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Turkish Air Force Air Transport Capability

“Front Runners of Military Operations”

Issue 106

The Turkish Air Force acquired air transport capability with the C-47 Dakotas procured in 1946. In a short time, the C-47 squadron expanded with the addition of these aircraft granted by the US and a total of 110 C-47s were included in the inventory and the C-47 remained in active military service until 1998. These aircraft were used by a unit named the Liaison and Transport Group at the outset. In 1948, this unit became a separate unit called the “Air Transport Regiment.” In this way, all Air Transport activities required by the Turkish Air Force were gathered under a single roof.  

In 1951 Air Transport Regiments such as these were renamed as the 11th (Etimesgut/Ankara) and 12th (Erkilet/Kayseri) Air Transport Main Base Command. In 1959, two C-54D Skymasters were included in the inventory, yet the aircraft used for long-range transport missions were retired in 1973. In the 1960s, a need to build-up Air Transport and Airborne Troop capabilities emerged due to the conflict in Cyprus. To fulfill this need, five C-130E Hercules were procured in 1964 and the “Tactical Air Transport Squadron Command” was founded with existing aircraft. One of these aircraft crashed in 1968 during a training flight, and three additional C-130Es were procured in 1971-1974. Again, to increase the Air Transport and Airborne Unit capabilities, twenty C-160D Transall aircraft were procured during a time when the German Air Force was removing surplus property and these aircraft were delivered to the Turkish Air Force in 1971.

Even as the C-160D Transall Aircraft were delivered, they were not equipped with an airdrop system. The 12th Air Transport Main Base Command developed a unique system with its own facilities and was integrated with the aircraft. These aircraft are still being utilized by the 221st Squadron Command.  

Photograph by Ali TİTİZ - C-47 DAKOTA

The “Air Transport Squadron” – Unsung Heroes During the Cyprus Peace Operation  

Over the years the Air Transport Squadron constantly increased its power since its foundation and in 1974 the squadron was encountered with its most critical test. Twenty C-47s, six C-130-Es and twelve C-160Ds joined in the Cyprus Peace Operation. On the first day of the operation, twenty C-47s took off from the Erkilet Airfield at 05:00 a.m. to airborne operations.  C-130E and C-160D aircrafts lifted off in pursuit of C-47s at 05:45 a.m. Commissioned as the supply airdrop branch, the remaining C-130E and C-160D aircrafts took off from the Erkilet Airport at 06:00 a.m. The airdrop of supplies took place at 07:18 a.m. and was followed by a paratrooper drop at the Gönyeli drop zone at 07:05 a.m. While executing the mission’s secondary echelon in the Gönyeli zone, a hostile anti-aircraft fire was launched, and several aircraft were hit. So, the third echelon airdrop activities were conducted at the Kırnı drop zone. On the first day, nearly 2,100 paratroopers and 140 tons of supplies were dropped at the Gönyeli and Kırnı (northeastern part of Nicosia) zones. The Cyprus Peace Operation proved the importance of having a robust Air Transport Squadron capable of rapidly dispatching numerous staff and supplies required to long-distance ranges. 

221st Squadron C-160D Transall Aircraft Elephant Walk

The 1990s - CN235M-100s & C-130Bs on the Stage 

In 1990, a contract was signed with CASA Company for the procurement of fifty-two CN235M-100 aircraft to replace the ageing C-47 aircraft. Two of these aircraft were manufactured at CASA’s facilities in Spain while the remaining fifty were built at TUSAŞ premises in Ankara. The first two aircraft were delivered from Spain in June 1992 and as of 1993, the CN235M-100s, that became the backbone of the Turkish Air Force’s light transport capability, started commissioning at the 11th Air Transport Main Base Command in Etimesgut, Ankara. 

In 1991-1992, six second-hand C-130Bs that served in the United States National Guard were included in the inventory. In 2012, six additional C-130Es that were retired from the Saudi Arabian Royal Air Force were also procured. Currently, nineteen C130-B/Es serve in the 222nd Squadron Command. 

The Turkish Air Force continued to strengthen its squadron by leasing and procuring aircraft to increase its existing capacity over time. The two KC-135R aircraft leased from the US Army in 1995 were followed by seven KC-135R Tanker aircraft procured in 1997. The KC-135Rs with the primary task of air fueling F-4E Phantom II and F-16C/D Fighting Falcon aircraft were also used to carry cargo and staff. With seats that can be removed and placed in the cargo compartment, the KC-135Rs can carry up to 56 staff (can be increased to 250 in a state of emergency) and a load of 16,344 kg with the easily mountable roller system and 6 pallets. Besides, the payload capacity of the aircraft can be increased to 37,640 kg with the load mounted to the surface by removing the roller system. As the aircraft with the longest range and highest payload capacity, the KC-135R aircraft acted as the backbone of the Air Transport Squadron in the 90s and after in 2000s until A400M aircraft were included in the inventory. 

