Pioneering Turkish Airspace in 1924: Swiss pilot Walter Mittelholzer’s amazing journey from Zurich to Tehran
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Emir Öngüner

Pioneering Turkish Airspace in 1924: Swiss pilot Walter Mittelholzer’s amazing journey from Zurich to Tehran

Issue 9 - 2021
Pioneering Turkish Airspace in 1924: Swiss pilot Walter Mittelholzer’s amazing journey from Zurich to Tehran

In the fall of 1924, Swiss pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer received an invitation from the Persian government. Reza Shah Pahlavi wanted to modernize Persia (Iran) and open up the still undeveloped country to air traffic. He therefore negotiated with Junkers Luftverkehr AG, among others, about the establishment of possible air routes.

Junkers had already begun in 1923 to establish an air route from Sweden to Persia with its F 13 commercial aircraft, but soon had to discontinue the first test route from Moscow to Tehran due to a lack of demand. In 1924, an attempt was now to be made to link Iraq via Turkey, Greece and Italy to the southern European air traffic network of Junkers - the Trans-Europe Union.

On December 18, 1924, Mittelholzer took off from Zurich in the Junkers A 20 "Switzerland" accompanied by the mechanic Bisseger for the flight to Tehran. The "Junkers-Luftverkehr Nachrichtenblatt" of January 14, 1925, carried his diary-like reports, which we reprint in this chapter.1 

After arriving to Pisa, Naples, Brindisi and Athens, the next destination was İzmir. The unauthorized landing took place after 2.30 hours of flight despite the stormy weather at the Turkish military seaplane station of Smyrna (İzmir). A surprise awaited Mittelholzer here. Mittelholzer and his mechanic Bisseger were held in custody for 26 days in Turkey until the negotiations of the Swiss embassy with Turkish government came to a final conclusion. According to the statements of Turkish officials, he had to fly over İstanbul first and head back to the south. Unfortunately there is no clear written explanation for this indirection:2

Across the Aegean Sea (Athens - Smyrna in 2h 30min)

''I was told that the plane was confiscated; because Smyrna and its hinterland was a war zone. I was the only airman who had dared to come here since the end of the war, and that the two Turkish airmen had been instructed not to let me enter the Gulf of Smyrna. How this should have been prevented has not become clear to me to this day; for I could not suppose that they would have made use of their weapons on a civilian airplane manned by Swiss. Until the arrival of a new instruction from Angora (Ankara), we were not allowed to enter our plane, not even minor repairs let alone conversion from water to land were allowed. I protested strongly against this discourtesy, reminding the Turks of the hospitality enjoyed by their peace delegation to the Swiss Military Aviation.

For the success of my Persian flight it is of vital importance that I reach Baghdad as soon as possible, before the long rainy season sets in, in order to get from there in one stage over the snowy mountains of Persia to Tehran. We already believed that we would reach our destination by New Year's Day, thanks to our excellent machine, which was proving itself better and better, and thanks also to the splendid weather, which appeared to be stable for some time to come. Unfortunately, I was thoroughly mistaken, not in my ability and willingness, but in the mentality of the Orientals...

Central European who has never been to the Orient, you do not know the secrets of Turkish diplomats! I am convinced that the permission to continue the flight will come when the big rain starts! Then the unwanted stranger shall seek his way through the fog-covered mountains of Anatolia!"

Over the Bosphorus (Smyrna-Constantinople in 4h 30min) 

''To the east, as far as the eye could see, the view was clear, while to the north lay a suspicious, ever-widening cloud cover. What should I do? - Head east anyway, or fly north into the fog and probably rain against the fierce headwind? Longingly I looked to the distant snow mountains in the east, there, yes there my way went towards freedom of thought and action.

Above Manissa (Manisa) I turned around to the north. Soon I was above a fine cloud cover, from which in the northeast long high snow mountains looked out. From time to time I saw a river in the dark depths, then isolated villages; I could no longer orient myself exactly, but only knew, calculated from the two-hour flight time and the compass course, my approximate position; so I had to decide to go down through a cloud hole. Steeply we whistled from our altitude of 2500 m in narrow spirals into the depths; suddenly dark night enveloped us, as we came out of the blinding abundance of light above the sea of fog below the cloud edge. Wildly, our bird rears up, shaken by violent gusts, and then falls down again headlong, that sometimes I hung in the air for seconds despite my seatbelt. It smelled like rain in the gloomy depths. I was forced to fly at an altitude of 200 meters. Now I recognized in the eerie gray to my right a large lake with an inflowing river; according to my little map it must be Lake Abulliona (Ulubat Gölü)3, in front of which the higher mountains were covered with fog. So only the way to the northwest to Panderma (Bandırma) at the Sea of Marmara remained open to me, which I reached flying only 100 m high, at 2:40 p.m., thus after 2 hours 35 minutes of flight from Smyrna. I flew around the mountainous Peranio peninsula (most possibly Erdek / Kapıdağ Yarımadası) on its southern side, reached the bare Marmara Island over the open sea at 3:5 p.m. and now, flying only about 80 m high above the stormy sea, headed northwest over the 20 km wide Marmara Sea. Bissegger and I counted the seconds and minutes until we finally reached the European shore south of Podosto (Tekirdağ), fighting against the fierce headwind. In the event of an engine breakdown, we would have disappeared without a trace with our now no longer floating land machine, because as far as the limited visibility reached, no ship was to be seen.''

