Sabiha Gökçen

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Sabiha Gökçen
A photo of Sabiha Gökçen from the 1930s
Born(1913-03-22)22 March 1913
Died22 March 2001(2001-03-22) (aged 88)
Resting placeCebeci Askerî Şehitliği, Ankara
Alma materÜsküdar American Academy
Occupation(s)Aviator, author and spokesperson
Known forWorld's first female fighter pilot[1]
SpouseKemal Esiner (1940–1943)
Parent(s)Mustafa İzzet Bey and Hayriye Hanım
AwardsFAI Gold Air Medal

Sabiha Gökçen (Turkish: [sabiˈha ɟøcˈtʃɛn]; 22 March 1913 – 22 March 2001)[2] was a Turkish aviator. During her flight career, she flew around 8,000 hours and participated in 32 different military operations.[3] She was the world's first female fighter pilot,[1][4][5] aged 23.[6][a] As an orphan,[12] she was one of the nine children adopted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

She is recognized as the first female combat pilot by The Guinness Book of World Records[1] (in fact she was the first female fighter pilot, as the first female combat pilot was Marie Marvingt in 1915[7]) and was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of "The 20 Greatest Aviators in History" published by the United States Air Force in 1996.[13]

Sabiha Gökçen Airport, the second airport in Istanbul, is named after her.

Early life[edit]

Daughters of Mustafa Kemal; left to right: Zehra Aylin, Rukiye (Erkin) and Sabiha (Gökçen).
Left to right: Rukiye (Erkin), Sabiha (Gökçen), Afet (İnan), and Zehra Aylin.

According to official Turkish sources and interviews with Sabiha Gökçen, she was the daughter of Mustafa Izzet Bey and Hayriye Hanım, both of whom were of Bosniak ancestry.[14] During Atatürk's visit to Bursa in 1925, Sabiha, who was only twelve years old, asked for permission to talk with Atatürk and expressed her wish to study at a boarding school. After hearing her story and about her miserable living conditions, Atatürk decided to adopt her and asked her brother for permission to take her to the Çankaya Presidential Residence in Ankara, where Sabiha would live with Atatürk's other adoptive daughters, Zehra, Afet and Rukiye. Gökçen attended the Çankaya Primary School in Ankara and the Üsküdar American Academy in Istanbul.

In February 2004 an article in the newspaper Agos, headlined "The Secret of Sabiha Hatun", contained an interview with Hripsime Sebilciyan, a former resident of Gaziantep, who claimed to be Gökçen's niece and that Gökçen herself was of Armenian ancestry.[15] Sebilciyan claimed that Gökçen's birth name was Hatun Sebilciyan and that she was adopted by Atatürk from an orphanage in Cibin in Urfa Province.[15] Sebilcyan said that Gökçen had four brothers: Sarkis, Boğos, Haçik and Hovhannes, and a sister, Diruhi (Hripsime's mother).[15] According to Turkish-Armenian linguist Pars Tuğlacı, who knew Gökçen personally and deemed Sebilciyan's story to be false, Gökçen was born to an Armenian family from Bursa and was left in an orphanage there when her family was deported during the Armenian genocide.[16] Tuğlacı also claimed that Gökçen later found out about her Armenian roots when members of her family contacted her from Beirut and that she visited her Armenian relatives there.[16]

However, these claims are disputed by Turkish sources and interviews with Gökçen, as well as by her adopted sister Ülkü Adatepe, who reiterated that Gökçen and both of Sabiha's parents were of Bosniak ancestry.[14][17][18]

After the introduction of the Surname Law, Atatürk gave her the family name Gökçen on 19 December 1934. 'Gök' means sky in Turkish and Gökçen means 'belonging or relating to the sky'. However, she was not an aviator at that time,[19][20] and it was only six months later that Sabiha developed a passion for flying.


Sabiha Gökçen in Athens, during her 1938 Balkan tour.

