Turkish Army Aviation

THE REPUBLIC OF Turkey celebrated its 75th anniversary last October. The Republic is coming of age and so are her institutions. The year 1998 marked the 50th year of Army Aviation (Kara Havacilik) in Turkey and this article represents a modest attempt to assess that service, examining its operational and technological evolution. Turkish Army Aviation began life in 1948 operating a small fleet of fixed-wing aircraft tasked with observation and artillery cooperation.

In the closing decade of this century, it is now a modern, combat-experienced force that is able to play a decisive role in the battlefield, day or night, operating a various types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Today, Turkish Army Aviation is the second largest organisation of its kind within NATO.


In the early 1960s, NATO’s strategy shifted from massive retaliation to flexible response, with a heavy emphasis on conventional weapons and dual capabilities. As part of this process, conventional firepower and mobility re-emerged on the agenda. France’s experience in Algeria and the ongoing US operations in Vietnam stressed the need for helicopters to improve the mobility and firepower of troops on the ground. Moreover, in the early 1960s, Turkey’s regional interests began to centre on Cyprus, which conflicted with those of its NATO allies, particularly Greece. In 1963, when Turkish Cypriot representatives were expelled from the government, followed by inter-community violence, Turkish troops massed at the port of Mersin for a landing operation. However, due to negotiations led by the US, Ankara relented. But as a result of this crisis, Turkish military planners identified a need to develop new contingencies for Cyprus, centred on improving landing, paratroop and airborne capabilities, with forces trained and equipped for such operations.

The Turkish Army received its first rotary wing aircraft with the arrival of 50 Bell OH-13S helicopters in 1965. Also in the 1960s, the Army Aviation fleet was augmented with new types of fixed wing aircraft such as the Dornier Do 27, Do 28, Cessna 0-1A/E and more rotary types such as the OH-58A, AB-206A and AB-204B. In 1966, a helicopter battalion (Helikopter Taburu) was formed as part of the Army Aviation School at Guvercinlik. In the first half of the 1970s, large numbers of single-engined Cessna U-17A/Bs and T-41Ds were delivered, and a more modest addition came in the form of the Beech T-42A, five of which were delivered to meet twin-engine training needs. During early 1968, Turkish Navy and Jandarma (Gendarmerie) pilots began helicopter training at the Army Aviation School.

By 1970, Turkey had developed a potent airborne assault capability, aided by the arrival of a large number of Agusta AB-205 helicopters from Italy. It should be noted that although US-built types dominated the fixed-wing fleet, Italian-built helicopters far outnumbered US-built examples. This was partly because America wanted to reduce the risk of Turkish military action in Cyprus, and also because the US had committed most of its Army Aviation assets to operations in Vietnam.

Turkish Army Aviation underwent another organisational change in 1971. The Company based structure was abandoned and in its place Army Aviation battalions and regiments were gradually introduced at corps and army headquarters respectively.

In July 1974, the Turkish military executed its first overseas campaign of the Republican era, putting its recently developed capabilities to the test. In response to a Greek junta engineered coup in Cyprus, Turkey launched a military operation on July 20, 1974. Turkish marines, paratroopers and airborne elements made their combat debut in Cyprus. Army Aviation helicopters provided the crucial vertical assault capability that allowed the Turkish troops to penetrate deep into the island. During the Cypriot campaign, a substantial portion of the Army Aviation fleet was temporarily put under the operational command of the 2nd Army Aviation Regiment in Konya. The 2nd Army Aviation Regiment was reinforced by the helicopter battalions of the 1st and 3rd Armies, the Jandarma Helicopter Battalion and by helicopter detachments from Turk Hava Kuvvetleri. During the first wave of the airborne assault, all 70 helicopters under the 2nd Army Aviation Regiment’s operational control were airborne simultaneously — a full commando battalion in 64 helicopters and the staff of a Corps HQ and a Brigade HQ in another six. The helicopters continued to fly operational sorties until the cessation of hostilities in late August 1974. Turkish Army Aviation did not lose any aircraft in combat, although a few helicopters sustained direct hits from the Greek Cypriot AAAs or small arms. All the rotary wing types (with the exception of the veteran OH-13s) in service with Turkish Army saw action.

