The Harrowing Tale of Erdogan’s Aerial Escape to Istanbul

It sounds like the plot to Jerry Bruckheimer’s next movie.

byTyler Rogoway|
Turkey photo


At the very height of Friday’s military coup attempt in Turkey, a showdown in the skies supposedly occurred, and the stakes couldn't have been higher. But before that, a scene worthy of a thriller unfolded at the swank hotel in Marmaris, Turkey, where President Erdogan was vacationing.

After realizing a coup attempt was underway, Erdogan and his entourage fled the hotel. After all, incapacitating the sitting political leadership is an essential ingredient to any successful coup. So the embattled President went on the lam. It turned out to be a very smart move. Right after he had left the hotel, 25 commandos descended onto the structure from out of the night sky, fast-roping from helicopters, guns ablaze.

When the commandos came up dry, they pursued Erdogan's trail, attacking locations where he had stopped after fleeing the hotel. A senior source told Reuters that the President of Turkey had avoided death “by minutes.”

It was more than an hour of driving from Marmaris to Dalaman Airport, where a Gulfstream IV jet belonging to the Turkish Government was waiting to extract Erdogan and his aids. Once airborne, the Gulfstream was joined by a pair of F-16s from the Turkish Air Force – flown by loyal Turkish pilots whose mission was to protect the jet’s political cargo. During this time another pair of F-16s, supposedly flown by pro-coup pilots, materialized nearby, poised to take out the President once and for all.

But that didn’t happen. Another Reuters-trusted source states:

"At least two F-16s harassed Erdogan's plane while it was in the air and en route to Istanbul. They locked their radars on his plane and on two other F-16s protecting him. Why they didn't fire is a mystery."

Turkish Government GIV., Alec Wilson

Eventually it was decided that the aircraft would land at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport. The facility was officially closed, and had already been a target of Erdogan's opponents. After Erdogan told his supporters to fill the streets and stand up to the military over FaceTime video, Turkish civilians overran the airport. Even the presence of the same armored vehicles that had blitzed their way to the airport’s entrance did not intimidate the crowd.

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The Daily Sabah states that Erdogan asked the Gulfstream pilot if he could land the jet in Istanbul and taxi without radio communications, using the jet’s lights only instead. The pilot laid out the risks (which were probably substantial) to the President, and Erdogan ordered the pilot to follow through with the plan. It worked uncannily well.

Soon after landing the embattled President was on television giving defiant speeches and proclaiming the coup had failed. Next he was seen venturing onto the steps of one of the airport’s buildings, greeting thousands of supporters triumphantly, while also telling them that those who perpetrated the coup would suffer the consequences. The rest is history.

It's an incredible story, seemingly more fit for a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster than reality. Not to say that it isn’t largely accurate, but at the same time I ask you: could Erdogan's loyalists come up with any more of a fairytale-like account of what went on that night? I think not.


As Erdogan's crackdown against his enemies continues, we're also getting a picture as to where the aerial portion of coup originated, and who was involved. Reuters states that the core of the aerial force taking part in the coup originated from Akinci Air Base, located between Ankara and Istanbul. About a half dozen F-16s and 15 pilots from the base were said to have been involved. These jets were likely the same aircraft captured on video flying down urban city streets with their afterburners lit, making sonic booms throughout the night.

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Two Turkish Air Force KC-135R tanker aircraft supported the aerial rebellion, allowing the F-16s to stay airborne throughout the night. These aircraft originated from Incirlik Air Base, the same base that American forces use for combat air operations in the region. It is also where a fairly large arsenal of American tactical nuclear weapons is stored.

The involvement of personnel at Incirlik Air Base is likely why the Turkish Government has cut the power, and shut down the surrounding airspace. The lockdown has severely happened anti-ISIS air operations for the US, but was likely viewed as necessary in order to isolate the critical base until the Turkish Government was certain that soldiers involved with coup had been removed from the sensitive installation. Flying operations at the base have since been restored. 

Black Hawk helicopters and Cobra gunships from the main Army Airfield in Ankara (Guvercinlik Army Base) are also suspected of taking part in the battle. It was likely a AH-1 Cobra, with its 20mm cannon, that was captured firing over the capital. Closed-circuit video from Ankara shows security personnel on the ground slugging it out with a helicopter gunship the night of the coup. 

It is also reported that midway through the night, as military units loyal to the government began to react to the situation, F-16s from Eskişehir Air Base launched to pick off rebel aircraft and bomb rebel armor. One helicopter was said to have been shot down and targets in Ankara were shown to have been struck. As for the F-16s and KC-135s used by the rebels, they seem to have remained elusive, or to have landed back at their bases before pro-government F-16s could engage them.

As far as accounting for all the aircraft used by coup participants, there are some signs that Turkey is still missing helicoptersCNN Turk has reported that a whopping 42 are still unaccounted for.

Even if these numbers are exaggerated, any missing helicopters present a problem for the Erdogan Government. It is possible that they could be used for a highly focused decapitation strike, seeing as their operators would have little to lose. Those contingency plans would have had to have been put into place before the coup began, though. You can't pull a S-70 Black Hawk up to a gas station to refuel, or land a Cobra at a local sporting goods store to rearm. Perhaps because of the missing aircraft, the Turkish Air Force has ordered F-16s into the air for constant combat air patrols since the coup occurred. Additionally, an E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, one of the best tools for detecting low-flying helicopters, has been tracked orbiting Ankara over the weekend.

Turkish Air Force E-7

Akın Öztürk, the former head of the Turkish Air Force has been identified as the ringleader of the coup, although in a bizarre twist Erdogan himself claims the man behind the scenes is Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. Gulen says Erdogan was behind the coup, and seems unconcerned about Turkey’s extradition demands.

Of course, the arrest of Akın Öztürk is just the beginning of a political purge. Around 6,000 soldiers have been arrested, as well as thousands of police. But it does not end there: magistrates, judges and bureaucrats have also been detained, along with 30 governors. Hey, why waste a good coup when it comes to purging your entire government of opposition, right?

As for those soldiers arrested following the coup, many of whom are conscripts, they have been stripped down with their hands bound and thrown into fields and warehouses at military bases and government installations. Their present treatment might be the least of their worries. Erdogan may move to reinstate the death penalty for those involved.

Meanwhile the top brass of Turkish Armed Forces appear to have escaped any accusations of involvement. Just a little peculiar, considering this coup supposedly involved thousands of their troops taking up arms against the government right under their noses. It's hardly a signal of their competence.

In the end it is amazing to think that the coup – even with its flaws – may very well have succeeded if the raid on Erdogan's coastal resort came just minutes earlier. The same can be said for the coup’s second chance at decapitating the regime. If those rebel F-16 pilots pulled the trigger, taking down the President’s Gulfstream jet, the course of history would have changed dramatically. From two narrow escapes to triumph in front of crowds and cameras? Stranger things have happened, but it all seems so convenient. 

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