P-40 Kittyhawk crashed in the desert: Flt Sgt Dennis Copping started walking

Paul Pinkerton
 
Photo: Jakub Perka

This lost and forgotten World War II fighter is a rare survivor and a sad memorial to its doomed pilot.

When 24-year-old Flt Sgt Dennis Copping was forced to crash-land here in June 1942, he probably realized he stood no chance of survival. On June 28, 1942, Flt Sgt Dennis Copping of the RAF was flying a damaged P-40 Kittyhawk between two British airfields in Egypt for repairs and maintenance. But the aircraft never arrived at its destination, and for 70 years the Kittyhawk’s fate and that of its 24-year-old pilot remained a mystery.

The RAF fighter plane thought lost in the sands of time after its pilot crash landed in the desert during World War Two has been described as the “aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun’s Tomb.” The almost perfectly preserved Kittyhawk P-40 is an aviation time capsule that has remained unseen and untouched since it came down in the Sahara in June 1942.  Scroll down for video

 

 In May 2012, Polish oil company worker Jakub Perka was on an expedition in Al Wadi al Jadidi, 200 miles from the nearest town when he discovered a crash landed P-40 aircraft. In that remote location, no one had disturbed it, and the entire plane remained relatively intact; a makeshift shelter had apparently been constructed outside the plane using a parachute.

There was no sign of the pilot’s remains. Perka documented the site and contacted the the Egyptian military who immediately seized the fighter plane’s guns and ammunition for safety reasons. Soon after its discovery was reported, locals also began stripping the plane for scrap metal.

 

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Here we see the power of the sun as it beats relentlessly down on the P-40 in the Egyptian desert. Most of the front of the fuselage and wings has been scoured of paint by the sand perhaps indicating that the aircraft was pointed into the prevailing winds – logical as the pilot would have landing up wind. Photo: Jakub Perka source

Flight Sergeant Copping, part of a fighter unit based in Egypt during the North Africa campaign against Rommel, is believed to have lost his bearings while flying the damaged Kittyhawk to another airbase for repair. All that is known is that he went off course and was never seen again.

So what happened to this amazing time capsule? Well, like most things, it isn’t always that straightforward and even worse, it involves the giving away of a Spitfire. The Telegraph wrote in 2015:

A valuable Spitfire has been lost to the nation after an “ill-conceived” deal by the RAF Museum to exchange it for the recovery of another aircraft that it is unlikely ever to receive; it has been revealed. Museum bosses “paid” a salvage team an original Spitfire from their collection to retrieve a Second World War RAF Kittyhawk P40 plane that was found intact in the Sahara Desert 70 years after it crashed. But three years on and the museum, of which Prince Phillip is a patron, has conceded they may have lost the Spitfire with nothing to show for it after the political unrest in Egypt stalled negotiations to bring the Kittyhawk back to Britain.

They tasked a private salvage company with going to Egypt and saving the plane from souvenir hunters in the summer of 2012. They handed the Spitfire, one of 110 remaining in Britain and that had been donated to the museum by the Ministry of Defence in 1998, to Kennet Aviation as payment for the operation.

 

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A close up of the starboard wing with ammo compartments at back of wing open and ammo box in foreground. Photo: Jakub Perka source

A team from Essex-based Kennet were given permission to salvage the aircraft and secure it in a shipping container which was then taken to a site at El Alamein – the scene of the battle that resulted in the Allies’ first victory of Germany in World War Two.Since then the country has been gripped by political turmoil and the Kittyhawk is not high on the Egyptian government’s agenda. 

“The aircraft has been successfully retrieved and for the time being remains in secure storage in Egypt. “Given the uncertain political situation in Egypt, however, there is a possibility that Kittyhawk may never be returned to the United Kingdom.”

Pat Chriswick, a military aviation historian, said: “The RAF Museum have done a deal where they have got no delivery whatsoever. They have been incredibly naive. “Surely there should have been some arrangement whereby it was dependent on the success of the recovery project. “The Kittyhawk was recovered from the desert and taken to El Alamein. It is not a big surprise that the aircraft hasn’t left the country. “The exchange was ill-conceived and badly managed. The RAF Museum has nothing to show for it and the nation has lost a perfectly good and valuable Spitfire.”

 

For many, the aircraft is an important find, a moment in time captured. However, many within the historical community and especially his family,  are upset and offended that no effort at all has gone into finding the remains of Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping.

Dennis, 24, who was from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, his parachute silk was found by the fuselage for use as shelter and the aircraft radio and battery were beside it. He is believed to have tried to walk to safety in the 120°F heat, but is not thought to have got further than 20 miles. In fact, human remains were found within three miles of the wreck. “Dennis’s dad and mum always held on to the hope that as he was listed as missing, he would one day walk through the door. Sadly they passed away without knowing or having closure.”

But the pilot’s relatives claim the Ministry of Defence said that the remains were not those of the lost airman. It has since been established that the bones were never recovered or analyzed, leaving open the possibility they may be those of Flight Sergeant Copping.

 

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A closer look at the three machine guns in the starboard wing with muzzles filled with sand. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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The nose of the Kittyhawk was the most damaged with the propeller hub having been ripped from the shaft when the prop hit the ground. Looking in we can see the two banks of six cylinders of the Allison engine. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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The fabric covering of the tail feathers have long ago been destroyed by the sun and wind and sand. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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Looking back past the amputated propeller hub, we see severely contorted blades. It seems the landing was made with power on. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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The cockpit is in remarkable though dusty condition. Perhaps an experienced Kittyhawk pilot would be able to gain more information about the crash from the settings here. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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The seat is in the same condition as the day the pilot stepped over the side with his parachute and exited the wrecked P-40. The light accumulation of sand seems to indicate that the canopy was closed for all these years with minimum sand intrusion. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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A close in shot of the nose showing the V-12 block inside a sand and heat blasted skin with paint worn down to almost bare metal with a hint of the original US Army green undercoat from the Buffalo, New York factory. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

 

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Over 70 years sand has sifted in through cracks and perhaps from below. Aluminum placards are corroded and the throttle seems to be fully forward. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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The fabric has completely disappeared from the tail feathers. We can see the ammo compartment doors open on the left wing, probably the result of exploring by the discoverers. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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Here we see the radio bay and storage compartment door has been opened on the port side of the fuselage. Here we also see a upward puncture of the tail plane indicating it was either struck buy crash debris such as the landing gear or rocks, or perhaps this was the result of ground fire. Photo: Jakub Perka source

 

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