Arms embargo

The Turkish Armed Forces were forced to endure a US arms embargo in the aftermath of the 1974 Cyprus conflict. The consequences of this were exacerbated by the shortage of foreign currency in Turkey. The embargo was lifted in 1978, but the psychological effect far exceeded its material impact on the Turkish military. As a result of the embargo, an ambitious project was created to establish a local defence industry and thus reduce the country’s dependence on foreign sources. At the same time, Army Aviation’s 901st Aircraft Main Depot and Factory in Guvercinlik began to improve its capabilities so that it could carry out maintenance and repairs on all types in its fleet. In 1978, UH-lBs and UH-lDs were acquired in large numbers to operate alongside the Italian-built examples. The following year saw Turkish Army Aviation receive its new basic training aircraft with the arrival of 50 Bellanca 7GCB Citabrias (T-7Cs in Turkish military designation). Then in 1981, the 901st began to assemble UH-lHs under a multi-year multi-phased contract with Bell-Textron, which saw 60 UH-lHs assembled in four batches of 15 aircraft for the Turkish Army. The first was delivered in March 1982 and the last in April 1993.

New Elite Corps

In the early 1980s, the US and NATO introduced a new military concept. The Air-Land Battle and Follow-on-Forces Attack (FOFA) marked a shift of focus onto conventional offensive capabilities — to carry the war effort into the heart of an adversary’s territory. Inspired by this idea, the Turkish military attempted to re-organise and re-equip. Naturally, Army Aviation took on a pivotal role and a high priority within the new structure. At the same time, Turkish forces were involved in operations in southeast Turkey against the armed PKK separatists — the subsequent operations reaffirming the value of helicopters in this type of conflict.

Army Aviation underwent a significant organisational change in 1986. It gained an independent corps status within the Army and was put on the same footing as the more traditional specialist skills within the artillery, infantry and armoured corps, which are all assigned front line duties.

The military modernisation gained momentum in the 1990s. While many of its allies reduced their defence forces, the security risks facing Turkey ensured that Cold War levels were preserved, with equipment being upgraded and modernised. Turkey continued to adhere to its ‘Forward Defence’ concept, and in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, its Army was extensively re-organised. The Gulf War contingency plans exposed certain weaknesses in the Army’s traditional division/regiment-based structure and so to create a more mobile, flexible and capable ground force, it switched to a brigade/battalion-based organisation. The aim was to develop a force structure that could quickly react to any situation. Airmobility and airborne assault thus became inevitable components of Turkey’s ‘Forward Defence’ military concept.

Since the early 1990s, the Army Aviation’s status has increased, witnessed by the delivery of two significant types — the Bell Textron AH-1W Super Cobra and Black Hawk (dubbed as Karaku ‘blackbird’ in Turkish service). However, Army Aviation was not the sole operator of the Black Hawk. The Turkish Gendarmerie Air Group (Jandarma Hava Grubu) became the first operator and received 36 S-70As (Jandarma Hips, May 97, p41). The first batch of five AH-1W Super Cobras were diverted to the Turkish Army from an order for the US Marine Corps in view of the urgent need for attack helicopters in the southeast in 1990. It was followed by an order for another batch of five Super Cobras. In May 1992, Turkey ordered a number of ex-US Army Cobras which resulted in 14 AH-IPs, 12 AH-ISs and four TAH-lPs being delivered between 1993 and 1995. A number of the AH-ls are now being upgraded by the 901st Aircraft Main Depot and Factory in Guvercinlik. The ten AH-1W Super Cobras have received Night Targeting Systems (NTS) and cockpit modifications, including Tactical Navigation Systems (TNS), while another eight AH-1P Cobras only received the NTS. Eventually all the AH-lPs will be given new 20mm chain guns and TNS. As a complete upgrade programme, all the AH-IP helicopters will be heavily modified with new wiring installations, AN/ALQ-144 jammers, AN/APR-39 V (3) radar warning receivers, IR suppressors and AN/ARC-182 self-protection capabilities. The US offer of more early-version Cobras has, however, been declined by the Turkish Army because of their poor condition. Instead, a new batch of ten AH-1W Super Cobras was ordered from the US. The USMC particularly welcomed the Turkish orders as it pushed the Super Cobra’s unit costs down and kept the Bell Textron lines open. However, the US

