It is hard to believe that the same unit operated Focke-Wulf 190s and Spitfires together in the 1940s, but the history of the Turkish air force is full of such unlikely events. Founded in 1911, the independent air arm of Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) is one of the oldest in the world. The nation’s unique geographical position, strategic relationships and alliances have had profound effects on the inventory, doctrine and organisation of the Turkish Air Force. It has operated some extremely exciting types and is one of the very last operators of the legendary F-4 Phantom II. We look at ten types that defined this large and surprising air force.
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s predecessor, entered the First World War in 1914 as an ally of Germany and had received technical support, training equipment – including a vast force of Albatros fighters – throughout the war.
After the war, the Ottoman Empire surrendered. Its capital was occupied, and its army disbanded. Subsequently, the Greek army started an invasion of Anatolia, seizing a sizeable portion of land all the way to Ankara. A war for independence started with the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, who would later become the founder of the Republic of Turkey. The Turkish Air Force, then a tiny collection of seized or smuggled aircraft, played an important role in the Independence War preforming vital artillery spotting and reconnaissance missions.
Turkey had been neutral throughout the Second World War — and it took a careful approach to both sides to remain as such. This delicate balance resulted in the procurement of equipment and weapons from both belligerents. It was in the last stages of the conflict that Turkey declared war on Nazi Germany and became a part of Allies, paving the way for the equipping of the TurAF with many US- and British- made aircraft as military aid.
The country’s entry into NATO in 1952 marked a major milestone for the service. Hundreds of jet fighters and trainers poured into the country from the US and other Western allies, as Turkey had become a frontline bulwark against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Starting from early 1980’s, Turkey has been fighting with separatist terrorism inside and outside her borders. The TurAF’s has always been extremely active for the past four decades with close air support missions – and the recent situation in Syria resulted in increased ground attack and combat air patrol (CAP) missions by F-16 fighters.
Since its inception, the TurAF has operated a large number of combat and support aircraft of various origins. A significant number of these were manufactured locally and starting from 2000s, indigenous designs have started to enter service, such as the Anka-S unmanned aerial vehicle and Hurkus-B turboprop trainer. Below is a list of 10 of the most important types to have served.
- Focke Wulf Fw 190
During the Second World War, Germany make a great effort to maintain good relations with Turkey to secure its supply of important raw materials such as iron, chrome and manganese. As part of these bilateral relations, Turkey negotiated with Germany for Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters. A credit agreement was signed in September 1942 and a total of 72 Fw 190A-3 fighters were delivered between March and August of 1943.
Fw 190s equipped four companies of the 5th Air Regiment (5’inci Hava Alayi). Logistics and supply of spare parts, however, became a serious issue as Germany’s situation in the war deteriorated. Serviceability of the regiment quickly decreased and it was later reinforced by… Spitfires! Somewhat bizarrely, for a couple of years the 5th Regiment operated Fw 190s and Spitfires. This lasted until 1947, when the last surviving Fw 190s were retired from service. Imagine F-4s and MiG-21s flying together in the same squadron during the Cold War!
An interesting side note is that the TurAF also operated Heinkel He 111F-1 bombers alongside Martin 139WTs and Convair B-24D Liberators.
France imposed an embargo on Turkey in 1935, which scuppered the latter’s order for Dewoitine 510TH fighters from the previous year (it is easy to draw parallels with the recent US boycott on the supply of F-35s). This forced the Turkish government to look for another fighter. After a lengthy evaluation period, the Polish PZL.24 was selected in 1936.
An export version of the PZL.11, the monoplane gull-wing all metal PZL.24 made its first flight in 1933. It became an export success, having entered into service with Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian air forces in numbers. The initial Turkish contract covered 14 PZL.24A’s, to be assembled in Kayseri Tayyare Fabrikasi (KTF – Kayseri Aircraft Planet), one of the first aircraft manufacturing plants in Turkey. The PZL project was an important achievement for the fledgling Turkish aviation industry. Throughout the 1930’s, with the help of Polish and German aviation engineers that sought refuge in Turkey from the torment of Nazi Germany helped Turkey build up its aviation industry. It was also the case with many other scientific and industrial fields as well.
A total of 66 PZL-24’s of A, C and G variants saw service with the TurAF between 1936 and 1943.
- T-33 Shooting Star
The protocol for Turkey’s membership to NATO was signed in October 1951 and the formal procedure had begun. Shortly afterwards, Turkey started getting huge amounts of military equipment, weapons and ammunition — as well as advisors from United States and other allies. As part of this large-scale transformation, the TurAF was introduced to jet aircraft for the first time.
The Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, a single engine subsonic trainer, was the first jet aircraft of the TurAF. The first examples were delivered in December 1951. In total, 116 T-33A’s and 58 T-33AN’s (Canadian CT-133 Silver Star Mk3) entered service. 25 RT-33A’s also flown for a brief period of time for training of tactical reconnaissance pilots, but the aircraft was chronically underpowered and was not favored. The Shooting Star was primarily used for introductory training of jet pilots but also employed with liaison missions between air bases throughout Turkey. The last aircraft was finally retired in 1997.