The overflight of the Taurus (Constantinople-Aleppo in 7h 25min) 

''The takeoff from St. Stefano (Yeşilköy), the airfield in Constantinople (İstanbul), could not take place until 10 o'clock. Despite the shortness of the day, the enormous distance of 1100 km to Aleppo was almost completely covered. The landing took place only 25 km from the city after a difficult flight.

I immediately flew from St. Stefano over the Bosporus to the Asian shore, leaving Constantinople somewhat to the left. Nevertheless, we overlooked the city, which presented itself today gray in gray unfriendly. Flying low under the wet clouds, we followed the Anatolian Railway to Daridje (Darıca), on the Gulf of Ismid (İzmit Körfezi). There I had to dodge the rain in front of me over the sea, and reached the other shore at Kara (most likely Karamürsel). 

In front of me about 800 m high mountains blocked the way, which were up to 400 m in the fog. But a narrow pass was free of fog, and I was able to slip through its gap, still flying about 20 m high. Soon the wide valley opened up, in which the Isnik Lake (İznik Gölü) is located, which we passed at 10:50 minutes.

I was pleased to note that today, in contrast to yesterday, we were making good progress, with the north wind at our backs. Gradually I was able to climb a bit higher, the clouds cleared and after an hour 40 minutes, approximately in the area of Eskischehir (Eskişehir), I left the gusty airspace and quickly climbed to 2500 m above the clouds. To the southeast, the elongated bluish range of the Taurus (Toros) gradually grew out of the vast sea of fog. At 3 p.m. I saw the sea behind the high gigantic snow mountains in the southwest, at first judging it as a sea of fog, but soon after the reflection of the sun recognizing it as the Gulf of Adalia (Antalya Körfezi). So my hope that there was still good weather in the Mediterranean had not deceived me - the venture of flying over the clouds had been successful.

My way to the south was now given, I had left Konia (Konya) a little to the left and now followed the long, wild Geuktal surrounded by mighty sediment terraces down to the sea. A huge delta of at least 20 km in diameter had been washed up here by the stream from Anatolia.

From Selefke (Silifke), a small village above the confluence with the sea, I now traversed the Gulf of Mersina (Mersin Körfezi), leaving the town on the left! I look backward; and state with something uneasiness that the sun soon turns to the horizon. Thereupon I measure again on the map the distance to Aleppo (Halep). There are still about 110 km, so full throttle and press the machine, so that it gives its utmost speed. But as if in a race, the dark purple shadows on the steep mountain slopes in front of me rush upwards - a last glow of the snow-covered mountain ridges and dusk approaches with uncanny speed. 

At 16:48 I fly in 2000 m height over the small town Alexandrette (İskenderun), which is wonderfully in a protected bay of the eastern gulf of the Mediterranean, at the foot of steep, up to 1800 m high mountains. At 17:10 I passed the El Bahra Lake...''

After passing the highlands in Syria and Iraq, Mittelholzer and his mechanic Bisseger arrived in Persia. But the journey via Baghdad to Persia was varied and adventurous; they had to stop over and over again. Mittelholzer's expedition flights and films were media events of the first order, as untouched regions were explored and captured photographically. Such pioneering flights also attracted a great deal of attention abroad and made the pilot known in wide circles at the time. 

Without doubt, the most intriguing detail during his flight over Turkey is the confiscation of his plane. After nearly 10 years later, British pilots Jim Mollison and Charles Kingsford Smith shared the same experience. Due the their landings on Turkish soil without permission they were taken into custudy as well. Smith had to even apologize to the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for his unintentional mistake.4  Mittelholzer's forced stay in Turkey is a direct evidence that the Turkish authorities were extremely strict with any kind of unauthorized flights over their airspace.

Mittelholzer's and other early aviators detailed reports give phantastic insight into what it was like to engage in a new way of exploration and break new ground, throwing caution literally to the wind tempted by new technology, a passion for adventure, break boundaries and to catch a glimpse of the unknown 


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