Government became reluctant to transfer helicopters to Turkey citing human rights violations. Frustrated by the delay, the Turkish Government eventually cancelled the deal in 1996 and began looking for other suppliers. Ankara then announced its decision to buy 20 AS 532UL Cougars from France, instead of more Black Hawks which had been regarded as the definitive transport/utility helicopter for Army Aviation since delivery of first examples in 1993.

Army Aviation School

The Army Aviation School in Guvercinlik is a major component of the Army Aviation organisation and has stood at its apex since 1986. Its flight, supply and maintenance operations account for roughly 50% of Army Aviation activities. The status of the School was recently upgraded to division level and it was renamed Army Aviation School and Training Centre Command (Kara Havacilik Okulu ve Egitim Merkezi Komutanligi). Accordingly, it is commanded by a two-star general. The School’s own fleet consists of 122 rotary wing and 85 fixed wing aircraft. The size of this fleet reflects the magnitude and the diversity of the tasks it is required to perform. As its name suggests, its primary task is to provide fixed and rotary wing flight and ground support training — and not just for Army aviators, but also helicopter pilots and technicians within the Turkish Navy and Jandarma. The current training syllabus is modelled after the US Army Aviation Schools. The need for training has grown in line with the expansion of Army Aviation, as the various new types joined the service during the 1990s.

The school offers a two-track training programme — fixed-wing and rotary-wing, and candidates are expected to log around 200 hours to earn their wings on either track. Two-thirds of the Army Academy’s aviation programme graduates are destined for rotary wing training, with the remainder training on fixed wing types.

The 20 Agusta AB-206BS and four OH-58s (upgraded to AB-206 III standard by the 901st) have recently replaced piston-engined Robinson R-22s and Scheweizer H-300s in the basic training role. The R-22s have been transferred to the Turkish Air League (Turk Hava Kurumu) and the introduction of the AB-206s has now enabled the School to standardise the initial phases of rotary wing training on a single type. After logging 90 hours on AB-206BS or H-300s, successful candidates move on to the UH-1H for advanced training. An additional 80 hours -including 55 hours of instrument flight, plus simulator work on the UH-1H — qualify the candidates for the final phase of their training, tactical flight and weapons, including use of night vision goggles (NVGs). Once the candidates gain around-the-clock operational skills, they are awarded with their wings and posted to operational units for type conversion.

The fixed-wing training consists of 90 hours of basic training on the Cessna T-41D and 80 hours of advanced and instrument training on the Cessna U-17B. The final phase of the fixed wing programme is tactical flight and weapons training lasting 25 hours, again on the U-17B. The T-7Cs and U-17As, which were used for basic and advanced training respectively, were recently phased out.

NVG training was introduced to the rotary wing curriculum in 1991 and all UH-1, S-70A-28, AH-1P and AH-1W pilots have to qualify on the NVG operations. Turkish Army Aviation uses NVGs assembled locally by ASELSAN, near Ankara, and their introduction enabled operations to be carried out around-the-clock against the PKK in the southeast. Many observers now believe that the helicopters and the NVG capability have contributed significantly to the Turkish military gaining momentum against the PKK. Turkish Army Aviation is said to be the third of its kind to see combat with NVGs, after the US and Israel.