- F-84 Thunderjet
Shortly after the T-33, the TurAF started receiving the Republic F-84 Thunderjet, a single -engine jet fighter. Turkey operated the largest F-84 fleet (of all versions) in the world after United States: between 479 F-84Gs were delivered between 1952 and 1956 as well as 377 F-84F, F-84Q and RF-84Fs between 1956 and 1966.
The F-84 formed the backbone of the TurAF throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The aircraft saw service during the Cyprus crisis in 1963-64. The RF-84 was also in the frontline during the 1974 Cyprus operation. The F-84G were retired in 1966 while, the last RF-84F’s soldiered on until the early 1980’s.
- F-102 Delta Dagger
In order to counter the threat of Soviet high altitude bombers, Turkey, like Greece, purchased F-102A Delta Dagger interceptors from United States. The Delta Dagger, a delta wing supersonic interceptor aircraft was the first, and so far the only, delta wing combat aircraft operated by the TurAF.
Turkey took delivery of a total of 49 Delta Daggers between 1968 and 1971: 40 F-102As and nine TF-102 trainers. The aircraft saw action during the 1974 Cyprus operation and is still at the centre of a controversy between Turkey and Greece: Turkish official sources report that an F-102A shot down a Greek F-5A on July 22, while Greek sources counter claim that an F-5A shot down two Turkish F-102As.
The arms embargo imposed by United States after the Cyprus Operation had very adverse effects on the logistics and serviceability of TurAF aircraft, and the Delta Dagger force took the most severe blow. The F-102 fleet, already suffering from a high attrition rate, became very difficult to maintain and fly. The last aircraft was finally withdrawn from service in 1979.
- F-100 Super Sabre
For long range interdiction strike capability, Turkey procured the F-100 Super Sabre from NATO allies from 1958. This single-engine jet fighter with its distinctive ‘squashed’ nose inlet and 45 degrees swept wing formed the backbone of TurAF until early 1980’s.
TurAF took delivery of a total of 270 F-100D, F-100F and F-100C Super Sabres, receiving the last in 1982. Around 250 of them came from United States, while the remainder were secondhand from Denmark. The Super Sabre saw extensive service during the 1974 Cyprus Operation. The last airworthy ‘Huns’ were finally retired in 1988, bowing to the far more modern F-16.
- F-5 Freedom Fighter
The Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter, a twin-engined day fighter, began entering TurAF service in 1966, to replace the F-84 Thunderjet. The F-5 would form the cornerstone of the TuAF’s interceptor and multi-role capability. A total of 171 F-5A and F-5Bs, as well as 41 RF-5A tactical reconnaissance jets, were delivered between 1995 and 1992. Turkey purchased some secondhand F-5s from Libya, during a US arms embargo (together with a generous spare parts package) granted by Muammar Gaddafi, who was sympathetic to Turkey. The F-5 is another veteran of the 1974 Cyprus operation.
Turkey started a project in the mid-1990s to upgrade some F-5s with modern avionics for the lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) role for future F-16 pilots. A contract was signed with a consortium of IAI, Elbit and Singapore technologies in May 1999. A total of 48 F-5A/B’s received extensive avionics, to simulate those of the F-16. The upgrade work was done at the TurAF 1st Maintenance Centre in Eskisehir. Upgraded F-5’s, designated as F-5 2000, started entering service in 2002. They were retired around 2013.
A number of F-5’s continue serving with the Turk Yildizlari (Turkish Stars) aerobatic team. It is planned replace these with the Hurjet, an indigenous single-engine jet trainer under development by Turkish Aerospace.
- F-104 Starfighter
Turkey took major steps in the 1960s to reinforce its air defences. With the arrival of the first F-104Gs in 1963, the TurAF became a member of the Mach 2 club. The first F-104s were introduced to air defence units in Ankara. The aircraft became the mainstay of Turkish strategic air defence and interception capability against the Soviet threat.
The US arms embargo that took place between 1975 and 1978 prompted Turkey to seek alternative sources for combat aircraft. Under the burden of a financial crisis, Turkey could not afford to switch to a completely different source and so eventually struck a deal with Italy for 40 F-104S.
In the 1980s, large numbers of F-104Gs became available from NATO allies due to the arrival of the F-16 and other new types. Turkey used this opportunity to bolster its Starfighter fleet, and many secondhand F-104s were delivered throughout the 1980s.
In all, Turkey took delivery of 433 F-104G, TF-104G, F-104S and CF-104s between 1963 and 1989. The CF-104’s were used for close air support sorties in the 1980s against PKK targets, the aircraft’s fire control systems being found well suited to the ground attack roles. The last Starfighters were retired in 1995.
