increased.
After Pearl Harbor the Turks were relieved to note that the United Nations did not permit their attention to be diverted from the vital Middle East sector. Substantial numbers of American Army type Curtiss P-40 fighters found their way into Turkey even when the British were relying on these planes for the success of their winter push in Libya. Already the Turks were familiar at first hand with Martin bombers and Curtiss Hawk pursuits.
The British for their part had been making steady aerial contributions to their somewhat uncertain ally even prior to late 1939, when they extended a $100,000,000 credit for munitions of all kinds. London deemed it a matter of prime urgency to strengthen the aerial arm of he Turkish land force of some 30 divisions of troops who were credited with being among the world's toughest fighters.
Germany, bidding for the favor of the keeper of the Dardanelles, likewise has helped Turkey profit from her advantageous but uneasy strategic position.
The Turks themselves have not relied entirely on foreign nations. Before 1939, an infant aviation industry had been started. A plant at Kayseri was making both military and civil aircraft. And the government for years has energetically fostered efforts to create a state of national airmindedness.
About the time Hitler sent his war machine into Poland, Turkey was credited with an air force of 200 first-line planes What it adds up to now the Turks least of all will disclose, but qualified airmen assert it has been doubled and redouble several times in less than three years.
Altogether Turkey has developed int an air power to be reckoned with, rivaling Italy in some respects and ranking only below such major belligerents as the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and Japan.
Training planes of the fast-growing modern Turkish air force now are mostly the product of home industry, but the service types are American, British and German in origin, the German craft being confined to bombers. Two years ago the newest service types consisted, by contrast, of 48 Polish PZLs (P-24s). This is a single-seater fighter, powered by Gnome-Rhone 900-hp engine and has top speed of 267 mph. Its armament includes four 7.7-mm machine guns, two of which can be replaced by 20-mm shell firing guns.
Older types included British Supermarine Southamptons, Curtiss Hawk (P-36) single-seaters, Breguet "690" two-seater bomber-reconnaissance craft, a midwing cantilever monoplane powered by two Gnome-Rhone 14-cylinder radial engines, each of 680 hp and with a top speed of about 240 mph, some twin-engined de Havilland Dragons powered by two 130-hp Gypsy Majors and with a top speed of 128 mph, for photography and navigational training, and Caudrons. Some deliveries had been made of British Blenheims, American Martins and German Heinkel medium bombers, but on a small scale. This was when Turkey's military aviation budget was a relatively tiny $6,500,000 a year.
Turkey's No 1 military air base is a Eskisehir, and others are scattered at Ankara, the capital; historic Istanbul, Izmir Adana, Diyarbakir and Kayseri. At Eskisehir is the principal training school for pilots and a school for mechanics. Air force officers and men wear a uniform similar to that of. Britain's RAF. Abroad, the initial training of pilots was considered to be along sound lines and the maintenance of aircraft was rated as good.
The air force is controlled and operated by the general staff at Ankara headed by stern Marshal Fevzi Cakmak. Under him as chief of an air staff of a dozen officer is Gen Sefik Cakmak, a veteran airman, who incidentally is the marshal's son-in-law. Administration is by the minister of national defense and an under-secretary for air.
The history of Turkish aviation is a story of a struggle against odds. It extends as far back as the 17th century when Hezar-Fen Ahmet Efendi was injured in an attempt to take off with artificial wings from a tower.
When the modern airplane appeared on the horizon as a likely military weapon of the future, four of Turkey's most capable army officers were dispatched to England and France for training. This was in 1906-07, the era of the Wright brothers, Bleriot and Farman. A few years later, when flying the English Channel was a spectacular feat, Turkish airmen essayed a 1,200-mile flight from Istanbul to Cairo. Salim Bey made it in 1911. In Istanbul is a monument to three who gave their lives as the first martyrs to infant Turkish aviation.
But for a decade of war which followed, Turkey now might be less dependent on friendly and industrially more-advanced neighbors. First came the war with Italy, followed immediately by the Balkan conflict and then by World War I. Aviation figured in the first two merely as a means of observation, but began to come into its own in the world struggle. Allies of the Central Powers, the Turks sent many young officers to Germany, imported many military planes and in 1915, established a military aviation school at Istanbul.
