Gen. Abidin Ünal, commander of the Turkish Air Force's Combatant Air Force Command, announced on Wednesday that the aircraft, which are mainly used in reconnaissance and training flights, will be decommissioned after "one last flight" by himself and Air Force Commander Gen. Akın Öztürk on Thursday.
Speaking at the command base in western Turkey's Eskişehir, where an F-4E took off before crashing in Konya province on March 5 killing two officers aboard, Ünal said that two RF-4E aircraft had killed four military officers when they crashed in Malatya on Feb. 24. "We mourn the victims in these subsequent crashes. These crashes brought the aircraft into the spotlight. Everyone interpreted the crashes differently and we have seen comments misleading the public and ignoring the grief of the victims' families and colleagues," he said, noting that the investigation into the crashes was still underway and it would not be concluded in a short time.
Mentioning comments that defined the aircraft as "junk" and "old" and pilots as insufficiently trained, Ünal said the jets were eligible for flight until the end of 2015. He said that RF-4E aircraft were designed for reconnaissance missions exclusively and elaborated on their modernization. He said they were planning to "retire" them and replace them with F-16 jets gradually, but as F-16s completed the test flights successfully as of Tuesday, they decided to speed up the process. "We will have a decommissioning ceremony yesterday and I will fly an RF-4E [on Thursday] with our Air Force Commander," he said.
Ünal also spoke about the initial findings in the Malatya crashes and said a "human and communications error" might have caused them, noting that the pilots were flying below the altitude required to be kept steady in the area when they crashed into a hill.
In the Konya crash, Ünal said the pilots pressed the button that would eject them to safety "one second late" and denied media reports that the pilots were inexperienced.
The aircraft involving two crashes in Malatya were RF-4E planes that were first employed by Turkey in the 1980s while the one that crashed in Konya was an F-4E 2020, which will be in use until its eponymous year. The crash in Konya was attributed to "pilot error," according to Minister of National Defense İsmet Yılmaz. Yılmaz said earlier that F-4 jets will be in use until their expiration date five years later after a joint decision by the army and the government. Yılmaz has said past accidents involving the aircraft were primarily due to pilot error and defended their continued use, citing that Egypt, South Korea and Greece also used the fighter jets.
Currently, Turkey has eight RF-4E jets and 47 F-4E 2020. F-4 jets have been in use by the Turkish Air Force since 1980 for reconnaissance and training missions. Eleven RF4-Es have crashed between 1995 and 2015. A total of 10 officers were killed in those accidents, which were all mid-air collisions and crashes.
The country's F-4 fleet, composed of aircraft donated or bought from Germany and the U.S., underwent a modernization process in 2009. Aviation experts note that the modernization was thorough and the aircraft are as good as new.
Crashes have also fuelled conspiracy theories as it was revealed all crashed aircraft were modernized by Israel with which Turkey has strained relations. According to authorities, four crashed aircraft were indeed modernized by Israel while the ones that crashed in Malatya and Konya were modernized by Turkey.
Abidin Ünal also spoke about concerns related to a shortage of veteran pilots after casualties. He said 374 pilots quit the Air Force between 2010 and 2015 but the number of pilots, which was 1,280 before the resignations, rose to 1,300 in 2015. He said resignations did not impact the training of pilots. Ünal attributed the resignations to better pay in the private sector, frequent reassignment of pilots and obligation to serve 30 years for retirement eligibility.