Sabiha Gökçen (1913-2001)

Sabiha Gökçen is ac­claimed as a model of pro­gres­sive Turk­ish wom­an­hood and Turk­ish school­girls grow up learn­ing the story of her life


On Fe­bru­ary 19, 2018, Fly­ing Of­fi­cer Avani Chaturvedi of the In­dian Air Force made his­tory by be­com­ing the first In­dian woman pilot to com­plete a solo flight on a fighter air­craft, the MiG-21 Bi­son. Her feat brings back mem­o­ries of other first ladies of military avi­a­tion.

Opin­ion is di­vided on who the world’s first woman com­bat pilot was, but most military his­to­ri­ans agree that Sabiha Gökçen of Turkey achieved that dis­tinc­tion in 1936. Their be­lief is shared by Guin­ness World Records which lists her as “the first Turk­ish, fe­male avi­a­tor and the world’s first, fe­male, com­bat pilot.” Be­fore Sabiha Gökçen, there was Marie Marv­ingt of France. She was not a com­bat pilot, but ap­pears to have per­formed the world’s first ae­rial bomb­ing mis­sion by a woman, in 1915, Rus­sia’s Nedeshda Degtereva be­came the first woman pilot to be wounded in com­bat while fly­ing a re­con­nais­sance mis­sion over the Aus­trian front.

The story of how Sabiha Gökçen be­came the world’s first fe­male com­bat pilot is in­ter­est­ing. She was born on March 22, 1913, in Bursa, part of the then Ot­toman Em­pire. She lost both par­ents at an early age but her ed­u­ca­tion was sup­ported by her brother, de­spite the poverty of the fam­ily. Her life changed when she was twelve thanks to Mustafa Ke­mal Atatürk.

Atatürk had emerged as the leader of a new na­tion­al­ist move­ment in Turkey af­ter World War I and later be­came mod­ern Turkey’s founder and first Pres­i­dent and one of twen­ti­eth­cen­tury Europe’s most im­por­tant lead­ers. In Oc­to­ber 1925, he was on an of­fi­cial visit to Sabiha’s school in Bursa. When Sabiha boldly ap­proached him and re­quested as­sis­tance to con­tinue her ed­u­ca­tion at a board­ing school, he was im­pressed and de­cided to adopt her. Thus res­cued from penury, she spent the rest of her child­hood in the com­fort of the Pres­i­den­tial Res­i­dence in Ankara, along with Atatürk’s seven other adopted chil­dren. She was known sim­ply as Sabiha till 1934, when the Sur­name Act went into ef­fect re­quir­ing all cit­i­zens to take a fam­ily name. Atatürk named his adopted daugh­ter Sabiha Gökçen or “of the sky”. The name turned out to be prophetic.

As part of his drive to speed­ily mod­ernise Turkey’s an­ti­quated so­ci­ety, Pres­i­dent Atatürk made avi­a­tion a high pri­or­ity and en­cour­aged the foun­da­tion of the Turk­ish Aero­nau­ti­cal As­so­ci­a­tion in 1925. In May 1935, Sabiha ac­com­pa­nied him to the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Türkkuşu Flight School and was en­thralled by the air show con­sist­ing mainly of glid­ers and parachutists from for­eign coun­tries. Atatürk re­alised that she wished to be­come a sky­diver her­self. For any other Turk­ish woman at the time, this would have been an im­pos­si­ble dream, but for the Pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter, it was only a ques­tion of time be­fore she was en­rolled as the flight school’s first fe­male trainee. Pre­fer­ring to fly air­craft rather than sky­dive, Sabiha soon switched roles and earned her glider pilot’s li­cence. Be­fore long, she was sent to Rus­sia for an ad­vanced course in glid­ing and pow­ered air­craft pi­lot­ing, the only girl in the batch.

But she and her father were not done with breach­ing the male bas­tion. Early in 1936, Sabiha Gökçen en­rolled in the Military Avi­a­tion Academy in Eskise­hir, train­ing to be­come Turkey’s and the world’s first fe­male com­bat pilot. On Atatürk’s or­ders, she was given a per­son­alised uni­form and at­tended a spe­cial train­ing pro­gramme of eleven months’ du­ra­tion. Af­ter earn­ing her flight di­ploma, she con­tin­ued train­ing for six months to be­come a com­bat pilot at the 1st Air­plane Reg­i­ment in Eskişe­hir where she learned to fly bomber and fighter planes. She par­tic­i­pated in var­i­ous military avi­a­tion ex­er­cises. In 1937, she took part in a live military oper­a­tion against the Der­sim re­bel­lion. In one no­table mis­sion, she bombed the home of an in­sur­gent leader, killing him and some of his as­so­ciates. She was awarded Let­ter of Ap­pre­ci­a­tion and the Turk­ish Aero­nau­ti­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s first “Murassa (Jewelled) Medal” for her per­for­mance.

In 1938, she re­tired from the Turk­ish Air Force in the rank of lieu­tenant and was ap­pointed Di­rec­tor of Train­ing of her alma mater, the Türkkuşu Flight School. She con­tin­ued to serve at the school as a flight in­struc­tor un­til 1954. Dur­ing her ca­reer, Gökçen flew 22 dif­fer­ent types of air­craft for over 8,000 hours, 32 hours of which were com­bat and bom­bard­ment mis­sions.

Sabiha Gökçen died on March 22, 2001, her 88th birth­day. She is ac­claimed as a model of pro­gres­sive Turk­ish wom­an­hood and Turk­ish school­girls grow up learn­ing the story of her life. Since the early 1990s, curbs in many coun­tries on women be­com­ing air force fighter pi­lots have been grad­u­ally lifted and Avani Chaturvedi now has counterparts in per­haps two dozen coun­tries.

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