In addition to training units, the Army Aviation School and Training Centre in Guvercinlik has three dedicated aviation units under its jurisdiction. The first one is Hava Ulatirma Grup Komutanligi (Air Transport Group); the origins of which are traced back to a liaison flight formed in 1951 in Polatli. It is tasked with command and liaison flights (VIP), personnel and material transport, courier service, medevac and parachute training. It operates a mix of seven fixed wing and eight rotary wing aircraft. The Group has in its charge two UH-lHs and two AB-212s (in VIP configuration), four AS 532UL Cougars (two in VIP configuration, one in standard and another in ambulance configuration), three Cessna 421s and four Beech 200 Super King Airs. An example of the last type made history in Turkish Army Aviation with the first cross-Atlantic ferry flight by Turkish army pilots in 1991. Originally five were delivered, but one was lost in a fatal crash in 1993 due to poor weather, killing all on board, including the Commanding General of the Jandarma.

Another unit within the Army Aviation School is Helikopter Taburu (Helicopter Battalion), which has the distinction of being the first helicopter unit in Turkish Army. It was formed in 1966 with the receipt of the first OH-13 helicopters and spearheaded the airborne operations with 22 helicopters during the Cyprus campaign in 1974. It now operates a fleet of UH-1D/H Hueys and S-70A-28 Black Hawks. Its personnel and aircraft are regularly rotated to southeastern Turkey for anti-PKK operations. The unit supplies helicopters for the rotary-wing training activities in the School. It is capable of operating day and night, and the pilots are qualified for all weather operations. In January 1996, the Turkish-Greek rift over the status of the Kardak islets in the Aegean escalated to the brink of war when Greek soldiers landed on one of the twin islets. During the crisis, the Helicopter Battalion was tasked with diversionary action to conceal the insertion of Turkish Navy Commandos on the other islet. Operating at night and in bad weather, two Turkish Army Black Hawks flew at low level around the Turkish and Greek naval elements off the islets. Each Black Hawk was flown by NVG-equipped pilots and had a mixture of Special Ops and Navy Commando teams on board. These back-up teams would have been dropped on the islet, if the Turkish Navy Commando team had failed to embark on the target under the cover of darkness and bad weather. The plan worked well. While the attention was focused on these helicopters — a two-hour diversionary tactic including multiple landings on and take-offs from the Turkish Navy frigate Yavuz (F240) in rough sea conditions — the third navy commando team executed the insertion. Unfortunately, a Greek Navy AB 212ASW crashed while attempting to discover what was actually going on.

The last unit within the jurisdiction of the Army Aviation School is the Taaruz Helikopter Taburu (Attack Helicopter Battalion). It was formed in 1990 when the first two Bell Textron AH-1W Super Cobras were delivered in September of that year. Shortly after its formation, the battalion received orders for deployment to the southeast under the operational control of the Jandarma. Indeed, the attack helicopters were first intended for the Jandarma which assumed primary responsibility in the internal security operations. However, as a non-NATO committed service, the Jandarma is not eligible to receive equipment purchased under US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) credits.

In March 1991, the first two AH-lWs were detached to Diyarbakir in support of security forces stationed there and ever since, the AH-lWs, later joined by AH-1P and S versions, have been deployed regularly in the region. The battalion personnel, including the instructors, are periodically posted to the region on the basis of tours of duty. Cobra pilots quickly formed ‘Scorpion Teams’ consisting of two AH-lWs or AH-lP/Ss which have changed the Turkish Army’s tactical stance against the PKK with their tremendous fire power, and in turn they brought Cobra crews an element of popular fame.

The Attack Helicopter Battalion comprises three Filos (Squadrons), one with nine AH-1W Super Cobras, and two Filos each with AH-1P/S Cobras. One Filo is attached to the 3rd Army Aviation Regiment in Erzurum and Erzincan, whereas another Filo is attached to the 7th Corps Tactical Aviation Group in Diyarbakir. The four TAH-ls and a number of AH-1S Cobras stay in Guvercinlik to train new Cobra pilots. One AH-1W Super Cobra was lost to PKK-fired SA-7s on May 18, 1997, killing the two crew on board.