In the vain British campaign to seize the Dardanelles one flyer, Fazil Bey, became a hero by alone tackling a flight of seven British flyers raiding Istanbul.
The first World War did not end for Turkey until 1923. In the period out of which grew the modern republic only makeshift aircraft were available but the Turks kept them flying, even though only for communication and observation.
Peace brought the first opportunity to start the development of an aircraft industry but the country was all but ruined economically. Like Russia, Turkey undertook a series of five-year programs, but they were carried forward under discouraging difficulties until new war clouds began to lower over Europe and material assistance was forthcoming from abroad.
Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's George Washington, had no difficulty in foreseeing the inevitable dominating importance of aviation and from his efforts stemmed a remarkable national undertaking to build air power, carried forward after his death by President Ismet Inonu and other leaders. Kemal Ataturk was the founder of the Turk Kusu, or "Turkish Bird" organization, the basis of all the nation has been able to accomplish in military aviation.
Its parent organization is the Turk Hava Kurumu, or Air League, government-sponsored agency to create airmindedness among a population to whom the ox cart is more familiar than the airplane. From a tax on all salaries and wages, from lotteries, subscriptions and donations, it has a substantial income devoted to the single purpose of fostering aviation.
In the past eight years, 300 or more aircraft have been bought with the league's funds. Many villages have raised sufficient money for a plane to be added to the national air force in which each bears the name of the civic donor. On October 29 of each year, the anniversary of the Turkish republic, it has been the custom to hand over such craft to the air force
Through the Turk Kusu, the league devotes its energies to the development of flying and gliding schools, which since it founding in 1935, has built up an imposing reserve of pilots and mechanics for the air force. There are a number of branches one of which consists of schools at which motorists as well as aviation mechanic are trained.
Initial flight training is given without charge to school boys by means of gliders, and the most promising flyers are selected for primary schooling in powered planes leading to government sport pilot licenses. At the age of 20 all qualified youths must start their period of compulsory military service. Those with air training serve for two years in the air force, then go into the air reserve.
Thousands are thus trained every year in various phases of aviation. The system has won outspoken praise abroad for its effectiveness. The Turks have from the outset attached strong importance to gliding, giving three months' training to school boys in primary schools and at an advanced school at Inonu. Assorted German and Russian equipment is used. The Turk Kusu, guided by the example of both Germany and Russia, also has stressed parachute jumping, using a number of towers for the purpose and providing planes for jumps by advanced students.
Alert to the perils of aerial invasion the air league also has fostered passive defense measures for the civil population.
Turkey's civil aviation has been developed under as many difficulties but with equal determination. It was not until some eight years ago that the first commercial route was started between Istanbul and Ankara by the government's Turk Hava Yullari, which uses British equipment largely. The air lanes over the country's mountainous terrain are flown only by Turkish pilots. The nationalistic government insisted on that from the first, although there are various reciprocal arrangements with foreign lines.
Now, in normal times, regular commercial service is maintained the year around between Istanbul and Ankara and be tween Ankara-Adana, while there is seasonal traffic on the Istanbul-Izmir, Ankara-Izmir, Ankara-Diyarbakir and Ankara-Elazig-Erzurum routes.
A sign of Turkey's arrival at a place in the aviation sun was the dispatch to Washington of the nation's first air attache of the embassy in the United State national capital. Quiet, soft-spoken Staff Maj Tekin Ariburun arrived in the midst of the Pacific war by way of the Far East and was in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His career epitomizes his country's rise to importance in military aviation. After graduating in 1926 from the military school at Eskisehir with a lieutenant's commission, he visited Italy, France and England to inspect their air forces. At the war college at Istanbul 1932-5 he studied all military arms, including the navy, and then was Turkey's air attache in Berlin from 1936 to 1938. Before being ordered to Washington he saw both regimental and staff service.
Turkey, says Major Ariburun, was well pleased at President Roosevelt's announcement that it was considered to America's interest to defend that country from aggression. The Turks have confidence in their aerial strength, They have been making ready to demonstrate, if need be, that the Turkish soldier is one of the world's best fighters in the air as well as on the ground.
This article was originally published in the June, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 6, pp 26-27, 84, 86, 88.
The original article includes 5 photos.
Photos are not credited.