Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sabiha Gökçen - first woman combat pilot

Sabiha Gökçen (March 22, 1913, Bursa—March 22, 2001, Ankara) was the first female combat pilot in the world and the first Turkish aviatrix, aged 23. She was one of the eight adopted children of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Early life
According to Turkish sources and interviews with Sabiha Gökçen, she was the daughter of Mustafa İzzet Bey and Hayriye Hanım who was an ethnic Bosniak. The journalist Hrant Dink published an article titled "The secret of Sabiha Hatun" in which a former Gaziantep resident, Hripsime Sebilciyan, claimed to be Gökçen's niece, implying Armenian ancestry.[5][6][7] Official Turkish sources, and the only living adopted daughter of Atatürk, Ülkü Adatepe, have contested this claim.

During Atatürk's visit to Bursa in 1925, Sabiha, who was only 12 years old, asked for permission to talk with Atatürk and expressed her wish to study in a boarding school. After learning her story and about her miserable living conditions, Atatürk decided to adopt her and asked Sabiha's brother for permission to take her to the Çankaya Presidential Residence in Ankara, where Sabiha would live among Atatürk's other adoptive daughters, Zehra, Afet and Rukiye.[4] Sabiha attended the Çankaya Primary School in Ankara and the Üsküdar Girls' College in Istanbul.[4]

Just after the introduction of the surname act, Atatürk gave her the family name Gökçen on December 19, 1934. Gök means sky in Turkish and Gökçen means 'belonging or relating to the sky'. However, she was not an aviator at the date, and it was only six months later that Sabiha developed a passion for flying.

Atatürk attached great importance to aviation and for that purpose, oversaw the foundation of the Turkish Aeronautical Association in 1925. He took Sabiha along with him to the opening ceremony of Türkkuşu (Turkishbird) Flight School on May 5, 1935. During the airshow of gliders and parachutists invited from foreign countries, she got very excited. As Atatürk asked her whether she would also want to become a skydiver, she nodded "yes indeed, I am ready right now". Atatürk instructed Fuat Bulca, the head of the school, to enroll her as the first female trainee. She should have become a skydiver, however she was much more interested in flying, so she received her pilot's licence. Gökçen was sent to Russia, together with seven male students, for an advanced course in glider and powered aircraft piloting. However, when she was in Moscow, she learned the news that Zehra had died, and with a collapsed morale, she immediately returned back to Turkey, isolating herself from social activities for some time.

In the beginning of 1936, Atatürk urged her to attend the Air Force Academy to become the first female military pilot of Turkey. She improved her skills by flying bomber and fighter planes at the 1st Aircraft Regiment in Eskişehir Airbase and got experience after participating in the Aegean and Thrace exercises in 1937. In that same year, she took part in the military operation against the Dersim rebellion and became the world's first female air force combat pilot. She was also awarded the Turkish Aeronautical Association's first "Jeweled Medal" due to her superior performance in this operation.

In 1938, she carried out a five-day flight around the Balkan countries to great acclaim. Later, she was appointed chief trainer of the Türkkuşu Flight School of Turkish Aeronautical Association, where she served until 1955 and became a member of the association's executive board. She trained four female aviators, Edibe Subaşı, Yıldız Uçman, Sahavet Karapas and Nezihe Viranyalı. Sabiha Gökçen flew around the world for a period of 28 years until 1964. Her book entitled "A Life Along the Path of Atatürk" was published in 1981 by the Turkish Aeronautical Association to commemorate Atatürk's 100th birthday.

Throughout her career in the Turkish Air Force, Gökçen flew 22 different types of aircraft for more than 8000 hours, 32 hours of which were active combat and bombardment missions.

Legacy and recognition
The second international airport of Istanbul on the Asian side, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, is named after her.

She was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of "The 20 Greatest Aviators in History" published by the United States Air Force in 1996.

She was the subject of a Google logo honoring her birthday which was displayed in Turkey on Mar 22, 2009

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