World War II fighter found in Egyptian desert

By Nick Higham
BBC News

image captionThe pilot appears to have crash-landed the plane and then walked off into the desert

A World War II RAF fighter, which crash-landed in a remote part of the Egyptian desert in 1942, has been discovered almost intact.

There was no trace of the pilot, Flt Sgt Dennis Copping, but the British embassy says it is planning to mount a search for his remains.

The RAF Museum in Hendon, north London, says it is hoping to recover the plane as soon as possible.

There are fears souvenir hunters will start stripping it.

The 24-year-old pilot, the son of a dentist from Southend in Essex, went missing over the Western Desert in June 1942, flying an American-made P40 Kittyhawk single-engine fighter.

Two-and-a-half months ago an aircraft believed to be his was discovered near a remote place called Wadi al-Jadid by a Polish oil worker, Jakub Perka.

His photographs show the plane is in remarkably good condition, though the engine and propeller have separated from the fuselage.

The original paintwork and RAF insignia are said to be clearly visible, almost perfectly preserved in the dry desert air.

But of the pilot there is no sign. He appears to have executed a near-perfect emergency landing, perhaps after becoming lost and running out of fuel, and to have survived the crash.

He rigged a parachute as an awning and removed the aircraft's radio and batteries but then apparently walked off into the desert in search of help.

Bleak prospects

Almost 100 miles from the nearest settlement, he stood virtually no chance.

David Keen, an aviation historian at the RAF Museum, says the pilot broke the first rule of survival in the desert, which is to stay with your plane or vehicle.

But the very same conditions which made the pilot's prospects so bleak have helped preserve the plane.

Mr Keen says of the many thousands of aircraft which were shot down or crashed during the Second World War, very few survive in anything like this condition.

He said: "Nearly all the crashes in the Second World War, and there were tens of thousands of them, resulted on impact with the aircraft breaking up, so the only bits that are recovered are fragments, often scattered over a wide area.

"What makes this particular aircraft so special is that it looks complete, and it survived on the surface of the desert all these years. It's like a timewarp."

The RAF Museum has a P40 Kittyhawk on display, but it has been put together from parts of many different aircraft.

Recovering Flt Sgt Copping's plane will not be easy.

Souvenir hunters

It is in a part of the desert which is not only remote but also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt.

The defence attache at the British Embassy in Cairo, Paul Collins, says he is hoping to travel to the area in the near future, but is waiting for permission from the Egyptian army.

He told the BBC: "I have to go down there. This is a serviceman who was killed, albeit 70 years ago. We have a responsibility to go and find out whether it's his plane, though not necessarily to work out what happened.

"He went missing in action. We can only assume he got out and walked somewhere, so we have to do a search of the area for any remains, although it could be a wide area.

"But we have to go soon as all the souvenir hunters will be down there," said Mr Collins.

He said the British authorities are trying to find out whether Flt Sgt Copping has any surviving close relatives, because if his remains are found a decision will need to be made about what to do with them.