Tayyareci Mithat Bey

Tayyareci Mithat Bey was one of the first airmen in Turkish aviation. A seasoned fighter pilot who flew from front to front in the wooden aircraft of the day.

The windows were riddled with machine-gun fire and sleet was drifting in. Phosphorescent red and borax green shells were streaking through the black sky. He shoved the lever forward a little in preparation for landing, but the truth was that he couldn’t see how high he was flying or whether it would be better to get a little more altitude or start the descent. All he knew was that he was flying blind on a night flight over a dark plain.

Anti-aircraft fire began to slash the black sky like a knife. He dropped a few bombs and completed his mission for the day. Low on fuel, the engine’s deep croaks grew louder. Banking to the left, he extended the plane’s worn flaps to the maximum and went into landing mode. As he glided down to the dimly lit runway, his thoughts remained on the dogfight he had left behind a few minutes earlier…

One of Turkey’s first aviators, Tayyareci Mithat Bey is unfortunately an unsung hero today. As one of the first pilots in the Turkish Aeronautical Association, which began to take shape in the late Ottoman period, he made the rounds of the war zones in the canvas-covered wooden craft of the day. In Germany he served in the squadron of the legendary German aviator Freiherr Mansfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, and was the first Turkish pilot to fly the skies over Cyprus. During Turkey’s War of Liberation following World War I he trained young Turkish pilots. He also wrote the first book about flying ever published in Turkish.

FROM ARTILLERY TO THE AIR FORCE
Born in Istanbul in 1889, Mithat Nuri Bey graduated from the Imperial School of Engineering in 1911 with the rank of lieutenant. Awarded the ‘Medal of Honor’ by Sultan Mehmet Reşat, he was dispatched to Artillery School in Paris. But in 1911 during the formation of the Turkish Air Force, the Head of the Aviation Association, Süreyya Bey, came to Paris and transferred Mithat Bey from the artillery branch to the air force. This time he was sent to the École Aéro-nautique, also in Paris, from which he graduated in 1912. When the First World War broke out, he went to Ottoman ally Germany, where he served in the Royal Prussian Air Force.

TRAINER OF SUCCESSFUL PILOTS
When Tayyareci Mithat Bey returned to Istanbul after the war, he was appointed an instructor at the Flight School at Yeşilköy, or Ayastefanos as it was then called. Here he performed a great service by training fearless young Turkish pilots during Turkey’s War of Liberation, 1918-1923. During his years as a flight instructor, Mithat Bey also wrote and published ‘Vasıta-i Tayyare', the first technical book about the airplane in Turkish aviation history. During his career as a pilot, he suffered two serious crashes, one of which occurred in those years. He describes the incident as follows in his notes: “...I was an instructor at the Yeşilköy Flight School. I was making a test flight in a newly overhauled training plane. These planes don’t go very high and easily get off balance. They can only stay in the air about an hour. I don’t know how it happened but as I was flying over the airfield a loose screw came off the seat and the back flew off. Oh my God! Suddenly I fell over backwards. They was no way to grab the rudders. The plane veered out of control and began to flutter through the air like a leaf until it finally landed with a thud. The landing gear was completely smashed. I was thrown out the minute it hit the ground and tossed about ten meters head over heels. It’s said that aviation brooks no accidents. That may be, but accidents do happen from time to time. And I’ve had my share of them…”

A WAR PILOT
Tayyareci Mithat Bey’s career as a flight instructor didn’t last long. The Ottoman state was soon embroiled in another war. As the conflict heated up in Arabia, Mithat Bey was abruptly discharged from the flight school and sent to the southern front. In his own words, “I put myself in God’s hands. We fought against British squads of four planes each in four patched up old Fokers.” Once in a clash along the Syrian front our plane was downed and we took refuge briefly with the Arabs. Another time, as he was flying over Mersin on Turkey’s south coast, his craft was taken for a British plane and brought down by Turkish ‘friendly fire'. He escaped with an injury. He also served briefly at Pozantı near Adana, again on the south coast, before returning to Istanbul to resume his former post at the Yeşilköy Flight School.

AUTHOR OF TWO BOOKS
But dark days lay ahead. On 16 March 1920 Istanbul was occupied. When French commander Franchet d’Esperey arrived in the city for a brief sojourn, Mithat Bey, a young Ottoman lieutenant, was made the general’s aide-de-camp. Following that he was appointed Liaison Officer for De Goys de Mezeyrac, who had served briefly as an honorary major in the Ottoman army before returning to the armed forces of his own country during the occupation. Fleeing Istanbul with a few friends, Mithat Bey joined the Nationalist forces in Ankara. Since he was an engineer, he was appointed first to the Ankara Munitions Factory, from there to the Light Arms Repair Shop that had been set up in the Eskişehir Railroad Yard, and finally to the Air Transport Association of Kayseri.  He was awarded the Medal of Liberty for distinguished service during the War of Liberation. In 1926 he left the air force by choice and formed the Turkish branch of a German airline The ground floor of his summer home at 71 Istanbul Caddesi in Yeşilköy was transformed into the Istanbul Liaison Office. His son Şevket Tuncel describes those years in his book: “My father spent the summers at our home in Yeşilköy. From time to time seaplanes would come to the harbor near us. Unbeknownst to my mother, my father would take me up in a plane every day. We would fly as far as Heybeli (one of the Princes’ Islands), land at the Çam Limanı and then come back.”

Publishing his second book, ‘If you Want to Fly', in the 1940’s, Tayyareci Mithat Bey died in June 1971 at the age of 82. He is buried at the Karacaahmet Cemetery on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. In a showcase devoted to him today in one of the halls of the Aviation Museum at Yeşilköy, documents and photographs of this early aviation hero are displayed together with his books. And visitors are proud to make the acquaintance of the oldest flying ace in Turkish aviation history.