The best Turkish airplane ever made!

The best Turkish airplane ever made!

You might think this would be the Hürkuş, Turkey’s first “100-percent-Turkish-made” basic trainer aircraft, whose prototype was revealed last week. The name Hürkuş may have escaped your attention, but the photo featuring Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proudly boarding the jet in a pilot’s jacket will remain a memorable snapshot, showcasing the first “all-Turkish aircraft.”

Turkey’s aerospace powerhouse TAI says it domestically designed, developed and produced the Hürkuş, meaning “free bird” in English, for both military and civilian use. All the same, it is questionable whether the “free” part is Turkish or the “bird.”

At a closer look, this all-Turkish aircraft boasts a Canadian engine (Pratt and Whitney), British cockpit glass and Italian avionics, in addition to a small U.N. league of countries which offered consultancy services for its design. 

It all reminded me of a waiter who last year asked my opinion of whether the “Turkish-made fighter jets are better than American fighter jets.” He was asking because he and his friends had bet on this and they wanted an expert opinion. I must have looked at his face in total puzzlement, since he enthusiastically explained which Turkish fighter jet he was referring to: “Our fighter jet that the prime minister announced on billboards.” I smiled.

This was one of the election campaign billboards that carried the slogan: “Our own aircraft is in the skies!” The waiter’s mental reasoning had apparently linked that billboard with what was a widely (and proudly) covered news story, heralding that Turkey would design, develop and manufacture its own national fighter jet. 

But in reality, the aircraft that was in the skies was not a fighter, and not quite even in the skies. The billboard made a vague reference to a locally-made drone which, at that time, had suffered two crash landings in its first test flights (a failure corrected later).

Turks have an inherent love affair with weapons, and they have rarely been investigative/analytical readers. So it is understandable that politicians could be tempted to garner votes by appealing to militaristic sentiments based on a “we’ve made these weapons” illusion. The result could be personified in the waiter who is (or was) “absolutely certain that we have made our own fighter jet.” 

Murad Bayar, Turkey’s chief defense procurement official, had a point when he said that “local solutions to weapons requirements were the exception in the past, and now buying off-the-shelf from foreign suppliers is the exception.” It is true that over the last decade Turkey’s defense industry has made remarkable progress in producing national solutions. That, however, does not justify neo-Ottoman wishful thinking and the usual feel-good delusion in matters as serious as weapons systems. 

Prominent Hürriyet columnist Yılmaz Özdil forcefully reminded us last Sunday that the government’s inventory of VIP aircraft, including an Airbus 330 that is on its way, was worth $495 million, while the U.S. search and rescue ship Nautilus - which was then on a mission to search for the debris and the missing pilots from the Turkish RF-4E shot down by Syria - was priced at a mere $11 million. “Naturally,” Mr. Özdil wrote, “We could not afford the Nautilus.”

In the last couple of years, the Turkish press has been proudly covering every piece of news that says “we will make our own fighter jets, aircraft carrier, drones, tanks, air defense systems, helicopters, missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers and even a spaceship!”

Sadly the news about the “best Turkish airplane ever made” went largely unnoticed a couple of months ago. In an international championship with 249 contestants from 83 countries, the Turkish team - racing with an all-Turkish airplane - won the team trophy in the Red Bull Paper Airplane finals: in the “longest airtime” competition!

But, paper planes or fighter jets, I think that the top aerospace priority for the Turkish military should be to be able to keep its aircraft away from enemy fire and un-downed!