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23 Av 5761 07:41Sunday August 12, 2001

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Israel air force commander Dan Halutz left with Turkish military attache Yilmaz Goksen.
(Gideon Markowicz)


Those Magnificent Turks in Their Flying Machines
By Arieh O'Sullivan

(June 28) - The re-enactment of the doomed Istanbul-Cairo expedition of 1914 has kindled renewed interest in early aviation.

Ottoman aviator First Lieutenant Nuri Bey was in the midst of a gala reception in Damascus on a windy February day in 1914. He and fellow aviator Captain Fethi Bey were piloting two monoplanes on a historic 2,370-kilometer expedition from Istanbul to Cairo that was going to prove to the rest of the world that the Turks were just as skilled as the Europeans and aspired to be ranked among the harbingers of aviation history.

Suddenly, a telegram came for Nuri Bey telling him that his partner, who had left earlier in the day for Jaffa, had crashed coming off the Golan Heights near the Sea of Galilee. Capt. Fethi Bey and his co-pilot Sadik Bey were both killed.

Nuri Bey mourned as they were brought to Damascus and buried. Inexperienced, yet spurred on by a wave of jingoistic fervor sweeping the empires early in the last century, Nuri Bey decided to push on for the glory of the Ottomans, for the glory of Islam.

He never made it to Cairo. He crashed and drowned off Jaffa.

The heroism and exploits of that doomed expedition soon became a legend. Nuri Bey was buried alongside his fellow aviators in Damascus. A monument was erected at the site of the crash near the Sea of Galilee. Money was raised and eventually an Ottoman monoplane completed the trip in the spring of 1914.

But aviation's "year of innocence" came to a sudden end in August of 1914 with the eruption of the Great War. Planes became tools of combat instead of the near mythical objects of fantastic passion. Heroes were a dime a dozen as millions went to battle. The marble monument to the first aviators to fall in the Middle East was soon forgotten and neglected.

Now, 87 years later, Turkish historians and aviators are retracing that historic Istanbul-Cairo expedition in two replicas of the Bleriot XI monoplanes which took over a year to construct.

The project is called Golden Wings. It set out from Istanbul on May 20, and reached its final destination in Egypt this week. Last week it passed through Israel after flying in from Beirut, Damascus and Amman. It is the first ever re-enacted aviation event in the region.

"I'm not sure whether this is an aeronautic happening, a PR event or a cultural occasion," said Prof. Gideon Biger, chairman of the Israel Society for Military History at a symposium held at Tel Aviv University in honor of the event. "This expedition marked the first step by Turkey into the modern world. It also marked a new era for the Middle East."

As far as Turkey is concerned, this is not a re-enactment of a disappointment, but a tribute to the glory of early Ottoman aviation.

"We are not remembering a failure," said pilot Maj. Omer Demirayak. "We are just trying to commemorate the memory [of those aviators] and respecting the things that they did. That is our main concern. I really appreciate those guys. It was a great thing. Then, it was like going to the moon. That is why I feel great respect for them. That is why I am really proud to be a part of this project."

The project is being followed very closely in Turkey with a TRT news crew accompanying the planes and crews along the way. A welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv's Sde Dov last week was even broadcast live on Turkish television.

In that ceremony, the planes rolled down the tarmac to be welcomed by top Air Force commanders, diplomats and Israeli politicians, as well as a collection of aviation enthusiasts.

The reconstructed Bleriots were somewhat disappointing for anyone expecting an exact replica. The Turks built the planes' frames out of metal rather than wood. Instead of the original dull canvas covering of the antique era, the replicas were covered with aluminum plates painted a gaudy gold.

The characteristic open cockpit of the early planes was replaced with a closed clear canopy. The cowl looked as though it had come off of a modern Cessna 150, and the gold spinner made little attempt at authenticity. Gone, too, were the characteristic supporting lines of the early Bleriot models, replaced with heavy struts. The spoked motorcycle wheels did, however, give them a sense of proportion, as did the box-kite shape of their tail sections.

The aircraft were built at the FASBAT installation of the Turkish Air Force at a cost of $210,000, which was paid for by TRT.

Demirayak explained that the alterations were due mainly to caution. He said that the replicas could carry a maximum of 850 kilos, fly at 80 knots and that their ceiling was 12,000 feet, just enough to get over the Taurus Mountains.

"Safety is our main concern. So we need to have faster air speed [to prevent stalling] and that is why we closed the canopy," said Demirayak, a C-130 transport plane pilot in the Turkish Air Force.