Atatürk attached great importance to aviation and for that purpose oversaw the foundation of the Turkish Aeronautical Association in 1925. He took Sabiha along with him to the opening ceremony of Türkkuşu (Turkish Bird) Flight School on 5 May 1935. During the airshow of gliders and parachutists invited from foreign countries, she got very excited. As Atatürk asked her whether she would also want to become a skydiver, she nodded, "yes indeed, I am ready right now". Atatürk instructed Fuat Bulca, the head of the school, to enroll her as the first female trainee. She was meant to become a skydiver, but she was much more interested in flying, so she earned her pilot's licence. Gökçen, together with seven male students, was sent to Crimea, Soviet Union for an advanced course in glider and powered aircraft piloting. However, when she was in Moscow, she learned the news that her sister Zehra had died, and with collapsed morale, she immediately returned to Turkey, isolating herself from social activities for some time.

After a while, at Atatürk's insistence, Gökçen began working again. At Eskişehir Aviation School, she received special flight training from Savmi Uçan and Muhittin Bey. She began flying a motorized aircraft for the first time on February 25, 1936.

Gökçen, due to the success in flight training, Ataturk himself said: "You've made me very happy ... Now I can explain what I have planned for you ... Perhaps you'll be the first woman military pilot in the world ... For the world's first military woman pilot to be of Turkish descent would be a proud event, you can imagine, right? Now I will act immediately and send you to Tayyare School in Eskişehir. You will receive a special education there".[19]

Sabiha Gökçen and her colleagues in front of a Bréguet 19

As girls were not being accepted by the Turkish War Academies in those years, Gökçen was provided, on Atatürk's orders, with a personalized uniform, and attended a special education programme of eleven months at the Tayyare Mektebi (Aviation School) in Eskişehir in the academic year 1936-1937. After receiving her flight patents (diploma) she trained to become a war pilot at the 1st Airplane Regiment in Eskişehir for six months.

She improved her skills by flying bomber and fighter planes at the 1st Aircraft Regiment in Eskişehir Airbase and gained experience after participating in the Aegean and Thrace exercises in 1937. In that same year, she took part in military operations during the Dersim rebellion and became the first Turkish female air force combat pilot. Turkish planes flew numerous sorties against the rebels during the rebellion. A report of the General Staff mentioned the "serious damage" that had been caused by her 50 kg bomb upon a group of rebels. Nuri Dersimi claimed that the Turkish air force bombed the district with poisonous gas in 1938.[21] In an interview she gave to Halit Kıvanç in 1956, Sabiha Gökçen stated: "They gave us the order 'Shoot every living thing you see', we were firebombing even the goats which were the food of the rebels".[22][23] She was awarded with a commendation for her actions during the operation. She was also awarded the Turkish Aeronautical Association's first "Murassa (Jeweled) Medal" for her superior performance in this operation.[19]

In 1938, she carried out a five-day flight around the Balkan countries to great acclaim. In the same year, she was appointed chief trainer of the Türkkuşu Flight School of the Turkish Aeronautical Association, where she served until 1954 as a flight instructor[19] and became a member of the association's executive board. She trained four female aviators: Edibe Subaşı, Yıldız Uçman, Sahavet Karapas and Nezihe Viranyalı. Gökçen flew around the world for a period of 28 years until 1964. Her book entitled A Life Along the Path of Atatürk was published in 1981 by the Turkish Aeronautical Association to commemorate Atatürk's 100th birthday.


The question of Gökçen's ethnic origin made headlines and sparked controversy in 2004, when Hrant Dink, Turkish-Armenian journalist, published an interview with a person identifying as Gökçen's niece that claimed that Gökçen was of Armenian origin.[24] Many contested the matter, including her adopted sister, Ülkü Adatepe, who stated that Gökçen was of Bosniak ancestry.[17][25][26][27] The notion that Gökçen could have been Armenian caused controversy in the country; the Turkish General Staff released a statement saying that the debate "mocked national values" and was "not conducive to social peace".[28] Hrant Dink, the journalist who wrote the article, came under criticism, most notably from newspaper columnists and Turkish nationalist groups.[29][24] A leaked US consul dispatch penned by an official from the consulate in Istanbul observed that the entire affair "exposed an ugly streak of racism in Turkish society."[29] It is also believed that the affair was one of the reasons that led to Hrant Dink's assassination in Istanbul in January 2007.[30][31][32]

Death and legacy [edit]

Gökçen died of heart failure at Gülhane Military Medical Academy on 22 March 2001, her 88th birthday.[33] [34]

Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul is named after her.[35] It opened on 8 January 2001, 2 months before her death.

