Meet Vecihi Hurkus The Legend Behind Turkey's First Airplane

Published January 12th, 2021 - 11:08 GMT
(Shutterstock/ File Photo)
(Shutterstock/ File Photo)

Hurkus's innovation in aerial vehicles was inspired by his personal aim of taking Turkey's aviation industry to the global arena, although he faced many setbacks along the way.

Vecihi Hurkus, who is known for his groundbreaking innovation in the history of Turkey’s aviation, made his maiden flight as a pilot on May 21 1916, when he was 20 years old.

A year later, Hurkus shot down a Russian plane on the Caucasian front, where he was deployed as the Ottoman Empire entered World War I. With sorties of enemy aircrafts harassing the Ottoman lines along the Caucasian belt, Hurkus ran out of luck on October 8 1917. His plane came under fire and it crashed, injuring him severely. Acting as a true fighter pilot, his instincts told him to burn the machine before falling captive to the Russian troops. 

Hurkus was sent to Nargin Island in the Caspian Sea as a prisoner of war - but before long, he had devised a plan to break free. With the help of Azerbaijani Turks, he escaped the prison and swam the Caspian Sea, along with his friend Bahattin Bey, until the duo reached Erzurum, a northeastern province in modern day Turkey.  

On his return to Istanbul, he was assigned to the city's air defence. As Istanbul came under the occupation of allied forces, however, Hurkus left the city along with former captive soldiers. They got on a ship departing from Harem. He went to Mudanya via Bursa and Eskisehir, and joined the Turkish War of Liberation.

Hurkus was born in Istanbul in 1896 to Zeliha Niyir Hanim. His father, Feham Bey, was a customs inspector. In 1912, he joined the troops of staff officer Kemal Bey, his brother-in-law, and volunteered for the Balkan War. He was among the forces that entered Edirne. 

As a pilot he made the first and last flight of the War of Liberation and single handedly took control of the Izmir-Seydikoy Airport. Later, he received a red-ribboned War of Independence Medal from the Turkish Grand National Assembly. 

He ensured that his love for aviation complemented his love for Turkey. Just before he died on July 16 1969, the day when mankind set its foot on the moon, he left behind a road map that later defined Turkey's aviation industry. 

After the Great War, Hurkus started to teach at the Izmir-Seydikoy Flight School. In his own time, he prepared an ambitious aviation project which focussed on taking his country down the path of flight innovation. 

Since Turkey lacked aviation technology at that time, Hurkus built the Vecihi K-VI by using the engines of aircrafts the country had shot down or captured during the war with Greece. 

Hurkus was to come up against Turkish bureaucracy when he sought permission to fly his own homemade airplane. Although a technical committee was established to grant him a flight licence, the process was somehow back-burnered. The main reason for the delay was that except for Hurkus himself, no other pilot could in fact fly his machine. Hurkus eventually sidestepped the hurdles that the bureaucracy created, and made his first flight in the Vecihi K-VI on January 28 1925.

Hurkus wrote an article about his newly built plane in Resimli Ay, one of the famous Turkish magazines in the 1920s, which was titled:  "How I made the first Turkish tayyare (airplane)". 

"There wasn't a single plane engineer in our air force at that time, nor was there a single colleague who could examine parts of an aircraft scientifically. So, I decided to walk through uncharted territory on my own," Hurkus wrote. 

Since he felt let down by the country's airspace bureaucracy, he quit the air forces and moved to Ankara to join the Turkish Aeroplane Society, where he oversaw aviation engineers. The society was formed with the support of public donations. Hurkus planned to get his plane to Ankara and use the public donations to ease the process of obtaining permission to fly and also "spread love for aviation in the Turkish society". He couldn't get his plane back, however. 

The Ministry of National Defence offered Hurkus a new role in its newly built factory, Plane and Engine Incorporated, in Kayseri province. He accepted the offer and his new job took him to Germany where he examined the Junkers A-20 aircrafts and found a major technical flaw in them. Hurkus was given the responsibility of fixing the plane as well as its upgraded model, the Junkers A-35.

On July 18 1926, the Turkish government called him back to Ankara. Within a month, he found himself testing a Junkers A-35 plane and competing with France's most popular aircraft, the Nieuport Delage. Hurkus won the aerial drill, proving that the machine was at pace with other leading combat aerial vehicles and possessed the ability to launch a multipronged attack. On August 1 1926, Vecihi won the mock air fight. 

After returning to Turkey, he built three-engined commercial aircrafts and started 14-passenger transportation flights between Ankara and Kayseri.  By 1927, he had also turned Junkers G-24 aircrafts into single-engined six-passenger flights. Many see Hurkus as the pioneer behind Turkey's first domestic airline. 

In 1930, his work received a major boost as the country held its Industry Congress in Ankara, where Turkish engineers presented their products. The pictures of Hurkus's aicrafts were also exhibited, including a model of Vecihi XI, a high-winged, closed cabin plane. 

Encouraged by the appreciation he received at the Industry Congress, he took two months of unpaid leave and rented a lumber store in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, where he constructed another plane, the Vecihi XIV, over three months. 

On September 27 1930, he flew the aircraft in front of a large crowd in Kadikoy-Fikirtepe. Curious to learn about the Vecihi XIV, some government and military officials examined the plane. They were pleased with the product and publicly congratulated him. 

He sought flying permission from the Ministry of Economics, but again, he faced rejection. The engineers there simply could not grasp the technical innovation the aircraft embodied. 

That said, the Ministry did however agree to help him, and sent his plane to Czechoslovakia for evaluation. He got all the documents translated from Turkish to the Czech language, and it reached Prague on December 6 1930. The machine passed the critical examination and he finally obtained flight permission. Elated by the success, he adorned his aircraft with a placard that read: "Long Live Turkish Aviation".

Hurkus established the first civilian flight school on April 21 1932. At its core, its aim was to inspire young Turkish engineers to study aviation and also produce a new breed of pilots for the Turkish air force. 

By early 1935, modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, learned about Hurkus's achievements. Ataturk said the country should benefit from Hurkus's skill and experience, and, as a result, ordered the Turkish aviation law to be reformed under the title Turk Kusu (Turkish Bird). 

In the autumn of 1937, the Turkish Aeronautical Association sent Hurkus to Germany for a degree in engineering. A year and a half later, he graduated from Weimar Engineering School. Having taken several electives and additional training courses, Hurkus was allowed to graduate within two years, while his peers took four.  

On February 17 1939, he received a diploma for aircraft mechanical engineering in Turkey. In possession of this document, he sought to obtain a licence of aircraft engineering in Turkey, but yet more hurdles lay ahead. His application at the Ministry of Public Works fell on deaf ears: he was refused a licence on the basis the government did not approve of his graduation and the fact that he had only completed two years at university. Hurkus challenged them in court and the Council of State ruled in his favour. He was eventually granted a licence. 

By the early 1950s, Hurkus had left his mark in several fields — from establishing a private airliner called Hurkus Airlines, to aerial exploration of thorium, uranium and phosphate in Southeast Anatolia.

Although Hurkus showed grit and courage all his life and always strived to take his art of aircraft making to the next level, the last phases of his life were full of uncertainty and debt. 

Over the years, he had accumulated a huge debt from insurance and credit lending companies. The foreclosure suits and other lawsuits ate up all his government salary.

While writing his memoir, he suffered a brain haemorrhage. He passed away on July 16 1969 and was buried in Ankara's Cebeci Cemetery.

In his 52-year career, he flew 102 different aircraft models and spent 30,000 hours, almost 3.5 years of his life, in the cockpit. 

This article has been adapted from its original source.

Copyright © 2022 TRT World

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