Young Turks

The Turkish Air Demo team is winning friends at home with its seven Northrop F-5s.

THE HANGAR AT NAVAL STATION NORFOLK in Virginia was packed with mom-and-pop vendors. I rounded a corner and there, by the aluminum siding display, sat Turk Yildizlari—the Turkish Stars—elbows on knees, slumped on wire chairs.  Norfolk’s invitation to the annual airshow had been accepted with pleasure, but the Turkish air force demonstration team did not have the money to send both pilots and airplanes. So they sat, desperately bored, spring-loaded for visitors.

I introduced myself as an aviation journalist and a representative of the International Council of Air Shows. “I’m planning a visit to Turkey at the end of this year,” I began. “Maybe I could see your base in Konya?” My plan was to deliver ICAS training materials to help the air force prepare for its upcoming 90th anniversary airshow.

“What have you seen of Turkey?” asked Taskin Buyukyurtsever. Each pilot brightened in turn as I mentioned his hometown. As we talked shop, the crowd in the hangar made a hasty retreat, suggesting that something good was flying. The team members’ eyes followed the crowd’s heels and I watched the pilots slump anew. I promised to write them when my plans firmed, and in October 2000, after a stopover in Ankara to consult with Turkish air force headquarters, I arrived at Jet Base Konya and was met by public affairs crewman Buyukyurtsever and team boss and squadron leader Ahmet Civelek.

I accepted a cup of piping hot sweet tea (cay) served in the standard squat, clear glass with metal rim, so hot I had learned to hold it with a makeshift oven mitt. (In Turkey, refusing cay is akin to shrinking from an extended hand.)

For our briefing, we were crammed between Civelek’s desk and a conference table covered in sheepskin. On a bookshelf was a sphere of blue glass embedded with a mock eyeball, a talisman that, according to folkloric tradition from Turkey’s ancient past, deflects bad luck wafting from the stares of strangers. In Turkey, the symbol, nazar boncuglu, appears on pendants, pins, T-shirts, and rings. Cars are bumper-stickered, painted, or placarded with a blue bead coming, going, or both.

Civelek had made the nazar boncuglu for his team. He had built a tiny F-5 that rested on a field of wool, capped by a tumbler representing the Anatolian sky and by a cardboard nazar. Outside, Jet Base Konya is guarded by an eight-inch-diameter ceramic eyeball at its front door.

The Turkish air force—Tuaf—is one of the world’s oldest, founded in 1911 under the Turkish Aviation Commission. That July, Cavalry Captain Fesa Evensrel and Engineer Lieutenant Yusuf Kenan were dispatched to the Blériot School in France. By February 1912 they were aviators, and by year’s end, Turkey had opened its own air school and boasted 17 aircraft, including three Deperdussins, four Bristols, and a Blériot.

Last spring, Turkish Aerospace Industries completed a replica of that Blériot to tour the Turkish countryside. At the Turkish International Air Display on June 1, which celebrated the Tuaf’s 90th anniversary, it overflew Izmir Bay before baking on the apron at Cigli Airfield, Izmir, along with the Turkish Stars’ C-130 as well as dozens of static-display aircraft, including Turkey’s frontline fighter, the F-16, and military demonstration teams visiting from 16 countries. But that was months ahead. First, cay at Stars’ headquarters, Jet Base Konya.

All under the gaze of Mustafa Kemal. A portrait of Kemal, who in 1923 founded the Turkish Republic (and who was later called Ataturk, Father of the Turks), graces every square, office, gas station, restaurant, and most homes in Turkey. In 1925, Kemal launched the Turkish Air Association  in order to get young people interested in flight, and to create a tangible symbol for his plan to modernize the Turkish Republic. Ataturk called for public donations. Hundreds of thousands of peasants dipped into wedding dowries and sold handmade goods for the cause. By 1932, grassroots campaigns produced enough money for the purchase of 350 aircraft, each bearing the name of a community. On statuary and banners the Tuaf honors Ataturk’s words, “Istikbal Goklerdedir”—roughly, “The future is in the skies.”

The Turkish Stars is not Turkey’s first demonstration team, simply the first with a flight of seven and the first to routinely fly for the public. The progression of airplanes and pilots is glorified in posterboard and plastic models in the lobby of the squadron command.

Early demonstration pilots were more accurately test pilots. In 1964, four combat instructors who had mastered the F-86E presented exhibitions, mainly to the Tuaf command. The McDonnell F-4 and Northrop F-5A soon followed, then, in trickles from the Netherlands, the NF-5A/B. In Dutch service, NF-5s evolved into trainers; as the Netherlands modernized, the Tuaf bought them piecemeal. One of the first refinements was the installation of a nazar boncuglu in every cockpit.

By 1992, the Tuaf launched a four-ship team, established as a subdivision of the elite fighter weapons school, which was attended by the top guns of Turkey. The name “Turk Yildizlari” was approved in 1993, and the livery was reworked from brown-tone camouflage to carnival-red and white. The show could go on, partly because mainline fighters could take the NF-5’s place. Following the 1991 Gulf War, the Tuaf became oe of the largest recipients of U.S. surplus weaponry.

