At a critical moment during Friday's attempted military coup in Turkey, two rebel F-16 jet fighters closed in on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Gulfstream luxury jet over Istanbul. A burst of gunfire or a single Sidewinder missile is all it would have taken to shoot down the plane and kill Erdogan.
But the president's pilots had a plan. Switching their radio transponder to match that of a civilian airliner, they effectively disguised the Gulfstream as a strictly civilian plane. Meanwhile, fighter pilots loyal to Erdogan climbed into their own F-16s and chased after rebel planes. (Erdogan, when asked afterwards about the threat of being shot down by rebel aircraft, didn’t refer directly to the ruse and said only there had been “communications mishaps.”)
The roughly 24-hour coup, which ended in failure after nearly 300 rebel soldiers and loyalist troops, police and civilians had died, involved intensive aerial combat. Rebels commandeered fighter jets, gunship helicopters, aerial tankers and transport planes, including some of the Turkish air force's brand-new, high-tech Airbus A400 airlifters.
The rebel aircraft shot up government facilities, hauled weapons for coup forces and, of course, tried and failed to assassinate Erdogan. Loyalist warplanes counterattacked and, in addition to helping rescue Erdogan, reportedly shot down several rebel helicopters and bombed runways to prevent additional rebel aircraft from taking off.
There are few examples in recent history of a military coup in which sophisticated warplanes played such an important role. And now in the aftermath of the failed military takeover, Turkey's air force -- one of the biggest and most modern in Europe -- is in for a major shakeup that could significantly reduce its power and prestige.
Air force personnel and their aircraft were instrumental to the rebels' revolutionary ambition. "It seems the rebels were very organized in the air force, especially," Arda Mevlutoglu, a Turkish journalist specializing in military subjects, told The Daily Beast.
Anti-Erdogan forces -- seemingly numbering in the thousands and allegedly inspired by the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen -- seized control of at least four F-16s, as many as four KC-135 aerial tankers, at least a pair of Blackhawk transport helicopters, one or more Cobra gunship copters, two AS532 rescue copters, an estimated six C-160 and C-130 transport planes and two of the huge, four-engine A400 transports, which entered service with the Turkish air force just two years ago.
At 10:00 at night on July 15, two pairs of armed F-16s took off from Akinci air base north of Ankara. An air traffic controller, apparently siding with the rebels, radioed his counterpart at Esenboga airport in Ankara, with a cover story. F-16s were going to fly high over Ankara and coordination with local air-traffic control would not be possible, the rebel controller explained, according to David Cenciotti, an Italian aviation expert who blogs at The Aviationist.
Instead, the nimble, supersonic F-16s dove low over Ankara ... and opened fire. People on the ground in Ankara captured the F-16s on video, their afterburners blazing, missiles clearly visible under their wings as they streaked at high speed over the capital city.
The Cobra gunship and an armed Blackhawk also joined the battle. Together, the rebel air force shot up a police headquarters, reportedly killing 47 officers. The rebel aircraft also struck a police aviation headquarters, damaging or destroying many police aircraft, according to Mevlutoglu. Buildings housing Turkey's national assembly, intelligence agencies and satellite operators were also struck, along with Erdogan's presidential palace.
But Erdogan wasn't home. He'd been vacationing in Dalaman on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Apparently tipped off about the planned putsch, the controversial president boarded his twin-engine Gulfstream and headed for Istanbul, roughly 400 miles north. “I think these guys missed decapitating the government by about 30 minutes and we'd have woken up on Saturday with a dead president, a surrounded parliament, a and chief of general staff in custody,” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council.
Rebels had seized Istanbul's Ataturk airport . Erdogan could not land.
Frequently refueling from the KC-135 tankers, the rebel F-16s began searching for the Gulfstream with their nose-mounted radars. “Why they didn't fire is a mystery,” a former Turkish military officer with intimate knowledge of the events of July 15 told Reuters.
Perhaps the best explanation is that the Gulfstream blended in with civilian traffic over the sprawling city. The plane's crew reportedly altered their transponder signal, a kind of radio beacon that announces a plane's identity. The Gulfstream assumed the identity of THY 8456, a Turkish Airlines flight.
Rebel fighter pilots couldn't risk attacking a plane whose identity they couldn't be certain of. "The risk of shooting down another plane, and losing credibility too, could be a factor affecting the coup’s F-16s [ability] to shoot down his plane and kill Erdogan," Cenciotti wrote.
Forces loyal to the president soon mobilized. The Istanbul airport re-opened and Erdogan's plane was able to land. Speaking to CNN later, the president gave a slightly different account of events than other sources did. Erdogan did not mention the apparent mid-air close-call with rebel jets. Instead, he described rebel fighters flying low overhead and causing sonic booms.
As the tide of the attempted coup began to turn, loyalist F-16s reportedly shot down a Cobra and a Blackhawk flown by rebel crews. One or more of Erdogan's F-16s intercepted a rebel KC-135 over Kastamonu in northern Turkey but did not shoot it down, "probably due to the fact that it was flying over [a] residential area," Cenciotti surmised. A KC-135 carries tens of thousands of gallons of highly flammable fuel. If one of the tankers had crashed in Kastamonu, it might have killed many people on the ground.
Instead, pro-Erdogan forces cut the power to Incirlik air base, where the four-engine KC-135s are based. Coincidentally, the U.S. Air Force also stages warplanes from Incirlik for air raids in Iraq and Syria -- and also stores a number of atomic bombs at the base. American forces were compelled to switch to generators during the blackout and suspend flight operations.
The coup fizzled. The eight rebel transport planes had hauled loads of weaponry to Malatya in central Turkey in order to arm anti-Erdogan forces. But Erdogan called on his supporters to rise up in opposition to the plotters -- and rise up, they did. Thousands of everyday Turks took to the streets alongside loyalist forces.
A few apparent coup leaders fled to Greece in a Blackhawk helicopter. Outnumbered and outgunned, rank-and-file rebels began surrendering on July 16. Enraged mobs beat some surrendering rebels and reportedly killed at least one. Erdogan's forces arrested some 6,000 suspected coup-supporters. Around 290 people died in the overnight violence, including 100 or so rebels.
Air force loyalists helped to secure the air in the failed coup's aftermath. An F-4 fighter bombed the runway at Akinci, home to the rebels' F-16s. Loyalist F-16s, aided by an E-7 radar early-warning plane, patrolled west of Ankara in order to block more coup plotters from escaping by air.
With 60,000 airmen and nearly 700 aircraft, the Turkish air force is one of the most powerful in Europe. But the failed coup and subsequent crackdown could greatly sap its strength. "Operational capability took a serious blow," Mevlutoglu said.