The World’s First and a Turkish National Treasure

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport is one of two (soon to be three) airports in Istanbul but did you know that it is named after the adoptive daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk?

Born on 21st March 1913, Sabiha Gökçen became the first female combat pilot in Turkey and, according to various sources including the Guinness book of records, she was also the world’s first female fighter pilot.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk first met his adoptive daughter when she was 12 years old, during a trip to Bursa. She very brazenly asked for permission to speak and told him of her desire to study. After learning of her miserable circumstances and living conditions, Atatürk made his decision to adopt her and asked permission of her brother to take her to Ankara.

Sabiha lived at the Çankaya Presidential Residence with Atatürk’s other adoptive daughters, Zehra, Afet and Rukiye.  She attended the Çankaya Primary School in Ankara before enrolling at the Üsküdar American Academy in Istanbul.

Atatürk was a farsighted man and saw aviation as playing a key in the future; according to Atatürk, the most significant developments to be offered for humanity’s service would be in the field of aviation, stating “The future is in the sky. Nations who fail to protect their skies can never be sure of their tomorrows.”  To this end, he oversaw the creation of the Turkish Aeronautical Association in 1925.

Sabiha accompanied Atatürk to the opening ceremony of the Türkkuşu (Turkishbird) Flight School on 5th May 1935, and, it was at this point, that her passion for aviation was lit.

During this period in Turkey’s history, girls were not permitted to enrol in the war college so, on Atatürk’s orders, Sabiha was given a uniform and instead attended a special education programme at the Military Aviation Academy, in Eskisehir, from 1936 – 1937. She was sent to Russia, with seven other (male) students, where she learnt advanced gliding and powered aircraft piloting. After receiving her flight diploma, she further trained to become a war pilot at the 1st Airplane Regiment. In 1937, she took an active combat role in the operation to curb the uprising (against the Turkish government) in Dersim, Eastern Turkey.  Her role in this military operation earned her a takdirname (letter of appreciation) and she was also awarded the Turkish Aeronautical Association’s first Murassa Medal.

In 1938, she became a flight instructor at the Türkkuşu Flight School of the Turkish Aeronautical Association, where she stayed until 1954.  Throughout her career, Sabiha flew no less than 22 different aircraft, totalling a staggering 8,000 hours of flight time. She died on 22 March 2001, aged 88.

Her book, entitled “A Life Along the Path of Atatürk”, was published by the Turkish Aeronautical Association in 1981, to commemorate Atatürk’s 100th birthday.

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