January 2015 marks both the 118th birthday of Vecihi Hurkus and the date of the great aviator’s first flight. This led us to dive into the dusty pages of the archives to put together his turbulent life story.
If Mozart lived today, his job would undoubtedly be much easier. He would become a widely popular and well-known superstar”, says German author Reinhold Harmann in the introduction of his book ‘Mozart für Eilige’. He is not wrong. Our country has its share of people who manage to become a source of inspiration after their demise. One of the most dramatic stories belongs to Vecihi Hurkus, the unforgettable aviator whose 118th birthday will be celebrated this month. With every breath he took, Hurkus used to say, “I want to achieve something”. Hurkus was born at the Gulhane Military School of Medicine on January 6, 1896 and died on July 16, 1969, after living an undeserved life of misery and suffering. Even though he was favoured by the press for his work between 1930 and 1955, it was not until 1977 that his name became publicly known following the release of Ertem Egilmez’s 1977 movie ‘Gulen Gozler’ (‘Smiling Eyes’). In the movie, Hurkus asked Munir Ozkul’s character for Aysen Gruda’s hand in marriage and following a few failed attempts, he went on to greet the entire household from his plane while flying over their house. Of course, the movie did not completely reflect the real Hurkus, but rather gives hints of his determination and persistence, which he showed in order to marry the girl he loved. Hurkus was a man constantly misunderstood, discouraged and undermined by the red tape of bureaucracy in his every project. Despite a public campaign to name the third airport after him, the only thing bearing his name is a training airplane. Such an important and iconic figure in Turkish history deserves more. Swimming the Caspian Sea After the death of his father, Faham Bey, a customs inspector, Vecihi Hurkus, aged 3 and the middle of three brothers, first moved in with his uncle Sekur Bey, an arts teacher and a fencing coach, along with his mother and brothers, and then settled in Uskudar. He volunteered for the
War in 1912 along with his uncle-in-law, Colonel Kemal Bey. He had to postpone his desire to join the air force in the war because of his youth. He did enroll in the Aviation School in Yesilkoy at the end of the war. The rest of his life is full of stories that sound like they are from a movie script.
Hurkus was the first Turkish pilot to shoot down an enemy plane on the Caucasian front in autumn 1917. When he was wounded and captured by the Russians, he was sent to Nargin Island in the Caspian Sea. After managing to escape from captivity by swimming away from the island, he reached the shore at the Iranian border; he then walked all the way to Erzurum on foot, which took 1.5 months. When he finally reached Istanbul, World War I had ended. He was then transferred to the Istanbul Air Defense Division. When Istanbul was occupied, hiding among the prisoners returning from war, he secretly took a ship departing from Harem to Mudanya, then to Konya via Bursa and Eskisehir to participate in the Turkish War of Independence. Making the first and last flights of this war, Hurkus went on to become the aviator to capture Izmir Seydikoy Airport. He was awarded commendation medals from the Turkish Parliament three times,
First flight from Fikirtepe
He completed his first plane, VECIHI K-VI, in 1924. Although he could not obtain a license, he flew his first flight with this plane in January 28, 1925 and made history. This was an unauthorized flight, so he was fined. He then resigned from the army to join the Turkish Aviation Society in 1925. Disappointed again, he resigned from the society. At this time, he got an offer from the Ministry of Defense to launch a factory called the Airplane and Engine Corporation (TOMTAS) in Kayseri. Accepting an offer from TOMTAS, he went to Germany and modified the Junkers A.20 plane and also assumed the manufacturing of A.35 models. Returning home, Hurkus flew transport flights between Ankara and Kayseri on a 14-passenger three-engine Junkers G.24 and a five-passenger single engine Junkers F.13 passenger planes. These flights are considered the first commercial flights in the country.
