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Sabiha Gökçen, world's first woman combat pilot

ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News | 8/4/2007 12:00:00 AM | GÜL DEMİR and NIKI GAMM

But who was Sabiha Gökçen? Turk or Armenian as some have claimed? Today she is remembered more for having her name on Istanbul’s second international airport than for her exploits during the first half of the last century Then one day in 1935 Gökçen accompanied Atatürk to the opening ceremony of the Türkkuşu (Turkish Bird) Civil Aviation School… As the two watched a demonstration of gliders and parachutists, he asked her if she were interested in skydiving and she immediately replied that she was ready to go then and there She undertook flying tours in the US in 1953 and 1959 where she represented Turkish society and the Turkish woman... A meeting of the “Eagles” was held at graduation time in 1996 at the American Air Force Academy and she was their guest of honor. She also was the only female pilot on a poster of the "20 Greatest Aviators in History"

Three years ago, the late Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink started a controversy in Turkey by writing in his paper, Agos that the revered Sabiha Gökçen was actually of Armenian origins. According to the 2004 article in his newspaper, he had spoken with Gökçen's nephew who claimed that she had actually been an Armenian orphan who was adopted out of an orphanage and whose real name was Hatun Sebiliciyan.  Other newspapers took up the subject and created a storm as the pros and cons of the argument were debated. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest Dink's printing the claim of her being Armenian was one of the main causes of his assassination on January 19.

But who was Sabiha Gökçen? Turk or Armenian? Today she is remembered more for having her name on Istanbul's second international airport than for her exploits during the first half of the last century. She was born March 21, 1913 in Bursa, a dusty backwater Anatolian town more famous for its glorious peaches than anything else. Being brought up in miserable living conditions didn't stop her from knowing what she wanted from life, so at age 12 she asked to meet Atatürk when he was going to travel through the region and there she let him know that she wanted to be placed in a boarding school.

She didn't get her wish to go to boarding school but instead went to live in the presidential residence in Ankara. Atatürk offered to adopt her – he already had three adopted daughters, Zehra, Afet and Rukiye – and so she attended primary school in Ankara and Üsküdar Girls College in Istanbul. She apparently became sick and was sent to one of the Prince's islands and then to Vienna for treatment. Later she went to Paris to improve her French.

Gökçen herself relates how several months after the introduction of the surname act in June 1934, Atatürk and others including her were discussing the subject. Suddenly he turned to her and said she should have a family name. He thought for a minute and then proclaimed her last name to be Gökçen. Gök means sky and Gökçen means “belonging or relating to the sky.” However, she was not an aviator at that date and it wasn't until six months later that she developed a passion for flying so Atatürk's suggestion was prophetic. Gökçen adds that from the minute he said what her name was to be, he never called her Sabiha again, only Gökçen.

Then one day in 1935 Gökçen accompanied Atatürk to the opening ceremony of the Türkkuşu (Turkish Bird) Civil Aviation School run by the Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK). [The latter organization was set up by Atatürk in 1925 to establish the aviation industry in Turkey and to encourage young men to learn how to fly. The support by the Turkish people was so great, in spite of the poverty following the War of Independence that the THK was able to purchase and donate to the Turkish Air Force 351 airplanes in its first 10 years.] As the two watched a demonstration of gliders and parachutists, he asked her if she were interested in skydiving and she immediately replied that she was ready to go then and there.

Atatürk instructed the head of the school to enroll her as the first female trainee. She should have become a skydiver; however, she was much more interested in flying airplanes. She says that she was bored because she was so anxious to take her first flight. Every day she asked her instructors if she was going to be able to go up that day but they always refused until one day… Atatürk was visiting the school and it was then that she realized she finally was going to be able to fly a plane.

Seven male students and Gökçen were sent to Russia for advanced training but while there she learned that one of the other adopted girls, Zehra, had died so she immediately returned to Turkey and began to shun society.

Atatürk suggested that she study at the Air Force Academy and since no other woman had attended the school, a special uniform was created just for her. She earned her brevet there. She was assigned to Eskişehir Air Base flying bombers and fighting planes with the First Aircraft Regiment.

Gaining experience by flying in exercises held in the Aegean and Thrace in 1937, she participated in the military operation that year to quell a riot in Dersim and in its vicinity. The riot had its roots in measures introduced by the Turkish government that were directed against the Kurdish population such as forbidding Kurds to use their own language. Gökçen's involvement in the operation made her the world's first female Air Force combat pilot although she only spent 32 hours in active combat and bombing missions. During her time in the Turkish Air Force she logged more than 8,000 hours in 22 different types of bomber and acrobatic aircraft.

In 1938, Gökçen was invited by representatives of three of the countries in the Balkan Pact to fly to each country's capital – Greece, Albania and the kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia; Turkey was the fourth member. She made it in six days, carrying out the maintenance on her own plane because Atatürk didn't want her to take a mechanic with her. Her flight was a great success. But after Atatürk's death that year, Gökçen left the Air Force because no law concerning women in the air force was passed.

She joined the Türkkuşu Civil Aviation School instead and served as the chief trainer there until 1955. She also was a member of the Turkish Aeronautical Association's executive board. Gökçen married an officer who was an instructor of geography and topography at the Air Force Academy in 1940 but her husband died after only three years of marriage. Her photos show a woman who is not particularly attractive. People who spoke with her though came away with respect. She was always the lady.

Although Gökçen “retired” after 1955, she continued flying until 1964. She wrote a book, “A Life along the Path of Atatürk” that was published by the Turkish Aeronautical Association. It appeared in 1981 on the 100th anniversary of Atatürk's birth.

She undertook flying tours in the U.S. in 1953 and 1959 where she represented Turkish society and the Turkish woman. She was hardly forgotten there. A meeting of the “Eagles” was held at graduation in 1996 at the American Air Force Academy and she was their honored guest. She also received prizes elsewhere in the U.S. and was the only female pilot on a poster of the "20 Greatest Aviators in History" prepared by the United States Air Force in 1996. That was the same year that she took her last flight in a Falcon 2000 although she was not the pilot.

She died on March 22, 2001, just one day after her birthday, at GATA Hospital (Gülhane Military Medical Academy) in Ankara.  

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