- F-16 Fighting Falcon
After the US embargo lifted in 1978, Turkey resumed its efforts to modernise its air force, as well as establish an indigenous aviation industry. The tender for a new fighter aircraft shortlisted two US designs: the F-16 and F/A-18. In 1983, the F-16 was selected. For the production of the aircraft, a joint venture between TUSAS (Turk Ucak Sanayii AS – Turkish Aircraft Industries) and General Dynamics was formed under the name of TUSAS Aerospace Industries (TAI). For the manufacture of the F110 turbofan engines, TUSAS teamed up with General Electric, to create TUSAS Engine Industries (TEI).
The initial contract covered 160 F-16C/D Block 30 and Block 40 Fighting Falcons, under the Peace Onyx I project. These aircraft were delivered between 1987 and 1994. A follow-on contract, Peace Onyx II, covered 80 Block 50 F-16’s. This second batch was partially financed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates in compensation for Turkey’s support in Operation Desert Storm. Peace Onyx II fighters entered service between 1996 and 1997.
The Block 40 and Block 50 F-16 aircraft received extensive avionics upgrade under the Peace Onyx III program. Turkey meanwhile initiated an indigenous avionics upgrade project dubbed ‘Ozgur’ for the Block 30 F-16’s. These fighters are equipped with indigenous mission computers, identification friend or foe and cockpit avionics. Turkey ordered 30 Block 50+ F-16’s in 2007 as attrition replacements and gap fillers under Peace Onyx IV. Equipped with Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT’s), these aircraft were delivered between 2011 and 2012.
- F-4E Phantom II
Known affectionately as ‘Baba’ (father) by its pilots, ground personnel and Turkish enthusiasts, the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom is arguably the most respected combat aircraft ever flown in Turkish skies. Many in Turkey have become with the distinctive howl of the Phantom’s powerful J79 engines and its dreadful appearance.
Following Greece, Turkey signed a contract for 40 F-4Es in 1973. Deliveries of the aircraft, under the ‘Peace Diamond’ programme, started in August the following year but stalled due to yet another US arms embargo. Deliveries resumed in 1978 with another contract for 40 more than aircraft under Peace Diamond II. To reinforce the Phantom fleet, Turkey acquired many secondhand examples from the US throughout the 1980s. After the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey also received RF-4Es from Germany, as well as some F-4Es from US stocks.
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After the failed attempt to purchase 40 Panavia Tornados from the United Kingdom in 1986, Turkey began looking for alternative solutions for enhanced deep strike and interdiction capability. Delayed by economics, a programme was finally started in the mid 1990s. A contract for extensive avionics and structural modernisation of 54 F-4Es was signed with IAI of Israel. The aircraft, designated as the F-4E 2020 Terminator, was equipped with new radars, avionics and electronic warfare systems as well as a precision strike missile capability with the Popeye I .
All the remaining recce versions, which were partially upgraded locally under the Isik (light) programme were retired in 2015. A handful of F-4Es that were not subject to the Terminator programme received avionics upgrade under the ‘Simsek’ (‘lightning’) project in the early 2000’s, but these were retired shortly after. The Phantom today serves with 111 Squadron and 401 Test and Evaluation squadron, both in stationed in Eskisehir. In total, Turkey received 236 Phantoms
Honorable mention: TFX
Turkey has made significant achievement since early 2000s and the country is reaping the rewards of huge investment in the aerospace sector. One of the most obvious results of these efforts is in the unmanned aircraft field, as shown in the latest Operation Spring Shield against Syrian regime forces in which locally developed Anka-S and Bayraktar TB2 drones wreaked havoc on Syrian mechanised and air defence units.
Turkey’s Turkish Aerospace (TA) is currently running three important manned aircraft projects, on the other hand. The first is Hurkus, a turboprop trainer which is comparable to the Super Tucano and T-6 Texan II. The Hurkus is currently being evaluated by TurAF training squadrons and is expected to be accepted into service shortly. TA is also working on a close air support variant of the Hurkus, named Hurkus C. Another important project is the Hurjet, a single turbofan trainer / combat jet to replace the T-38M Ari (a locally upgraded T-38 Talon).
But the most important and ambitious project is the Milli Muharip Ucak (National Combat Aircraft), commonly known as TFX. TFX is planned to make its maiden flight in the second half of 2020s and begin entering service in late 2020s – early 2030’s, replacing the F-16. The original plan was to have TFX serve alongside the F-35A, but as a result of strained relations with the US due to Turkey’s procurement of S-400 and subsequent sanctions, this plan seems to be shelved for the foreseeable future.
Arda Mevlutoglu is an astronautical engineer. He is currently working as the VP of an international trading and consultancy company, focusing on defense and aerospace sector. He is currently working as the Vice President of Defense Programs at an international trading and consultancy company. His research focuses on defense industry technology, policies and geopolitical assessments, with a focus to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. His works have been published in various local and international journals such as Air Forces Monthly, Air International, Combat Aircraft, EurasiaCritic, ORSAM Middle East Analysis. He has been quoted by Financial Times, Reuters, BBC, Al Monitor, CNN Turk and TRT on issues covering Turkish defense industry and military developments.
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