Frozen in the sands of time: Eerie Second World War RAF fighter plane discovered in the Sahara… 70 years after it crashed in the desertPilot of the Kittyhawk P-40 was thought to have survived crash, but died trying to walk out of the desertAircraft was found almost perfectly preserved, unseen and untouched, after it came down in 1942Historian describes find as “an incredible time capsule” and “the aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun”s Tomb”
He was hundreds of miles from civilisation, lost in the burning heat of the desert.
Second World War Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping took what little he could from the RAF Kittyhawk he had just crash-landed, then wandered into the emptiness.
From that day in June 1942 the mystery of what happened to the dentist’s son from Southend was lost, in every sense, in the sands of time.
Shifting sands: The final resting place of the Kittyhawk P-40 has been discovered in the Sahara 70 years after it crashed there
Time capsule: Aside from the damage it sustained during impact, the aircraft appears to have been almost perfectly preserved in the sands of the Sahara
Chance discovery: The single-seater aircraft was found by a Polish oil company worker exploring a remote region of the western desert in Egypt
But 70 years later, the ghostly remains of his battered but almost perfectly preserved plane has been discovered.
Like a time capsule that could providethe key to his disappearance, it had lain intact alongside a makeshift shelter Dennis appears to have made as he waited, hopelessly, for rescue.
Now a search is to begin for the airman’s remains – as aviation experts and historians begin an operationto recover and display the P-40 aircraft in his memory.
The chance find was made by an oil worker exploring a remote region of the Western Desert in Egypt. It is more than 200 miles from the nearest town in a vast expanse of largely featureless terrain.
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.
Unseen and untouched: Equipment and controls from the plane were found scattered around the craft at the crash site. The plane is still in very good condition
Remarkably, the plane remained almost untouched for the next seven decades – right down to the guns and ammunition found with it. Most of the cockpit instruments are intact, and the twisted propeller lies a few feet from the fuselage.
Crucially, the P-40’s identification plates are untouched – allowing researchers to track its provenance and service history.
There is flak damage in the fuselage, which is consistent with documents on the aircraft. Historian Andy Saunders said: ‘It is a quite incredible time capsule. It’s the aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
‘This plane has been lying in the same spot where it crashed 70 years ago.
‘It hasn’t been hidden in the sand, it has just sat there.
‘He must have survived the crash because one photo shows a parachute around the frame of the plane and myguess is the poor bloke used it to shelter from the sun. The radio and batteries were out of the plane and it looks like he tried to get it working.
Second World War weaponry: The machine gun on the wing of the crashed plane. It appears the pilot got into trouble and brought it down in the middle of the desert
Bullet holes: The Kittyhawk appears to have been shot at (left), while its broken propeller lays nearby (right). Historians have described the find as the “aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun”s Tomb”
‘If he died at the side of the plane his remains would have been found. Once he had crashed there, nobody wasgoing to come and get him. It is more likely he tried to walk out of the desert but ended up walking to his death. It is too hideous to contemplate.’
The RAF Museum in Hendon, North London, has been made aware of the find and plans are already under way to recover it before anyone tries to strip it for scrap or souvenirs. Efforts have also been made to trace any immediate members of Flight Sergeant Copping’s family in the UK, but it is believed that none survives.
Captain Paul Collins, British defence attach to Egypt, confirmed a search would be mounted for the airman’s remains but admitted it was ‘extremely unlikely’ it would be successful.The spot could be marked as a war grave after the aircraft is recovered.
Heading home: The RAF Museum at Hendon, north London, has been made aware of the discovery and plans are underway to recover the aircraft for exhibition in the future
Captain Collins added: ‘The scene is close to a smuggling line from Sudan and Libya.
‘We will need to go there with the Egyptian army because it is a dangerous area.’
Ian Thirsk, of the RAF Museum, confirmed staff are working with the MoD to recover the plane.
The P-40 was a US-made fighter and ground attack aircraft. It was outclassed by later German fighters and saw little combat in Europe but performed a key role in North Africa and Asia where high-altitude performance was less critical. Around 20 are still airworthy.
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In flight: Ft Sgt Copping and another airman were tasked with flying two damaged Kittyhawk P-40 planes (like this one) from one British airbase in northern Egypt to another for repair