Army Aviation Regiments

Although the Army Aviation School and Training Centre forms the backbone of Army Aviation in Turkey, there are four other major Army Aviation units that are organised into regiments. Each Army Aviation regiment is attached to one of the four Army HQs and is numbered (or named) accordingly. All the regiments are similarly structured with two or three battalions. The aircraft type they operate may vary depending on the location and operational requirements of each specific Army HQ.

Thus, the 1st Army Aviation Regiment is organisationally attached to the 1st Army in Istanbul. It is based at Samandra near Istanbul. The unit was first conceived as the 1st Army Aviation Company, based at Metris, in 1961, and relocated to its current site in Samandra. In keeping with Army Aviation expansion, it was re-organised as a battalion in

1972 and finally evolved into its current status as a regiment in 1973. The regiment has seen action in the southeast since 1988, and its rotary wing assets have been periodically deployed to the region and are temporarily detached to support the flight training in Guvercinlik. The regiment mainly employs UH-lD/Hs and U-17Bs.

The 2nd Army Aviation Regiment is based in Malatya. Its lineage is similar to that of the 1st Army Aviation Regiment, having gained battalion status in 1972 and regiment status in

1973 in Konya. It was relocated to Malatya in 1985 when the 2nd Army Headquarters moved there. Internal Security operations account for 80 to 85% of its operations. Since the first cross-border operation into Northern Iraq in 1983, the unit has performed combat duties in the region. This regiment has UH-1H and U-17B battalions in its order of battle.

The 3rd Army Aviation Regiment is currently based at Erzincan. The unit was formed as an organic aviation group within the Army HQ Artillery Battalion in Erzurum. It was relocated to Erzincan as an Army Aviation company in 1967, evolving into the 3rd Army Aviation Battalion in 1972 and gaining regiment status in 1973. Its operational requirements culminated in a re-organisation in 1995. Besides UH-ID/Hs and U-17Bs, it operates a fleet of S-70A-28 Black Hawks, which were delivered between 1993 and 1996. During the re-organisation, it incorporated an attack helicopter Filo equipped with AH-IP Cobras. Needless to say, the regiment has been involved in anti-PKK operations for several years.

The Aegean Army owes its existence to the troubled relations between Turkey and Greece after 1974. The lineage of the Aegean Army Aviation Regiment differs slightly from that of the others. The unit can be traced back to the Army Aviation Company attached to the 28th Army Division. This company re-organised into a battalion, attached to the 4th Corps in Ankara, in 1974. It provided the core of the Aegean Army’s aviation regiment when a forward team of the battalion was detached to Gaziemir in 1975. The battalion then became the Aegean Army Aviation Regiment in 1996. This regiment is unique not only because it is the sole aviation regiment to be given a name rather than a number, but also because it is the only aviation regiment to operate the AS 532 UL. It comprises one fixed wing battalion equipped with U-17Bs, and two rotary wing battalions, one with UH-1D/H Hueys, the other with AS 532UL Cougars. Its aviation assets have been deployed in the southeast since 1989. The Cougar made its combat debut in Turkish service, undertaking southeast operations with the Aegean Army Aviation Regiment in 1996. One AS 532UL Cougar was shot down by a PKK SA-7 in May 1997. Although little is known about it, there is a Special Forces Aviation Flight equipped with a number of modified S-70A-28 Black Hawks. Ever since its existence was made public, the unit regularly participates in reviews and parades, showing off its Black Hawks complete with external tanks for long-range operations. This unit became famous when it carried out a raid deep into Northern Iraq which resulted in the capture of Semdin Sakik, the PKK’s second in command, in April 1998. Although the details of Operation Bat (Yarasa Harekati) remain classified, it was publicly confirmed that the teams were inserted into the region on the Special Forces S-70A-28 Black Hawks. The Turkish Special Forces Air Unit, which reports directly to the Chief of Staff HQ, flies a mix of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, such as the modified S-70A-28 Black Hawks for CSAR, CN-235MS for SIGINT and U-17Bs for liaison flights.

