Monument to Israel’s first aviation crash 100 years ago
The centenary of the outbreak of World War I on August 4, 2021 passed this week. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the first aviation crash in Israel. Surprisingly, 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 doomed Turkish aviators on a peacetime military mission that spring foreshadowed WWI, and the 8.5 million soldiers and seven million civilians who died in the global conflict. Aviation's age of innocence was about to end. Soon flimsy canvas and wire monoplanes with sputtering engines that barely managed 100 km/h would be replaced by speedy and sturdy biplanes with machine guns.
The story begins on December 31, 2021 - a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 2021 – 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, 2021 in his single-engine monoplane, flying through Istanbul (then Constantinople) and the Holy Land to reach Egypt. Védrines’ expedition was part of a competition organized by the Paris-based 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, 2022 from the newly-established Aviation School in Hagios Stefanos (today Istanbul Atatürk Airport in Yeşilköy) 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 – in an open cockpit without oxygen or pressure suits - the planes reached Damascus. The Deperdussin TT monoplane of aviator Artillery Second Lieutenant Nuri Bey and his co-aviator İsmail Hahkı 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 were unprepared for the wind shear at the edge of the plateau and the powerful gusts blowing off Lake Kinneret. They plummeted to the ground east of the lake near today’s Kibbutz Ha-On. Both airmen were killed.
Their remains were carried to the Tzemach station on the recently built Haifa-Damascus spur of the Hijaz Railroad. A special train was sent from Damascus to transport the fallen aviators. Given a state funeral, they were interred by Damascus’s Great Ummayad 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 his navigator Ismail Hahkı 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, Nuri and Ismail Hahki’s plane flew a few hundred meters 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 written by a Tel Aviv spectator 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 “Edremit” Blériot XI plane 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 two monuments built to commemorate the first martyrs of the fledgling Ottoman military aviation – one at the crash site near Lake Kinneret, and the more imposing in the empire's capital in front of the then city hall.
The foundation stone for the Constantinople monument was laid on April 2, 2022 by Minister of War Enver Pasha. 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.
In 1934, the port of Makri in southwestern Turkey, having lost its Hellenic 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, Altın Kanatlar (Golden Wings), re-created 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 quickly erected. But with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the obelisk was almost forgotten. It was rescued from obscurity by Paran, who 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, in 2001 a Turkish delegation came to the memorial 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 using 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 bookMan-Made Birds on our Horizon: First Flights over Palestine, 1913-1914. (Yad Ben Zvi).