She is recognized as the first female combat pilot by The Guinness Book of World Records.[1]

She was selected as the only female pilot for the poster of "The 20 Greatest Aviators in History" published by the United States Air Force in 1996.[13]

That year, she was also honored at the Air Command and Staff College's Gathering of Eagles at Maxwell Air Force Base. The program encourages the study of aviation history by emphasizing the contributions of aviation pioneers.[5]

She was the subject of a Google Doodle honouring her birthday, which was displayed in Turkey on 22 March 2009.[36]

Awards and medals[edit]

  • Number one Medal of Övünç (Murassa) and certificate of Turkish Aeronautical Association,
  • The Badge of the White Eagle, the highest badge given by the Yugoslav Army, and an army badge,
  • Romanian Army Aviation Badge,
  • Commemorative medals awarded for the Thracian and Aegean maneuvers,
  • Pioneer women's plaque in their professions, given at the ceremony in the Turkish Grand National Assembly on the 50th anniversary of Turkish women gaining suffrage and election rights,
  • Honorary Doctor of Selcuk University,
  • Gold medal awarded by THK in 1989,
  • The FAI gold medal, awarded by the International Aviation Federation in 1991 to aviators showing outstanding success in all branches of aviation,
  • The title of "one of the 20 aviators who made their mark in world history" at the ceremony at the USA's Maxwell Air Base in 1996,
  • 28 plaques given by the army, various associations and organizations.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Others such as Marie Marvingt[7][8] and Evgeniya Shakhovskaya[9][10][11] preceded her as military pilots in other roles, but not as fighter pilots and without military academy enrollment.
  1. ^ a b c d "First Female Combat Pilot". Guinness World Records Official Web Site. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
  2. ^ "Sabiha Gökçen Google ana sayfasında". 22 March 2009. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  3. ^ "First female combat pilot". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 2021-01-01.
  4. ^ Mango, Andrew (2000). Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey. Overlook Press.
  5. ^ a b "Eagle Biography - Sabiha Gökçen". GoE Foundation. Archived from the original on 2018-04-24. Retrieved 2018-04-24.
  6. ^ Naughton, Russell (2014). "Sabiha Gokcen (1913-2001), Pioneer Aviatrix". Hargrave Pioneers of Aviation. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
  7. ^ a b "1915 - First woman pilot in combat missions as a bomber pilot - Marie Marvingt (France)". Centennial of Women Pilots. Archived from the original on 11 January 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015. In 1915, Marvingt became the first woman in the world to fly combat missions when she became a volunteer pilot flying bombing missions over German-held territory and she received the Croix de Guerre (Military Cross) for her aerial bombing of a German military base in Metz.
  8. ^ Historic Wings – Online Magazine; Article on Hélène Dutrieu Coupe Femina and Marie Marvingt:, Published on December 21, 2012: Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  9. ^ Lawson, Eric and Jane (1996). The First Air Campaign: August 1914- November 1918. Da Capo Press. p. 56. ISBN 0-306-81213-4. Eugenie Shakhovskaya, a 25 year old Russian princess, was the first female fighter pilot in history.
  10. ^ "Women Combat Pilots of WW1". Monash University. Retrieved 10 January 2015. Princess Eugenie M. Shakhovskaya was Russia's first woman military pilot. Served with the 1st Field Air Squadron. Unknown if she actually flew any combat missions, and she was ultimately charged with treason and attempting to flee to enemy lines. Sentenced to death by firing squad, sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the Tsar, freed during the Revolution, became chief executioner for Gen. Tchecka and drug addict, shot one of her assistants in a narcotic delirium and was herself shot.
  11. ^ "300 Women who changed the world". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 10 January 2015. In Russia, Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya is the first female military pilot. She flies reconnaissance missions.
  12. ^ Hamzic, Zeynep Isil. "Sarajevolu dunyanin ilk kadin savas ucagi pilotu". BosnakMedya. Bosnak Medya. Retrieved 14 December 2021.