Future Plans

Army Aviation now considers itself the king of the battlefield and views the future with optimism. In yet another surprise move, Ankara recently declared its intention to make use of an FMS credit facility to buy 50 new Black Hawks that had been on hold since the decision to buy Cougars in 1994. The choice of more Black Hawks is, in a sense, a reaffirmation of the type’s superior performance in Turkish service. Indeed, the Black Hawk -whose reign was challenged by Cougar for a while — is the helicopter of choice for the troops involved in Internal Security operations in the southeast. Last year, when the operations were intensified, a full battalion was airlifted at night into a particular hot spot. In the 50th year of Army Aviation, the Turkish General Staff was proud to announce that it now had the capability to airlift a regiment-size unit around-the-clock in one hop.

The last 50 Black Hawk orders indicate that the Turkish Army’s new utility helicopter will be the S-70A-28, replacing its UH-1 fleet. However there are 20 Cougars in the inventory and ten more on the TAI assembly line. This fleet organisation based on different types will surely create maintenance and spare parts problems, but in the past Turkey had faced embargoes from its allies which have not been forgotten. Procurement from a variety of sources, therefore, provides some insurance against similar difficulties in the future. In the next century, the most significant development will be the conclusion of the attack helicopter bid. A number of manufacturers have been left out of the competition for political reasons. Bonn pressured Paris to pull the Eurocopter

Tiger/Tigre from tne Turkish competition. And the recent Turkish-ltalian rift over the extradition of Abdullah Ogalan, the PKK’s Chief, seems to have ruled out the Augusta A129 option, although the Italian helicopter was a strong contender for a while. In any case, Ankara is expected to announce the winner soon, as there is a pressing need for attack helicopters.

Several factors put the US-built AH-64D Apache and AH-1Z King Cobra to the forefront of the competition. However, the cancelled Super Cobra deal soured Turkish political opinion and so the recently developed Turkish-Israeli ties have turned the joint Russian-lsraeli Ka-50 into a strong contender.

Turkish Army Aviation plans to boost its airlift capability in the 21st Century with heavy-lift helicopters and light transport aircraft. It also identified a short-term need for eight heavyweight helicopters, with one Russian and two US types in competition. The recent Black Hawk order may well have tilted the scales in favour of the Sikorsky CH-53, against Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook and Russia’s Mi-26 Halo, but officials state that the best way would be to hold a competition between the rival contenders. After most of the Dornier D-28Ds were phased out, the transport capability has also come in for urgent attention. To solve this problem, there have been negotiations with the government to take at least three CN-235Ms from the TAI production lines or from the Turkish Air Force CN-235 fleet. It might also be possible to select a light transport aircraft from the civil market; however, there is a tendency to deal with this issue along with the primary training aircraft project.

At the moment T-41D and U-17B platforms are the only training aircraft. T-7 GBCs and U-17As are being transferred to the Turk Hava Kurumu (Turkish Air League) and Turkish Army Aviation wants to establish the same standardisation for fixed wing primary training courses that was achieved for the rotary wing training using AB-206s. The candidates are not known yet, but a Request for Proposals (RfP) will be issued, and — if the funds permit -there may be a requirement for 20 more AB-206s.

Last, but not least, Turkish Army Aviation is looking at a simulation project. There are four UH-1 simulators in service with the Army Aviation School and Training Centre. The newcomers, the AH-1W/P/S, S-70A-28 and AS-532 Cougars, created a training problem which will be further exacerbated if another type joins the inventory upon the conclusion of the Attack Helicopter project. Simulators are urgently required all these types — currently the Attack Helicopter Battalion is using four TAH-1P unarmed platforms to provide training for new Cobra pilots.

To deal with the growing simulator requirement, an RfP was announced last year and there is some evidence that Turkish Armed Forces will select a Private Finance Initiative deal — an option that is becoming increasingly popular nowadays.

With the acquisition of new utility, heavy-lift and attack helicopters, Turkish Army Aviation will doubtless continue to be the star of the Turkish Army throughout the next decade.

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