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

Issue: 4 / 2018By Joseph Noronha

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 Türkkusu 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 Eskisehir 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 Türkkusu 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.