Saturday, 12 June 2021

Queen Of The Skies: Turkey’s Boeing 747-8I BBJ Presidential Transport

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Turkey is emerging as an increasingly important actor in world politics, taking on an assertive international role and with it a growing political weight. Accompanying the country's rise as an emerging power has been a vast expansion of its fleet of VIP aircraft for use by government officials. These often majestic-looking aircraft are a symbol of status that is meant to signify Turkish power and prestige home and abroad. Undoubtedly the most imposing aircraft is the single Boeing 747-8I Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) that has been in service with the Turkish Presidential Fleet since September 2018.

But contrary to the other aircraft in service with the Turkish Presidential Fleet, which were purchased outright as either brand-new or second-hand aircraft, the Boeing 747-8I BBJ was in fact received as a gift from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the current Amir of Qatar. The generous donation came after the Amir (having heard of Erdoğan's interest in purchasing the aircraft) is said to have stated "I won't take money from Turkey" according to President Erdoğan, who further stated that ''costs are not to be considered when it comes to the prestige of the Turkish state.'' [1]

The gifting of the Boeing 747-8I by Qatar may have been in recognition for Turkey's support to Doha after several Arab nations severed diplomatic relations and imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017. In response to the blockade, Turkey sent 197 cargo planes full of food and other commodities to Doha in the first month of the blockade alone, and also increased the size of its military garrison stationed in Qatar. [2] [3] As Qatar was largely reliant on imports that entered the country via the border with Saudi Arabia, Turkish support for Doha during the early days of the crisis was vital in keeping the country stocked with enough food and other crucial supplies.
The aircraft gifted to Turkey was one of four Boeing 747-8Is operated on behalf of the House of Al Thani and Qatari government officials. The plane was previously registered in Bermuda as VQ-BSK, but changed registration after its arrival in Turkey, becoming TC-TRK. The former paint scheme of the aircraft still donning the large coat of arms of Qatar on the tail can be seen in the image below. The Qatar Amiri Flight has since adopted a more modest livery devoid of any national markings.

TC-TRK had originally rolled off Boeing's Everett assembly line in 2012 and was subsequently painted and fitted with a VIP interior. The aircraft eventually entered service in late 2015 or early 2016, and had only clocked 436 flight hours prior to its gifting to Turkey, meaning it was basically brand new despite nearly six years of service at the time of its donation. [4] However, along with a Boeing 747SP that was also put up for sale by Qatar, the Boeing 747-8I was actually not officially part of the Qatar Amiri Flight, making it likely that the sale and subsequent gifting of the Boeing 747-8I was part of a larger restructuring process.
While Qatar is part of a only small group of nations operating the Boeing 747 as the air transport of the head of state and government, the gifting of a Boeing 747-8I is unlikely to affect the transportation capacity of the House of Al Thani and government of Qatar. Even after the donation of the 747-8I to Turkey, the Qatar Amiri Flight can still call upon three more Boeing 747-8Is, three Airbus A340s, two A330s, three A320s and three A319s in addition to several cargo planes (C-17) and smaller VIP aircraft operated for but not by the Qatar Amiri Flight. 

Similarly, the Turkish government currently operates one Airbus A318CJ, one A319CJ, one A330-200 Prestige, one ultra long-haul Airbus A340-500, three Gulfstream G550s, one Gulfstream IVs, one Bombardier CL-600 and three Sikorsky S-92 helicopters in VIP configuration. On some occasions, Turkish Air Force A400Ms are also used to transport the presidential motorcade and other equipment during certain state visits.

One of three Sikorsy S-92 VIP helicopters in service with the Turkish Presidential Fleet

Constituting the longest range airliner in the world until the introduction of the A350-900ULR in 2018, Turkey's A340-500 has a longer range than even the Boeing 747-8I (16.020km vs 15.000km)

After its arrival in Turkey from Basel, Switserland on the 15th of September 2018, the Boeing 747-8I was brought to a special section of the Turkish Airlines maintenance facilities located at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul for servicing and repainting. It may be assumed that the aircraft received additional upgrades and modifications to its interior along the same standard previously installed in the A330 and A340. The aircraft made its first flight in Turkish service on the 5th of October 2018, flying from Istanbul to Antalya and then to Izmir before heading to the capital Ankara. [5]
The original interior of the aircraft was designed for the seating of 76 passengers in what can only be described as extreme luxury. It is unknown to what extent the original interior (seen below) was changed after Turkey took possession of the aircaft. What is certain is that the aircraft comes equipped with a host of security systems and of course, its own in-flight entertainment system. A large bedroom, bathrooms, staterooms, lounges and first class seating areas complete the aircraft.

Another highly interesting feature of the aircraft is the presence of a well-equipped medical facility for emergency medical procedures, negating the demand to immediately land at the nearest airport if the medical ailment is less than catastrophic.

Whether in service with Qatar, South Korea, Brunei or Turkey, the Boeing 747-8I BBJ is an unmistakable status symbol meant to show off power and influence throughout all corners of the world. In contrast to aircraft such as the Dutch government Boeing 737-700 BBJ (arguably one of the world's ugliest transports of a head of state), it actually achieves this goal whilst being quite aesthetically pleasing. The imposing though majestic design is now fated to grace not just Turkish air space but wherever its head of state may direct it. Given the long range not just of its engines but also of Turkey's diplomatic arm, this may include countries the world over – though Qatar is sure to receive a friendly visit or two as well.
[1] Qatar's emir 'gives $500m private jet to Turkey'
[2] Turkey sent some 200 cargo planes to Qatar since dispute began: minister
[5] Devlet Filosunun yeni uçağı B747-8 "TC-TRK" Antalya Havalimanı'na yaklaşmada..
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