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 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."
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.
"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."
"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."
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.
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.
Burak Ege Bekdil is the Turkey correspondent for Defense News.