In the 1950s, a Turkish woman named Şenay Günay broke with convention to become one of the first female jet pilots in Turkey. Now 84 years old, Günay shares her remarkable story in an interview with Runway Girl Network.
Günay was born in 1938 in Antakya to a military family. Her father was an executive officer in the Turkish Armed Forces, and her grandfather was a veteran solder. While studying law at Istanbul University, Günay heard a radio announcement from the Turkish Air Force that it was going to admit women to its flight training program and allow them to fly military aircraft for the first time.
“Are you qualified to become a pilot? The Air Force needs you!” she recalls the Turkish Air Force saying.
It was at that moment that Günay started to train her eyes on the skies. At the tender age of 18, she enlisted in the Turkish Air Force Academy and was sent to the Gaziemir Flight School in the Izmir province for flight training.
Günay and fellow cadet Leman Altınçekiç were the only female pilot trainees in the school. “It was a time when there was a male dominance in military service. Of course, our presence was a real shock for our male friends at first. But they didn’t make us feel their surprise. We received the same flight training,” she says. The two women wore the same training uniforms as their male counterparts.
Her commander was less enthused, however. “Unaware of my talent, my commander openly asked me “Are you a woman? I do not want a female pilot here,” Günay confides.
It wasn’t the only time she would grapple with adversity. One of the biggest challenges Günay faced during her training came in 1957, when it was time to fly blind, and rely entirely on instruments to prepare for flying at night and in unclear weather conditions. Günay alleges that certain aircraft commanders wanted her flight instructor to kick the aircraft’s yoke so that it would wobble and obstruct her graduation from flight school.
“But once I had settled into the cockpit and discovered all the knobs and handles, etc, I began to believe in myself, and I was able to pass the test flight. My flight instructor was shocked by this success,” she says.
“She flies much better than her male colleagues,” was his response, she says.
At the age of 21, Günay flew solo and got her license. Keenly aware of the significance of her own breakthrough, she notes: “I was representing women’s freedom in the Air Force in that period of time.”
In her 24 years of military service, Günay flew a range of aircraft including the North American F-86 Sabre, a transonic jet fighter aircraft, as well as the Douglas C-47 military transport aircraft.
“Once, when I was in the air, the freedom was like nothing else. I would chase the clouds, and follow the cotton wool fluff by smiling,” she recalls.
She lays claim to being the first and only woman pilot who was able to earn the rank of Air Force Colonel in Turkey at the time. And she says her pilot’s license is still valid even today.
Günay retired in 1980 and is now focused on painting and opening her own art gallery. “Anything that you imagine, you can create by painting. It is like a feeling of flying.”
A member of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), located in Washington DC, Günay has been writing a book about her memoirs, with the intension of inspiring the next generation of pilots. She is a firm believer that women should be involved in commander roles in the air forces of the world, suggesting that they are natural defenders of peace.
All images credited to the Şenay Günay Archive
Şenay Didem Kuzu is an international correspondent and aviation journalist based in Ankara, Turkey. Kuzu previously reported from dozens of countries around the world, including Brussels, Qatar, Russia, and UK. During more than 5 years at Turkey’s state television as a reporter, Kuzu conducted many exclusive interviews and prepared special dossiers on aircraft accident investigations such as US Airways flight 1549 and the Turkish Airlines Boeing 747 cargo crash in Kyrgyzstan in 2017.
She graduated from Ankara University with a major in English Literature and dedicated one-term to literature study at University of Oxford. Kuzu is the author of the Turkish novel, 727’den Kaçış: FBI’ın aranan ismi D.B.Cooper, published in 2021. She is also Turkish translator of the New York Times best-selling book Crash Detectives, by Christine Negroni.