In 1994, the Turkish Stars launched their first official display in Diyarbakir, a southeastern city that rose from the trading posts and inns of the ancient Silk Road. As of 1996, the team had 10 NF-5As and two NF-5Bs, a tidy squadron building, plus a commentator, a weather services officer, six non-commissioned officers handling public relations, and 13 officer pilots.

Inside the Stars’ headquarters, Buyukyurtsever delivered his impromptu read of a computerized script. “We represent the concrete discipline of Turkish Armed Forces and display the high performing effectiveness of modern Turkish Air Force to the entire world. Our motto that we always follow is ‘Peace at Home, Peace Abroad.’ ” Buyukyurtsever alternated between tea, cookies, and keyboard.

Buyukyurtsever clicked “Next Page” with his mouse. “Every maneuver in the display confirms the high confidence of the Turkish people and our allied nations on Turkish armed forces,” he recited from the screen. “We create enthusiasm to aviation among young people.” Buyukyurtsever refilled his cay. “We are full of amazing emotion of being honored,” he read.

Our group moved to the briefing room, appointed in Cineplex comfort with a video projection system, 12-speaker sound system, and 75 electric blue La-Z-Boy-style stadium seats. I remarked on the room’s plushness. “I don’t know why the U.S. briefing rooms are so uncomfortable,” said Nihat Yalcindag, Left Wing. “I see they often use airplane seats. We sit in those enough…. Why not be comfortable?”

The Stars gathered around a television to review their most recent show video. Yalcindag collected a stack of sugar cubes, which, given the flow of cay, were in ready supply.

“These seven are jets parked near the taxiway,” Yalcindag began, arranging the cubes. “We walk between the audience and the NF-5s this way, in a line.” He inched a toothpick between the cubes (the aircraft) and some biscuits (the audience). “We then break from the line one by one, turn and salute the highest ranking member of the audience, shake hands, and walk to the jet.”

Unlike the U.S. Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, the Stars are not a flying recruitment poster. As former narrator Orhan Tamer summarized, “Recruiting is not an issue in Turkey. Our children are recruited congenitally.” With few exceptions, service is compulsory; one must enter before turning 35 and serve for eight to 18 months, depending on the assignment’s level of hardship. Military rotations may include coast guard, navy, air force, army, the gendarmerie, a kind of community police, or border patrol, in which the chief pastimes are swapping stories of hometowns and sipping tea.

The message that the Turkish Stars convey to their Turkish audiences is twofold. They try to instill pride but also to soften the face of army and air force assets, which for 15 years of civil strife were Bell Textron, Agusta-Bell, and Eurocopter helicopters. Turkish forces put down clashes with ethnic groups, chiefly Kurds, fighting for autonomy in the rugged hill towns of the southeast part of the country.

Outside the Turkish Stars’ offices, their jets sat on the ramp. Their vivid red and white was more stunning in contrast with the squadrons of NF-5s and a larger assortment of aircraft in desert camouflage. Seeing the daunting collection of old iron, it was easy to forget that the Tuaf flies 240 F-16s, mainly model Cs.

At the time of my visit, the Tuaf also had about a hundred F-4s, with nearly half to be replaced this year with Phantom 2000s, which are F-4s upgraded by Israel Aircraft Industries. Cadets begin training in the Cessna T-37, graduate to the Northrop T-38, then learn fighter tactics at Konya, which has 30 F-5s in two squadrons. One squadron instills advanced combat technique. The other serves the Turkish Stars, which flies 10 jets to every show. Seven perform while three remain at the nearest base as spares.

Wingtip tanks that once held fuel now hold airshow smoke fluid. Installation of the smoke system entailed permanently disabling the NF-5’s air-to-air refueling capability. With only centerline tanks, the Stars have still wandered as far as England and Denmark, in multiple hops of the maximum 630 miles. (A transatlantic trip would require shipping the jets.) But currently, Turkish air command has decided to limit operational range to one refueling.

Within that zone, Turk Yildizlari paints the town red. Literally. “I guess this type of paint might be used to paint a car or a house,” figured Civelek, “but it is mixed a little different to evaporate.” The Stars first experimented with tinted jet fuel as airshow smoke to match the Turkish flag. Several more blends were too volatile or not volatile enough. The team finally mixed a form of house paint with standard gasoline. In the right conditions, most of the paint evaporates before it mists the audience. Not so over the concrete apron at Konya, which is flecked with red and white.

As the smoke settles, the Stars crank New Age music from a ground-based speaker system. For a full air demonstration of 20 maneuvers in 25 minutes, the accompaniment is a heraldic chorus with a techno beat, melding percussion with refrains of computer-generated jet noise, staccato brass, and a haunting, nautical undercurrent.

The Stars appear at up to 20 cities yearly, including two abroad (appearances last year included Austria and Romania). Most domestic sites are chosen by the team itself. “We often pick our hometowns to fly, so we can at least say we got a thousand people to come,” said formation leader Tamer Sireli. “They are often the pilot’s family and the rest of the village.”

