A determined path

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first plane crash in Israel and the centenary since the outbreak of WWI.

The Turkish Aviators Monument in the Galilee. (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
The Turkish Aviators Monument in the Galilee.
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
The centenary of the outbreak of World War I on August 4, 1914, passed this week. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the first plane crash in Israel.
Notwithstanding that both Germany and the Allies stationed squadrons of reconnaissance and fighter aircraft here during the four-year war, the two anniversaries aren’t directly linked.
The crash of the Turkish aviators on a peacetime military mission that February foreshadowed World War I – and the deaths of 8.5 million soldiers and seven million civilians in the global conflict. Aviation’s age of innocence was about to end. Soon flimsy canvas and wire monoplanes with sputtering engines would be replaced by sturdy biplanes and their mounted machine guns.
The story begins on December 31, 1913 – a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903 – when the first aircraft landed in Jerusalem. Flown by French aviator Marc Bonnier, the epic flight was part of a seven-week tour of the Mediterranean that began and ended in France.
Bonnier’s flight coincided with that of another pioneering French aviator, Jules Védrines, who took off from Nancy on November 20, 1913, in his singleengine monoplane, flying through Istanbul (then Constantinople) and the Holy Land to reach Egypt. Védrines’s expedition was part of a competition organized by the Paris newspaper Le Matin and the National Air League to fly from Paris to Cairo. He landed on the beach north of Jaffa on December 29, 1913, and completed his 5,600-km. odyssey in Heliopolis two days later.
The Ottoman High Command was quick to respond to the dawn of aviation in the Middle East, and planned a 2,370-km., 13-stop expedition from Constantinople to Cairo and Alexandria. The Turks wished to demonstrate they were as skilled aviators as the Europeans. With great fanfare, two monoplanes took to the skies on February 8, 1914, from the newly established Aviation School in Hagios Stefanos (today Istanbul Atatürk Airport in Yesilköy) on the Sea of Marmara. Each was manned by two officers.
After considerable difficulty, including crossing the Taurus Mountains in eastern Turkey at an elevation of more than 4,000 meters – with open cockpits and no oxygen or pressure suits – the planes reached Damascus.
The Deperdussin TT monoplane of artillery second lieutenant Nuri Bey and his co-aviator Ismail Hahki Bey needed repairs. But on February 27, the Blériot XI manned by navy lieutenant Fethi Bey and his navigator, artillery first lieutenant Sadik Bey, set out en route to Jerusalem. A crowd gathered south of the city in what is today Talpiot, waiting to greet the heroes at a rudimentary landing strip. Their plane never arrived.
During a gala soiree that Friday at the Ottoman saraya (government center) in Damascus, Nuri Bey was handed a telegram informing him that his comrades had crashed. Crossing the Golan Heights en route to Jerusalem, they had been unprepared for the wind shear at the edge of the plateau and the powerful gusts blowing off Lake Kinneret. They had plummeted to the ground east of the lake, near today’s Kibbutz Ha’on. Both airmen were killed.
Their remains were carried to the Tzemah station on the recently built Haifa-Damascus spur of the Hejaz Railroad. A special train arrived from Damascus to transport the fallen aviators. They had a state funeral, and were interred next to Damascus’s Great Umayyad Mosque at the foot of the mausoleum of Saladin – the Kurdish warrior who had defeated the Crusaders.
After attending the funeral and fixing their aircraft’s mechanical problems, Nuri Bey and navigator Ismail Hahki Bey set out March 9 for Jaffa, en route to Jerusalem. Landing near the beach, the aviators were greeted by a patriotic crowd of 20,000 Jews, Arabs and Turks.
The Gymnasia Herzliya high school orchestra performed for the occasion, and the champagne flowed freely.
Taking off again, the two men’s plane flew a few hundred yards out over the Mediterranean and then crashed into the sea. Rescuers were able to save the navigator, but the pilot drowned trying to swim ashore. He, too, is buried in Damascus.
The Turkish inquiry into the crashes didn’t mention that the pilot and navigator may have had too much to drink. According to historian Yerach Paran of Kibbutz Ha’on – who has dedicated two decades to investigating the story of the Turkish flyers, a letter that a Tel Aviv spectator wrote to her mother in Czarist Poland described the aviators as being intoxicated.
With the empire’s prestige at stake, the Ottoman Air Force now felt compelled to complete the mission. A third plane was sent; it, too, crashed near Istanbul.
In its fourth attempt, Turkey sent pilot Salim Bey and navigator Kemal Bey and their Blériot XI plane Edremit by ship to Beirut. Taking off from there on May 1, 1914, they became the first Ottoman aviators to reach Jerusalem. They finally landed in Cairo a week later, and completed their mission to Alexandria on May 15.
Years later, Salim Bey would write: “The trip could not be abandoned halfway after the death of my colleagues.
The Cairo voyage, which was a national and public desire, also became an honorable duty for us aviators.”
Sultan Mehmet V ordered the construction of two monuments to commemorate the first martyrs of the fledgling Ottoman military aviation – one at the crash site near Lake Kinneret, and a more imposing one in the empire’s capital, in front of what was then city hall.
Minister of War Enver Pasha laid the foundation stone for the Constantinople monument on April 2, 1914. It was inaugurated in 1916.
According to Esther Hecht, writing in a recent issue of Hadassah magazine, the story of the brave aviators became part of the curriculum at Turkey’s Air Force Academy. The Turkish Air Force Museum displays the propeller, uniforms and camera from the ill-fated mission.
Poems and articles were written in the aviators’ honor. And in 1934, the port of Makri in southwestern Turkey, having lost its Greek population in the 1923 Turkish-Greek population exchange, was renamed Fethiye in honor of the pilot. A statue of Fethi Bey, standing atop massive eagle’s wings, overlooks the harbor. In 2001, the Turkish film Altin Kanatlar (Golden Wings) recreated the flight, and Fethi’s image graced a postage stamp and phone card.
The Turkish Aviators Monument by the Sea of Galilee, though more modest than its Constantinople counterpart, was also erected quickly. But with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the obelisk was almost forgotten.
Paran rescued it from obscurity and planted the red and white bougainvillea bushes that decorate the memorial site, representing the colors of the Republic of Turkey’s flag.
Thanks to his efforts, a Turkish delegation came to the memorial in 2001 and brought two eagles carved of stone, symbols of the Turkish Air Force. That year, when Turkish-Israeli relations were at their peak, a historic reenactment flew from Istanbul to Cairo via Tel Aviv – albeit in more modern planes.
Two years later, Hebrew University cartographer and historian Dov Gavish, along with Ben-Gurion University geographer Zvi Shilony, published the Hebrew-language book Man-Made Birds on Our Horizon: First Flights over Palestine, 1913-1914. •