Istanbul: Turkey today announced it was decommissioning its ageing US-made RF-4E reconnaissance jets following two accidents that killed six pilots in less than a month. The eight RF-4E aircraft remaining in the army’s inventory will retire after making their final flights tomorrow, Air Force Commander Abidin Unal told a news conference. “We are halting all flights by RF-4E jets tomorrow,” he said.
He added that more advanced F-16 jets would take over the role of flying reconnaissance missions. “We executed the final tests yesterday,” Unal said. Four members of the military were killed on February 24 when two RF-4E jets — a variant of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom intended for reconnaissance — crashed in the Malatya region in southeast Turkey.
In a second accident on March 5, two pilots died when their F-4 Phantom plane went down in the central Anatolian city of Konya. The twin accidents have prompted renewed focus on the key NATO member’s ageing F-4 fleet, which was first purchased in the 1970s and has been dogged by a poor safety record.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Monday Turkey’s F-4 type planes — 49 in total — would be in use until 2020. Unal insisted that aside from the grounding of the RF-4Es, the air force’s F-4 fleet would stay in the air. He said all the jets were in good condition, rejecting suggestions the planes and their pilots were inadequate as “mere speculation.”
“These claims have no scientific basis,” he said. Unal said 60 F-4 fighter jets had crashed since 1974, when the first batch of the planes were bought. Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz said that according to a preliminary report from experts the accident in Konya was caused by pilot error, not a technical fault.
Turkish fighter jets have in recent years played an active role in patrolling its volatile border with Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war. A Syrian fighter aircraft downed a RF-4E jet in 2012 over the Mediterranean, killing two pilots.
Among NATO countries, the Turkish armed forces are second only to the United States in terms of size.