Including pilots, the team arrives in a complement of 45—60 if they go abroad. “Normally an organization in another country pays for all fuel and expense if they invite us,” said Sireli. “With big nations that’s not difficult, but Slovakia, Armenia—certain facilities are not there. They don’t even clean their runways, and it is unsafe for us to land.”

The Stars run an impressive merchandise market, from an NF-5 air freshener to flightsuit patches, window stickers, and lapel pins. “We do not make a profit from these things,” said Buyukyurtsever. “We use the money to make more merchandise and it just makes us better known.” Orhan Tamer started with a semi-trailer and designed a custom rig complete with folding staircase, souvenir racks, vast bins for caps and posters, and a credit card processor.

Domestically, all the team’s costs are borne by the state; in contrast, the U.S. Blue Angels and Thunderbirds require fuel, lodging, and a fleet of cars and amenities. “No sponsor is asked for money,” says Buyukyurtsever. “We don’t need money, we need people to watch our flight,” Tamer said. “Maybe in five years we will have fan clubs? The typical Turkish entertainment is a barbecue by the roadside, or a walk in the forest. Our people do not know what this is: ‘Airshow? What is that?’ ”

“At a first-time show we might get a few hundred,” said Buyukyurtsever. “Next time maybe 4,000, and if we go back the third year it will be up to 20,000.”

The Stars prepare from September to March, then fly up to 35 shows in a season. During show season, the F-5 Konya squadron lends combat training support. From May 20 through June 10, 2000, the Tuaf participated in NATO’s Dynamic Mix 2000, an unprecedented show of cooperation with its neighbor and centuries-old rival, Greece. Relations had been especially chilly since the 1974 Cyprus crisis, with that island nation still divided north and south, loyal to either Turkey or Greece. “I just heard that our neighbor—lovely Greece—will establish an acro team with their F-16s,” said Tamer. “They have had nothing before in their air force history and they do this because Turkey does this.”

Before departing for an airshow site, the U.S. Blue Angels know the parking spot of each jet, down to the GPS latitude and longitude’s nearest second. And to perform a demonstration over featureless terrain, U.S. teams often require visual aids. The Blue Angels Support Manual calls for an artificial showline that is visible to pilots from three nautical miles away and recommends a 5,000- by 40-foot strip of white plastic with a centerpoint marker opposite the center of the crowd.

Remote sites for most Turkish shows are bordered by nondescript farms: brown farms, green farms,  greenish-brown farms, brownish-green farms. “Do you set an artificial flightline?” I asked. “How do you mark the aerobatic box?”

Commander Civelek leaned forward. “Let me see this manual.”  Three pilots crowded in to see. Buyukyurtsever translated the captions, and Civelek turned the Support Manual diagram sideways, then upside down. He shook his head and grinned. “Our lead picks a checkpoint,” he said. “The checkpoint that is there, that is in the world. We just look at the Earth with our eyes.” Civelek burst into rapid-fire Turkish,  pointed to the manual, and he and his pilots erupted in laughter. “We use eyes!” he said.

In an airshow display, Turkey performs for a domestic crowd but is also hoping to show its Western neighbors it would be a valuable addition to the European Union. Its military strength, as a NATO member since 1952, is its strategic position between Europe and the Middle East, where it can easily help reinforce the no-fly zone over Iraq, to its southeast. For the 90th anniversary, the Tuaf staff emphasized one of the show’s intentions in its letters of invitation to every armed force of the European Union. “We believe that your participation will help a lot to foster the relations between our air forces,” the staff wrote in English.

But Turkey falls short of European Union economic standards, and the 90th anniversary show came at a critical point in accession talks. Turkey has suffered triple-digit-a-year inflation as recently as 1999, and in 2001 national government expenditures bloated to a boggling 48.4 quadrillion Turkish lire (TL), more than $40 billion. Since the autumn of 2000, the International Monetary Fund has pumped emergency loans into Turkey’s central banks three times. The most recent: $10 billion, three weeks before the airshow. Bucking EU mandates, the TL was floated last February; by showtime, its value had diminished to 1.2 million TL to the dollar; now it is past 1.6 million. “We had difficulty with delivering this show because of the currency crisis,” said Colonel Ismail Tas, incoming Tuaf secretary general.

Yet deliver it they did, using it to improve the country’s standing among EU members. The Turkish Stars took diplomatic flights with visiting teams and dispensed charm, hospitality, and sweet tea to 16 foreign air forces, some belonging to EU countries, others that were fellow EU hopefuls. Afterward, the teams enjoyed a rollicking, aromatic, tiki-lit bash at Cigli airfield, with an open bar and barbecue.

A secure Turkish air base like Cigli had never before been opened to the public, but senior command hopes that this first experience will mark a new era of outreach within and beyond Turkey’s borders. At Cigli, as elsewhere in military ceremonies, June’s anniversary show opened with a parachute drop of a 40-foot banner bearing a portrait of Ataturk. In a canvas on Cigli’s main hangar, Ataturk looked to the skies: Istikbal Goklerdedir. Turk Yildizlari hopes to bring that vision to the United States—next time, along with their jets.�


The show opened with a parachute drop of a portrait of Mustafa Kemal, whose words "The future is in the skies" inspire the air force. Roger A. Mola

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