A400M

Strategic Transport Capability Acquired with the A400M Aircraft 

The Air Transport Squadron carried out light transport missions first with the C-47s and then the CN235M-100s and acquired Tactical Transport capability with the C-130Es and C-160Ds procured in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1995 the Air Forces Command was involved the development process of the A400Ms and along with this project it acquired Strategic Transport capability. As part of the program containing the Air Forces’ procurement of ten A400M Atlas aircraft, the first A400M was delivered on 16 April 2014, and to date, nine A400Ms have been included in the inventory. The tenth aircraft is expected to be delivered in 2022. The retrofitting activities that will elevate the aircraft to their final configuration were launched in 2020 at the 2nd Air Maintenance Factory Directorate in Kayseri as well.

With the entry of the A400M aircraft into the inventory, the Turkish Air Force will be able to carry supplies heavier or greater in volume at one go and weapon systems and vehicles (such as Helicopters and Armored Personnel Carriers) that could not be carried by air previously will now be deployed from one point to another. With the A400M the Turkish Air Force has now increased its operational radius range to 3,000 km with a 37-ton capacity, and to 9,000 km with 10 tons without air-refueling. In this way, it is now possible to nonstop flight from Turkey to the continent of North America becomes possible. The Turkish Air Force’s power projection capability and reaction speed increased remarkably with A400M Aircraft with their payload capacity of 37,600 kg and cruising speed of 800km/h. The decommissioning of the C-160D Aircraft from cargo tasks and the establishment of Turkey’s bases abroad in recent years resulted in the need for more A400Ms. The flights to bases with A400Ms, particularly to bases in Libya and Somalia, have intensified. The A400M is capable of executing the tasks of two or three cargo planes and this has significantly increased the Turkish Armed Force’s deployment power. 

Upgraded glass cockpit view after the C-130 Erciyes Modernization Program

The C-130 ERCİYES Avionic Modernization Project was launched to upgrade the existing C-130B/E aircraft compliant with the regulations were implemented in European and US airspace in 2005, to enable the utilization of these aircraft in European and US airspace.  Additionally, the Project involves the replacement of expired aircraft systems with new modern systems, ensuring that economic lifecycles are not exceeded which would threaten flight safety. TUSAŞ is the main contractor of the ERCİYES Project and the contract regarding this project was signed in December 2006. Thirteen C-130Es and six C-130B Hercules transport aircraft are to be modernized within the scope of this project. Design, integration, production, ground, and flight tests as well as qualification activities for the first prototype aircraft (C-130E with tail number 188) has been completed and it was delivered to Air Force Command at a ceremony at TUSAŞ premises on August 8, 2014. 

The second and last prototype aircraft (C-130B with tail number 634) was delivered to the Air Force Command in December 2016. The aircraft was named as C-130EM and C-130BM after the modernization. Thanks to these modernization activities, the C-130s will be able to serve safely until the 2040s.  Aligning with global air navigation requirements, C-130 BM/EM Hercules Aircraft were equipped to a Digital Cockpit (4 colored Multi-Functional Displays with Moving Map capability), two Central Display Units and two multi-purpose Central Control Computers, National Flight Management System, and Ground Task Planning Unit that can function integrated into the Air Force Information System and display and lighting systems with night vision goggles. Modernization of eight aircraft has been completed as part of the ERCİYES Project that covers a total of 19 aircraft. To adapting the CN235M-100s for using civilian airspace such as C-130 Aircrafts, minor avionic modernization activities were launched as well. The off-the-shelf avionic system procured from the company Garmin will be integrated into the aircraft with local content in line with the Kılavuz Project. 

