A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 13, 2016

Did the First Black Aviator Fly for Turkey in WWI?

Aviation buffs, especially those interested in early aviation and World War I, may know the name of Eugene Bullard, a black American who flew for France during World War I as a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps (a broader grouping than the elite Lafayette Escadrille).

Eugene Bullard is generally agreed to be the first African-American combat pilot, but he served in the French Foreign Legion until wounded at Verdun in 1916, and only took up flying late that year.

But by 1916, a military pilot of African descent was already flying: Ahmet Ali Çelikten.

This is a reminder that bloggers can learn from their readers. Back in April I posted about the centennial of a British air raid on Constantinople in 1916 and one of the comments on that post noted this:
Did you know that the first black air force pilot was Turkish? Can't remember his name, but he was the son of slaves that had to follow their Muslim owners when they had to leave Crete. His family, like many of the Afro-Turks, settled in the Izmir area especially after extracting themselves from agricultural work on the cotton farms. He got an education and made his way into the military school and the rest was history.
I'd offer thanks except the commenter was anonymous; I told him/her I'd give credit if she/he could self-identify, but heard nothing. And the details may not all be accurate  but the basic story is.

Çelikten's biographical details are a bit hazy. English profiles at Wikipedia, at BlackPast, and at other sites essentially replicating these. Turkish Wikipedia is fuller for those who read the language, as is another Turkish source here. He was indeed born in İzmir of African slave ancestry, but most accounts do not mention the Crete connection. His dates are given as 1883-1969. It is usually said his grandmother, or at least an ancestor, originated in the Emirate of Bornu in what is now now northeastern Nigeria and northwestern Chad.

Whatever the ancestry, he was African, trained as a Naval Aviator and then flew for the Ottoman Air Force beginning in 1914. He was almost certainly the first military aviator of African descent.


David Mack said...

Mike: Great post. I wanted to share with friends but found that email function not working today. Has been OK when I used it in the past. David

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Seems to be working for me. You can always email a link.