"It's different than flying a C-130. The wind and turbulence has a big effect on us, which is another reason why we chose to incorporate a closed cockpit," said Demirayak, his red cravat, patterned with a print of the original Bleriot XI, neatly tucked inside his modern flight suit.

Israeli Air Force commander Dan Halutz climbed atop the Bleriot, named Fethi, gazed inside and exclaimed, "It's a Piper Cub cockpit." He then helped Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Hulda'i, a former fighter pilot, into the aircraft as they reminisced on the phenomena of propeller flight.

Earlier, Halutz praised the Turks for staging "one of the most historical aviation events."

"The relationship between the Israeli and Turkish air forces is very strong," Halutz said. "And we will take all the necessary steps to strengthen them."

The day before the landing in Tel Aviv, a solemn memorial ceremony was held at the site of the Turkish aviators' memorial, located on the grounds of Kibbutz Ha'on. The Turkish Air Force flew in a large contingent, including a major-general and seven brigadier-generals. Top IAF brass also attended.

The Turkish replicas were delayed in their arrival by high winds in Damascus. While they were trying to follow the same route as that of the original pilots, modern day politics forced them to alter their path and fly to Amman instead of directly from Damascus to Tel Aviv.

The planes later flew to Beersheba on their way to El-Arish, Port Said, Cairo and ultimately Alexandria.

Dov Gavish, a geographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and historian of early aviation, said that the whole idea of the original Cairo Expedition came up as part of the yearnings by early aviators to fly further, faster and longer. There were numerous competitions at the time sponsored by leading newspapers. One was initiated in 1913 by Rene Quinton, editor of the French daily, Le Matin, who offered a prize of 500,000 French francs to the first person to fly from Paris to China. But when it became apparent that this was impossible, the route was changed - to fly from Paris to Cairo. It was the longest flight competition of the period.

In late 1913, three French teams attempted the route. They all reached Istanbul within days of each other and were received with great honor. The first was Pierre Daucourt, who died a few days later when strong winds blew his plane into the mountains in the treacherous Taurus range in eastern Turkey.

Another Frenchman, Jules Vedrines, the winner of the 1911 Paris-Madrid race, was a brave and aggressive pilot who had accumulated a lot of experience in his Bleriot XI. He succeeded in conquering the 11,500-foot Taurus peaks, and went on to become the first pilot to land in Palestine, when he touched down in Jaffa on December 27, 1913. Anxious to advance to the greater prize in Cairo, he rushed off with apologies for not visiting Jerusalem. (Vedrines eventually went on to become an ace in the First World War, but died attempting a forced landing on a Paris-Rome flight in 1919.)

On his tail were Marc Bonnier and Joseph Barnier in a Nieuport monoplane. Learning that Vedrines had already beat them to Cairo, the pair decided to set their own mark in history by being the first to fly to Jerusalem. They landed on the plateau of what is today the Talpiot promenade.

"The French aroused envy as well as astonishment in Istanbul. [The Turks] wanted to do something similar," said Gavish.

There were a handful of Turkish aviators who had flown in the Balkan War, which the Turks lost. Shortly after the Frenchmen flew through Istanbul, War Minister Cemal Pasha announced that the best pilots had been chosen for a "sacred mission" to fly from Istanbul to Cairo and Alexandria "for the glory of the empire and the glory of Islam," Gavish said. "This flight didn't have a military purpose. It was to raise the morale in the Ottoman Empire."

Two of the most experienced pilots, Nuri Bey and Fethi Bey - though they had a mere 30 hours' flying time and though Fethi didn't even have enough time to obtain a pilot's license - were selected for this mission.

The two teams set out on the "Istanbul-Cairo Expedition" in great fanfare on February 8, 1914. Fethi Bey and Sadik Bey, the sultan's adjutant, flew a Bleriot XI and Nuri Bey and his assistant Ismail Hakki flew a Deperdussin.

"The whole country is in a very big excitement," wrote a Turkish newspaper of the day. "The success of the campaign means that our country can take a leading role in the short history of aviation."

Reports from the time said they were battered by bad weather, but succeeded in crossing the Taurus Mountains. Fethi Bey arrived in Damascus on February 24. Nuri fell behind and arrived three days later, just hours after Fethi took off on the next leg to Palestine.

On March 9, Nuri Bey and Ismail Hakki took off and a few hours later landed at the Jaffa seashore.