A330MRTT– “The Most Prominent Aerial Refueling Tanker Aircraft Candidate”

The Turkish Air Force will need to procure new aircraft in the near future to replace ageing Aerial Refueling Tanker Aircraft. Presently there are two alternatives on the market, namely the Boeing KC-46 and the Airbus A330 MRTT. There are ongoing problems regarding the KC-46 and considering Turkish Airlines’ existing A330 capability, the most powerful candidate to become the new aerial refueling tanker is the A300 MRTT. The A330MRTT will increase our aerial refueling capability as well as the Strategic Transport capacity. The aircraft has a cargo capacity of 45,000 kg and can carry 300 staff. Within the scope of medical evacuation tasks, 40 stretchers, 20 medical personnel and 100 passengers can be carried. New aircraft can be procured from Airbus or the existing A330-200 model aircraft of the Turkish Airlines can be transformed into A330 MRTT configuration. For the maintenance of the aircraft and training of the staff, it will be possible to benefit from Turkish Airline’s present capabilities. 

The Turkish Air Force Air Transport Squadron that was formed 75 years ago has certainly achieved Strategic Transport capability over the years.

I would like to briefly explain what is required in order to maintain and increase this capability. 

We intensely use the A400Ms in almost any task ranging from personnel carrying, cargo transport, to V.I.P. supporting flights. Increasing the number of A400Ms has gained importance due to growing demands. Orders for new aircraft can be placed or aircraft can be procured from the project partners wishing to decrease the number of the orders they placed. At the beginning of the project, a demand for 26 aircraft was identified by the Air Force Command, but due to economic conditions, the order was diminished from 26 to 10 aircraft. Placing new orders will elevate the power factor of our transport capability. Yet, if the A400M which has a high initial purchase cost and operating costs cannot be procured, the C-130J-30 Super Hercules aircraft may be considered as an option. The C-130J-30s may be ideal for carrying cargo that is too wide for the C-130B/Es. Germany and France, the users and project partners of the A400M, founded a joint C-130J-30 squadron previously to that end. The existing nineteen C-130B/E ERCİYES aircraft seem adequate after the modernization process for Air Force Command’s Tactical Transport capability, but C130Bs that have structural fatigue can be replaced with the C-130Js. In this way, both our Tactical Transport capability will be improved and as I mentioned previously, the burden on the A400Ms can be diminishable. The CN-235M-100s with relevantly lower performance in today’s circumstances may be replaced with the aircraft with higher capacity in the upcoming years. Instead of changing the entire existing squadron, this replacement issue may be solved by procuring or leasing aircraft with more capabilities such as the C-295. For this option, we can say that the similar maintenance infrastructure of the C-295 with the existing CN-235M-100s and its low operating costs could be considered as critical advantages. The CN-235M-100s used in the present Search-Rescue Squadron of the Air Force Command, unfortunately, fail to suffice in long-range and particularly surface missions. The flight performance with single-engine aircraft in cases of engine failure in the flights over the surface is becoming more critical. Therefore, the C-130 aircraft were used in the SAR missions during the military training exercises in South Mediterranean and Libya. 

As Turkish Air Force Transport Squadrons deliver transport services to other Forces, certain issues arise from time to time. Some challenges emerge during the coordination and collaboration of units from different Forces. The best example of this were the problems experienced during the deployment of the SAT unit in Istanbul to the crisis region during the Kardak Crisis. Land and Naval Forces wished to have their own transport aircraft. With the three ATR-72/600 Utility Aircrafts procured as part of the MELTEM-3 Project, the Naval Forces partially solved its own transport problems. The Transport aircraft requirement of the Land Forces is planned to be fulfilled with the Communication and Utility Helicopter project conducted by the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB). The point to be considered here is that the aircraft to be selected should not only fulfil the requests of the Land Forces. Presently, the Air Forces and Naval Forces also require a medium-class military transport aircraft between the CN-235M and C-130B/E. 

What could have been done during the search for a Maritime Patrol Aircraft for the Naval Forces was to select a common aircraft that could meet the demands of both Forces. For instance, if the C-295 had been selected instead of the ATR-72/600, Maritime Patrol Aircraft needs would be fulfilled with this aircraft and needs of the Air Force’s Search-Rescue Aircraft and Land Force’s transport aircraft would have needed to be fulfilled by the C-295 as well. There is an opportunity for the establishment of a joint maintenance and training infrastructure, this could have been beneficial in previous projects. In this way, the historical cost and operating costs might have been reduced. Though it may be late, hopefully, such issues could be considered during the execution of the Communication and Utility Helicopter project.  I would like to thanks again, my dear friends, Aviation Photograghers;  Ahmet GÜL, Özkan ÜNER and Ali TİTİZ for valuable contribitions with stunning photos.

 I wish to conclude my article with the 221st Air Transport Squadron Command’s Motto:  

“There is no place we cannot go, no airfield we cannot land, and no skies we cannot fly.”