ANKARA — In December 2013, Turkish officials warned that because military pilots were leaving service at such an alarming rate, much greater attention must be paid to the training regime. Slightly over a year later, Turkey mourns the loss of six pilots in a span of six days.
Two Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance jets crashed into a hill on Feb. 27 near Malatya, eastern Turkey, killing all four pilots aboard. On March 5, an F-4E fighter crashed over an electronic warfare test field near Konya in central Anatolia, killing two pilots.
The Turkish military ruled out technical reasons for both mishaps. A statement from the military headquarters March 10 blamed the accidents on piloting errors.
Although the military denied technical failures, about the aircraft, it said on March 11 that it would decommission the remaining eight RF-4E aircraft in the Air Force's inventory as of March 12. It said the F-4Es, which Turkey jointly upgraded with Israeli Aerospace Industries in the 1990s, would remain in service until 2020.
The F-4s first entered service in the Turkish Air Force in 1974. Since then 10 RF-4Es and 50 F-4Es have crashed.
Analysts and experts point to possible training weaknesses at the Air Force.
"The morale has been low among officers over the past few years due mainly to a slew of legal cases targeting their colleagues," said one insider. "Mass departures from the service also has weakened the training concept."
Since 2010, several high-ranking officers have been charged with have been accused in mega trials since 2010 on charges of attempting to stage a coup d'etat against the government and with espionage. Several officers were retired, purged or sent to jail. Today, prosecutors admit some of the evidence against the defendants had been "fabricated."
But since 2010, more than 800 Air Force pilots have quit the service, seeking careers in civilian aviation. Of those, nearly 600 were combat pilots.
"We had so many valuable friends [colleagues] who left the Air Force after being implicated [in these trials]. No doubt, they represented a quality [in the service]. But our friends today do not represent a lower quality. I cannot say that there is no morale decline [in the service]," a senior officer, Gen.eral Abidin Unal, commander of the Combat Air Force in Eskisehir, western Turkey, told reporters March 11.
"It is an open secret that things are not going well in the Air Force for some time. The departure of scores of experienced pilots has weakened training," said one Air Force officer. "Perhaps we need to revise our training concept and augment personnel."
An Air Force pilot admitted that the service is no longer able to recruit capable of recruiting luring in or sustaining a sufficient number of experienced pilots. But he said the accidents in February and March were not a direct result of that.
"Technical failure is out of the question. Take the twin accidents in Malatya. You cannot have the same technical failure on two aircraft at the same moment," he said. "All three accidents are apparently a result of piloting errors. And I think it is just a bad coincidence that they happened within six days."
But a military aerospace expert said that a whole training regime concept cannot have remained unaffected after by the departure of so many pilots within a few years. "We are talking about several hundreds of deserters, not just a few," he said. "I am not sure if the Air Force has fully replaced them. I would think it has not."
In 2013, the Air Force silently phased out a fleet of nearly 50 F-5 lead-in fighter/trainer jets that Israel's Elbit Systems had upgraded and delivered in the early 2000s under a nearly $150 million contract.
Tusas Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is upgrading nearly 60 T-38s to replace the F-5s and older T-38s; the T-38 is a version of the F-5 modified for training.
The Turkish Air Force also has 41 KT-1 trainers supplied by Korean Aerospace Industries under a 2007 contract, and recently signaled that it may sign a $150 million follow-on order for 15 more KT-1s. Meanwhile, Turkey is developing its indigenous basic trainer, the Hurkus, and TAI has already received an order for 10 aircraft from the military.
Military officials say that by 2017, the Turkish trainer fleet will comprise screeners (the initial trainers), the KT-1, the Hurkus, the upgraded T-38 (T-38T) and the F-16. By 2025, the trainer fleet will have the screeners, the Hurkus, an indigenous trainer designed and developed for the fighter Turkey intends to build, the TF-X, and a combination of the F-16s, TF-Xs and F-35s.