Updated: Oct 9, 2022
The failed coup-attempt on July 15, 2016 upended the Turkish Air Force and prompted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to purge pilots and air crews from the military.
The Air Force played a central part in the failed coup attempt. Although only some two-dozen F-16 pilots took part in the coup in eleven aircraft, alongside tanker and transportation aircraft that refueled rogue fighter jets and moved troops around the country, the repercussions were dramatic and widespread for Turkey’s entire F-16 fleet.
In the days after the coup attempt, the Turkish Air Force purged more than 300 F-16 pilots, most of which had years of experience.
The result: The cockpit to pilot ratio dropped from over 1.25 pilots per one aircraft to 0.8. This ratio is important to ensure that pilots get enough rest between flights without impacting the Air Force’s operational tempo.
The Turkish F-16 fleet is primarily used to strike pre-determined targets clustered in the mountains north of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The F-16 also performed the close air support mission for Turkish forces operating as part of Operation Euphrates Shield and in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast.
With such a small number of fighter pilots, Turkey now has both a “production” and “absorption” problem.
Production refers to internal capacity to train new pilots and then assign them to operational units, while absorption refers to the assignment of new pilots to operation units to gain enough flight hours to be considered experienced.
Although Turkey has a sufficient number of aircraft, absorption requires that inexperienced pilots be paired with an experienced pilot, so that the latter gain enough flying hours to upgrade from a wingman to a flight lead.
Turkey does not have enough instructors and experienced pilots, both of which are necessary for recently graduated F-16 pilots to gain the requisite number of flight hours in operational units they are assigned to.
Absent these flying hours, the time between initial assignment to an operational unit and upgrade is extended, all while more recently graduated pilots leave basic flight school and are assigned to operational units.
The danger is that the time between the upgrade of wingman to flight lead cannot keep up with the rate of production, which results in broken operational units.
The Turkish military has also sought to offer incentives to pilots that retired before the failed coup attempt to return to the Air Force.
The voluntary efforts, however, failed to attract a significant number of pilots. More recently, the Turkish government has issued a decree that threatens 330 former pilots with the revocation of their civil pilot license, unless they return to Air Force duty for four years.
These pilots also have the option to seek employment outside of Turkey with foreign airlines, but the decree mandates that they report within 15 days of begin summoned—a timeline that seems designed to prevent pilots from actually being able to find alternative employment.
Turkey has approached a handful of its NATO allies for assistance, both to address the challenges the instructor shortage poses and to deal with the longer-term problems sustained pilot shortages pose for a modern Air Force.
The post-failed coup pilot purge has led to considerable, long-term challenges for the Turkish Air Force.
The current pilot-to-cockpit ratio has exhausted Turkish pilots and taxed air crews responsible for keeping the jets in service. The Turkish Air Force has adopted forced conscription to try and grapple with the issue.