  13. ^ a b TRT documentary on Sabiha Gökçen on YouTube. See 9m30s in for 1996 USAF poster claim.
  14. ^ a b "Ataturk's Daughter was an Armenian". 2 November 2016. Retrieved 17 May 2017. According to Turkish sources and the interview with Sabiha Gokcen herself, she was born on March 22, 1913 in Bursa. She was the daughter of Mustafa İzzet Bey and Hayriye Hanim who were ethnic Bosniaks
  15. ^ a b c Dink, Hrant (6 February 2004). "Sabiha Hatun'un Sırrı". Agos. Archived from the original on 4 May 2022.
  16. ^ a b "Gökçen Ermeni'ydi". Hürriyet (in Turkish). 22 February 2004. Archived from the original on 2 August 2016.
  17. ^ a b Koser, Mutlu (23 February 2004). "İşte soyağacı". Hürriyet. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 13 July 2008.
  18. ^ Fatma, Ulgen (1 January 2010). ""Sabiha Gök̨cen's 80-year-old secret" : Kemalist nation formation and the Ottoman Armenians" (.pdf). eScholarship. Retrieved 18 May 2017.
  19. ^ a b c d "Dünyanın İlk Kadın Savaş Pilotu: Sabiha Gökçen" [The world's first female combat pilot: Sabiha Gökçen]. Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (in Turkish). 2014. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
  20. ^ Atatürk, Kemal (1 January 1998). Atatürk'ün bütün eserleri [Ataturk's Complete Works] (in Turkish). Vol. 27. Kaynak Yayınları. p. 109. ISBN 978-975-343-235-1.
  21. ^ Martin van Bruinessen, Kurdish ethno-nationalism versus nation-building states: collected articles, Isis Press, 2000, ISBN 978-975-428-177-4, p. 116.
  22. ^ "Sabiha Gökçen röportajı, 25.11.1956, Milliyet, Sayfa 4". Archived from the original on 1 July 2013. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  23. ^ "Leyla İpekçi, 'Burada çok cevherler var!'". Archived from the original on 20 May 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
  24. ^ a b Adar, Sinem (2018). "Emotions and Nationalism: Armenian Genocide as a Case Study". Sociological Forum. 33 (3): 747–748. doi:10.1111/socf.12441. ISSN 0884-8971. JSTOR 26625947.
  25. ^ Tekin, Hüseyin (28 February 2004). "Sabiha Gökçen tartışmasında kim ne yazdı". Hürriyet (in Turkish). Retrieved 13 July 2008.
  26. ^ Morgan, Tabitha (29 February 2004). "Turkish heroine's roots spark row". BBC News.
  27. ^ Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (28 February 2005). "2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Turkey". Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. US State Department. Retrieved 25 July 2008. In February, the Hurriyet newspaper's publication of a report that Sabiha Gokcen--an adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was the country's first female pilot--was of Armenian descent drew a number of racist public statements. The Turkish General Staff issued a statement criticizing the reports on Gokcen's alleged Armenian ancestry as 'a claim that abuses national values and feelings' while the Turkish Air Association called the report 'an insult' to Gokcen and to Ataturk.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Morgan, Tabitha (29 February 2004). "Turkish heroine's roots spark row". BBC. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  29. ^ a b "Cable reference id: #04ISTANBUL374". 10 March 2004. Archived from the original on 9 December 2013. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
  30. ^ Insel, Ahmet (28 February 2009). ""Bu Hareket Beşeriyet Namına Bir Cinayetti": Ermenilerden Özür Dileme Girişiminin Değerlendirilmesi". Birikim (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 6 October 2018. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  31. ^ Kemal Cengiz, Orhan (15 January 2010). "The 'smoke' which killed Hrant Dink". Zaman. Archived from the original on 7 October 2014.
  32. ^ Göktaş, Kemal (2009). Hrant Dink cinayeti: medya, yargı, devlet (1. baskı. ed.). İstanbul: Güncel Yayıncılık. ISBN 978-9944840491.
  33. ^ "Tarihte bugün: 22 mart". 2013-10-19. Archived from the original on 2013-10-19. Retrieved 2021-01-01.
  34. ^ "Dünyanın İlk Kadın Savaş Pilotu | Sabiha GÖKÇEN - Türk Hava Kuvvetleri". 2014-10-06. Archived from the original on 2014-10-06. Retrieved 2021-01-01.
  35. ^ Munson, Peter J. (2013). War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America's Quest for the End of History. Potomac Books, Inc. ISBN 9781612345406.
  36. ^ "Sabiha Gökçen's Birthday". Google Doodles Archive. 2014. Retrieved 17 November 2014.

External links[edit]