Sabiha Gökçen is the world’s first female fighter pilot. Born in Bursa, Turkey in 1913, she was orphaned early in life. Fortune began to smile on her in 1925, when the founder and President of the new Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, took her under his wing. He gave her the name Gökçen (“related to the sky”) and brought her to Ankara for more education. She completed her education at Üsküdar Girls College in Istanbul. In 1935, with war clouds over the horizon in Europe, the Turkish Aeronautical Association opened the country’s first civil aviation school. Atatürk participated in the opening ceremony and named the school Türkkusu (Turkish Bird).
He enrolled Gökçen as the first female student. It was a revolutionary move in an Islamic country. Following initial glider training, she attended advanced training in the USSR with seven male Turkish students. All hoped to teach flying. Gökçen was an apt pilot and within a year returned to Turkey bearing her glider instructor’s diploma. In 1936, she went on to military flight school in Eskisehir. Gökçen endured more than a year of rigorous basic and advanced training. Successful again, she earned her pilot wings in 1937. Flying extensively in French-built Breguet XIX and American-built Curtiss Hawk biplanes, Gökçen earned a place in history as the world’s first combat-ready female pilot.
In 1937, she took part in maneuvers in Turkish Thrace and on the country’s Aegean coast, and in combat operations in Eastern Anatolia. In the Dersim Operation, the First Air Regiment moved to Elazig to provide close air support for Turkish ground forces combating a foreign-provoked rebellion. Gökçen and other male pilots flew daily shifts. Her performance was superior, both as a pilot and observer. For this she was awarded the Turkish Aeronautical Association’s first “Jeweled Medal.” In 1938, she was invited to tour several nations of southeastern Europe. On 16 June, she began a 5-day tour flying a Vultee-V bomber. From Istanbul, she flew to Athens and Thessalonika in Greece, and then to Sofia, Bulgaria.
At her next stop, in Belgrade, the Chief of Yugoslavia’s General Staff awarded her the “White Eagle,” the country’s highest military decoration. Her last stop was Bucharest, Romania. On this tour, she had flown nearly 2000 miles over the rugged mountains of the Balkans. Next, Gökçen was named Chief Instructor at the Türkkusu Flight School, where 3 years before she had earned her glider wings. In the 1950’s, Gökçen made two trips to the United States, and in 1990 she was invited to India. She retired from active flying in 1964, having flown a long list of aircraft from France, Great Britain, Germany, the United States, and Turkey. The Fédéderation Aéronautique Internationale awarded Gökçen its Gold Medal in 1991 for outstanding achievements in aviation.
She is a member of many international associations, including the Ninety-Nines, the premier organization of American female aviators since 1925. There are statues of her at Türkkusu and at Headquarters, Turkish Air Force. The Turkish Aeronautical Association published her book, My Life Following in Atatürk’s Footsteps, on the 100th anniversary of Atatürk’s birth.