Perhaps one of the most interesting aviation stories yet, is that of Sabiha Gökçen. The first Turkish woman to obtain her pilot’s license and believed to be the first female combat pilot.
Born in 1913 in Bursa, Turkey, Sabiha unfortunately lost her parents at a young age and was forced to live at the local orphanage. At the age of 12, while the Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was visiting her orphanage, she reportedly approached him and asked if he could help her continue her boarding school education. He was so impressed by her determination, that he decided to do one better and actually adopted her and seven other children.
Following his trip, Atatürk and his children returned to Ankara, where Sabiha attended elementary school. Several years later, Turkey passed the Surname Act, which required all citizens to choose a family name. Ironically, Atatürk gave the name Gökçen to Sabiha, which means “of the skies”. Of course at the time, no one had anticipated she would become a pilot.
Gökçen’s interest in flying began thanks to her adoptive father, who strongly prioritized aviation as part of his presidential leadership plan. In May of 1935, Atatürk supervised the official opening of Türkkușsu Flight School, accompanied by some of his children, including Sabiha. She raved over the the air stunts that were being performed overhead. Soon after, Gökçen was the school’s first female student to enroll.
In 1936, Gökçen completed her first solo flight. However, she quickly expressed an interest in military aviation. This was a shock to many at the time, since the first female fighter pilots in the United States and Britain didn’t exist until decades later. Her father supported this desire, but he couldn’t do without testing her first. In her memoirs, Gökçen describes how her father asked her to to press a gun against her head and pull the trigger, to which she did not flinch. With this, she enrolled in Turkey’s Military Aviation Academy as a military pilot.
Gökçen’s first combat mission took place in 1937, when she was just 24 years old. She had an impressive flight career, flying around 8,000 hours and participating in 32 different military operations. Most notably was a flight around the Balkan states in 1938 as a peace mission. This mission lasted five days before being halted due to mechanical issues.
Following her return to Turkey, Gökçen was offered the position of director of training at Türkkușsu Flight School, which she gladly accepted. She kept this position until 1955, when she retired from teaching. Other accomplishments include being the only female pilot included in “The 20 Greatest Aviators in History” published by the United States Air Force in 1996, as well as having Istanbul’s second largest airport named in her honour.
Sabiha Gökçen passed away just two months after the official opening of the airport, on March 22nd 2001 at 88 years old in Ankara, Turkey.
Written by: Sacha Vincent-Toskin