Gavish said, from eyewitness accounts he has gathered, that Nuri Bey landed his plane somewhere between the Trumpeldor Cemetery and the beach.

It was a historic moment for the Ottomans, and both Jew and Arab celebrated. Gavish said the Gymnasia Herzliya high school orchestra performed for the occasion.

Two days later, the pair was set to continue the expedition. Tens of thousands of people crowded the landing strip near the beach. The Bleriot took off, but suddenly made a sharp turn over the sea, and then one of its wing tips touched the water and it crashed as the crowd watched in panic.

According to a newspaper report from the time, Nuri Bey tried to swim towards shore, but the weight of his clothes pulled him beneath the waves and he drowned. Hakki was saved by a few hardy souls who leaped into the water.

Biger noted that 20,000 people of Jaffa and Tel Aviv gathered to see Nuri Bey and his Deperdussin aircraft when it arrived, and after the crash donated money to help purchase another plane.

On the flip side, the public enthusiasm with aviation was drastically altered a few years later when French aircraft bombed Tel Aviv in the First World War, Biger said.

Gavish said that when the news of the crash reached Cairo, the French aviators criticized the Ottomans for trying to achieve glory by sacrificing their finest, but inexperienced, pilots. Vedrines published a scathing letter in the Turkish daily, The Levant Herald, calling the Turkish flights "heroism pushed to excess without sufficient experience."

The Turks by now felt compelled to complete the mission. A third plane was sent, but it crashed near Istanbul. In its fourth attempt, Turkey sent a pair of aviators and their plane by ship to Beirut, and on May 1, 1914, they became the first Ottoman aviators to reach Jerusalem. They finally reached Cairo a week later.

Gavish, an expert on the early expeditions and flights in the Holy Land, met with the Turkish ambassador four years ago, and "I told him there was a neglected monument to the aviators, and asked why they weren't doing anything about it. Do you know what he told me? He said 'You know, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Morocco to Czechoslovakia. From what you are telling me, do you know how many monuments we must have?'" Gavish said.

"You have to remember that Turkey's first three fallen aviators are the first three fallen aviators of the Land of Israel. If there is a monument, why should it be neglected?" Gavish said. He added that the Turks also noted that a kibbutznik on Ha'on started maintaining the monument. "They suddenly saw that if they don't do it, someone else will, and now it became a question of prestige," Gavish said. "What is happening today in Turkey is that they are finally waking up to their history."

It is not clear what eventually sparked the Golden Wings project. But once it started, enthusiasm in Turkey grew quickly. Historians and engineering students worked together to scour the world for blueprints, models and other items that would help construct replicas of the original Bleriot XI.

A call went out to the pilots of the Turkish Air Force for volunteers and five candidates were chosen. Some were fighter jet pilots and others flew transport planes.

Book contracts to document the event were signed. The official TRT radio and TV Corporation was assigned to produce a docu-drama that will be translated into English, French, German and Arabic and marketed along with promotional books and a DVD.

Governors and mayors along the route in Turkey were instructed to prepare welcoming ceremonies. This was going to be an international Turkish event and embassies abroad were called upon to ensure the smooth re-enactment in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt.

The Turkish prime minister's office and Ministry of Transportation chipped in to help cover the costs. Even the national lottery in Turkey held a special drawing earlier this year to promote the event.

"I think there is a revived interest in the pre-World War I [era] all around the Middle East, here in Israel and in Turkey as well," said Dr. Yigal Sheffy of Tel Aviv University, who spoke at the symposium. "Just now, somebody published a Hebrew translation of Liddell Hart's book on General Edmund Allenby.

"As we approach the 100th anniversary of the First World War, there is a renewed interest. The same thing happened in the United States in the 1960s regarding the Civil War. Today, too, in America there is a renewed interest in the First World War."

In some ways, the character of the Turks has not altered much since the first doomed expedition. Then, the subsiding Ottoman Empire wanted to exert its identity.

And now, as Turkey becomes (again) a major regional power, it also yearns to be seen as part of Europe.

"Every nation would like to contribute to the human legacy," says Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Uzumcu. "I see actually this initiative in 1914 as a contribution to our common heritage."

Uzumcu said that 87 years later, re-enacting the expedition was a "challenging journey."

"As we all know, there is tension in the region. But this shows that even in times of crisis, such projects of large historical and cultural value can be accomplished. This encourages me for the future when peace will prevail in the region. Many such projects can take place."

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