Of plane-less air seats and pilot-less airplanes

Of plane-less air seats and pilot-less airplanes

“If you believe in yourself, even the sky can be your starting point.” That boring cliché often accompanies the other, “Nothing is impossible.” Turkey can be a huge market for both.

Officially speaking, Turkey will build and fly its own fighter jet in less than a decade and buy at least 100 new-generation, multinational F-35’s at a combined – and absurdly optimistic – cost of $50 billion to 55 billion, excluding what it will have to spend on engines for 200 Turkish fighters.

About half a year ago, I wrote in this column: “The only trouble is not whether that sum will be available in the Turkish vaults. There is another minor snag: Who will fly all those new generation aircraft? According to Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz, in January/February 2013 alone, 110 military pilots, 63 of whom are warplane pilots, quit service. Another 11 are behind bars on charges of plotting a coup against [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s government. There are several others who are considering their career options in civilian life, and no fewer are waiting for the first chance to get a nice pension package and retire. Unless, of course, they are arrested on charges of attempting to undermine the Turkish Armed Forces just by deciding to no longer work,” (“Turkey suspends delivery of ANKA drones to Egypt,” Aug. 14, 2013, this newspaper).

As a proposed amendment to the military law will extend compulsory service for Air Force pilots from 14 to 16 years and for Army pilots from 12 to 13 years, 74 more military pilots have quit service before the extension took effect. Recently, Minister Yılmaz revealed that between 2002 and 2013, another 291 pilots flying Turkey’s F-16 and F-4 aircrafts quit.

At this pace, we may have to revisit these figures in the next years with appreciation. Ironically, judging from the recent past and present rate of desertion, one may think Turkish engineering is heavily investing in what global defense experts view as the future of fighter jets: unmanned fighter aircraft. 

But no, do not be mistaken, the mysterious Turkish fighter TFX will be well manned if it ever materializes at a time when most fighter jet technology will probably have mastered unmanned technology. The Turkish unmanned jets may simply be the ones standing inoperative at the hangars due to a deficiency of pilots. In fact, one explanation for the extremely high rate of resignations among Turkish military pilots could be that the officers may fear being selected as test pilots for the future Turkish fighter. But never mind.

The good news is Turkey is making fast and giant steps toward building its own airplanes, military or civilian. Most recently, a consortium of companies, including the national carrier Turkish Airlines, inaugurated one of these giant steps at a high-profile ceremony. That super-technology joint venture, fancily named Turkish Seats Industries (after the Turkish Aerospace Industries, maker of the TFX), will be designing, developing and manufacturing the world’s first “Made in Turkey” airplane seats, probably the most crucial stage in building an aircraft. Now we can sigh with relief, make sure our seatbelts are tightly fastened and our seats and tray tables are completely in the upright position and look forward to neo-imperial passenger airplanes and fighter jets. 

Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek gave a speech at the ceremony to inaugurate the first Turkish airplane seat maker and said, “Don’t underestimate an air seat … This is a very important step … We had to start from somewhere in order to produce our own airplane.”

Well the beginning is half-way done, minister. So we are expecting the same impressive start for our (forcibly unmanned) fighter jet program. What about launching a Turkish Seatbelts Industries Corp.? Never underestimate a seatbelt!