In 1930, Hurkus rented a place above a timber shop in Kadikoy, Istanbul, and built his second plane, which was the first Turkish civil airplane, the VECIHI XIV. He flew this single-engine training aircraft on September 27 in Fikirtepe, Kadikoy, with the attendance of the press and a big crowd. He then flew the plane to Ankara. As there wasn’t anyone who could grant him a license, he disassembled the aircraft and took it to Czechoslovakia on a train. After reassembling the aircraft and obtaining an international license there, he took off on April 25, 1931, and landed in Turkey on May 5, 1931. Meanwhile, the Turkish Aviation Society made plans for a new tour comprised of flights initially taking off from Ankara and landing in Yesilkoy via Aksaray, Konya, Manavgat, Antalya, Fethiye, Mugla, Aydin, Denizli, Usak, Eskisehir, Adapazari and Izmit. While the society’s branches got rich thanks to donations, his chief machinist, Hamit, was laid off by telegram in November 1931. The flight compensation owed to Hurkus was terminated and his VECIHI XIV aircraft’s airworthiness certificate was revoked. He was notified that he could only fly aircrafts provided by the Ministry of Defense; Hurkus again resigned from the society.
Believing that he had inspired young people, he decided to open an aviation school. He founded the first Turkish Civilian Aviation School on April 21, 1932. A total of 12 students were enrolled, two of whom were female. The purpose of the school, which opened its doors on September 27, 1932, was to familiarise Turkish youth with aviation and train future generations of aviators to act as a reserve for the Turkish Air Force.
The first 12 students were Sait, Tevfik, Muammer, Abdurrahman, Salih, Osman, Riza, Hikmet, Huseyin, Kenan, Eribe and Turkey’s first female pilot, Bedriye (Gokmen). Nuri Demirag, a wealthy railway contractor who was obsessed with national growth projects just like Hurkus, gave him 5,000 Turkish liras for aircraft manufacturing. Thanks to this support, he built the VECIHI XVI aircraft named Nuri Bey in 1933. Within the same year, they went on to build the VECIHI XV aircraft. Then Hurkus’s students flew demonstration flights in Istanbul on August 30, 1933, on two VECIHI XIV, two VECIHI XV and one Nuri Bey VECIHI XVI aircrafts.However, the Vecihi Civil Aviation School had to shut down its doors due to lack of funding and since the diplomas they granted were not officially recognised.
In early 1935, the president of the Turkish Aviation Society, Fuat Bulca, was invited to Russia in an official capacity. He had the chance to observe the state of civil aviation and conveyed his ideas to Ataturk upon his return. Ataturk asked Fuat Bey for information on Hurkus, whom he was already familiar with from newspaper articles. Surprised by the answers he got, he ordered: “Is that so? Then create a new project called Turk Kusu [Turkish Bird] and benefit from Vecihi’s expertise”. Vecihi Hurkus returned to Turkey in 1939 after graduating from Germany’s Weimar Engineering School. However, changes in Turkey in the aftermath of Ataturk’s death led to new obstacles. Hurkus had to quit engineering. He founded the Wings Union and published a magazine in 1947, which were both short-lived. Refusing to give up, in 1951 he founded a company along with his five friends called ‘Turkish Wing’ to carry out aerial pesticide spraying, which also did not last long.
He founded Hurkus Airlines on November 29, 1954. He got a bank loan to acquire eight retired airplanes from Turkish Airlines. However, outside intervention and the disintegration of his aircraft caused him to lose his aviation license. But he did not quit. He used his last remaining aircraft, TC-ERK, for the Mining Search and Analysis Institute. Although bureaucracy made his life difficult, his last favour to his country was to search for thorium, uranium and phosphate mines with this plane in southeastern Anatolia despite harsh conditions.
Despite his efforts to help his country grow, Hurkus went through undeserved financial hardship in the final years of his life. The main reason for this was the bank loan he obtained in the 1950s. His debts increased due to a lack of a market for civilian aviation as well as the astronomical rents he was asked to pay. The retired planes he acquired from Turkish Airlines were supposed to be airworthy, but that was not the case. Associated repair costs made him fall further in debt, not to mention insurance costs and accumulated interest. Following a series of lawsuits, his creditors went on to seize his already insufficient wage granted by the Turkish Parliament for his service to the country.While working on his memoirs, he had a brain haemorrhage and slipped into a coma in Ankara. With heart still in the skies, Vecihi Hurkus died at the Gulhane Military School of Medicine on July 16, 1969, the same day man landed on the moon. He was buried in Cebeci Asri Cemetery in Ankara.