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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk in the Sahara

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com


This is a fairly recent find, and most are probably familiar with it. I figured I'd put up a page about it anyway, for those interested in World War II wrecks.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com


A perfectly preserved Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk was found in Sahara Desert in May 2012, when Polish oil workers stumbled across it. It is widely believed that it was the plane of 24-year-old Flt Sgt Dennis Copping.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Rommel's Afrika Korps would have been standing on the coast directly to the north when the plane went down. 

On June 28, 1942, Copping was tasked by 260 Squadron to ferry the damaged 260 Squadron aircraft from one RAF base in Egypt to another for repairs. He was flying south, away from coast, into the middle of nothingness. Perhaps needless to say, that was not the direction of his intended destination, and it is of course a mystery why he went that way. There would have been no landmarks, just sand and featureless ridges. He was far off course, perhaps disoriented, perhaps chased by the Luftwaffe. A fellow pilot is said to have tried to get his attention as to his wrong course, to no avail. Likely, his radio wasn't working. Ultimately, Copping and his aircraft disappeared into the endless desert.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The gunsight is that large black protruding thing at the top.

It is assumed that Copping lost his way, perhaps ran low on fuel, and decided that crash-landing was better than waiting until he had to bail out. He made a good landing, wheels down. They sheered off, it must have been tough to judge the rocks from the air. It must have been bumpy as the radiator and propeller came off. He got out in good shape.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A parachute in the sand.

Apparently, he used his silk parachute to shield himself from the sun and perhaps attract attention. One can imagine that he spent some time with the aircraft, hoping that someone would come looking for him and it was wiser to stay with the relatively visible plane. Ferry pilots did not carry much in the way of water or rations.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com

He had the radio out. Perhaps it didn't work, or maybe he was out of range. Eventually, he left it and the plane behind and started walking. What else could he do? To stay was certain death.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com

The nearest settlement was 180 miles away to the North. Even if he had a full pack of water and rations, it still would have been a miracle to find it in the featureless desert. The Nile was even further away to the East. The British Army was fully occupied with containing German General Erwin Rommel, who was preparing to launch another offensive. The Army did not make much of a search, but that is understandable given the situation. Even a full-scale effort would probably have been fruitless, especially given the plane's desert camouflage. There was a war on, men died every day, and aircraft got shot down or crashed on their own. Copping was not a top priority, in fact, he was not a priority at all.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com

So, seventy years passed before the plane was found, which gives some idea of how likely it would have been for anyone to find it in 1942. While the American-built Kittyhawk was in amazing condition considering the passage of time, the remains of Flt Sgt Copping were nowhere to be found. Later, though, a search team found a pile of human bones, a parachute, metal buttons and so forth dating from 1939 a few miles from the crash site. Copping didn't get very far; walking a mile in the sand isn't as easy as it probably sounds, especially in flight gear with no water.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Get a good mechanic with hoses, fuel and plugs and so forth, vacuum out the sand, and that baby would start right up.

The bones that were found nearby are now said to be in a box in Cairo, but nobody has put forth the effort to identify them via DNA or any other means. Meanwhile, the RAF Museum at Hendon is reported to be interested in the aircraft, but the craft is understood to be in the possession of Egyptian authorities in a storage crate at El Alemain. Everything is said to be inaccessible due to politics, but it sounds to some as if the real problem is that pilot Copping once again is not a priority.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com

The Hendon RAF Museum promised one of its rare Supermarine Spitfires (only 110 are left in Great Britain) to the Egyptian salvage team as “payment” for the Kittyhawk, and accordingly transferred title of the Spitfire to a private firm. However, the unrest in Egypt has prevented consummation of the deal. The P-40 may never make its way to England, while the Spitfire also is lost to the public for the duration. The whole affair remains "up in the air." It inevitably will work itself out, but for now, the swap remains a bungled situation.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com

There isn't much further news about this incident that I could find. News items like this tend to have their 15 minutes in the international media - National Geographic was all over this - and then disappear into local media, if that. Hopefully, the plane will find its way to the Hendon museum, and Flight Sergeant Copping - if that is who it is - will find a proper burial. The restoration would be straightforward, as the plane is in good condition. That isn't the real issue, though - there are plenty of P-40s left. Returning this honored treasure to England just is the right thing to do.

Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk Sahara worldwartwo.filminspector.com





2015


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