A Polish oil worker out on a survey in the Sahara Desert recently stumbled upon this incredibly well-preserved Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk. Riddled with bullet holes and featuring the tell-tale signs of a crash landing, the remains tell a harrowing story — one with a likely tragic ending.
Back in 1942, as Rommel was making life hell for British forces in North Africa, a British Flight Sergeant named Dennis Copling was tasked with a seemingly routine mission: Return a damaged P-40 Kittyhawk ground-attack fighter to an Egyptian repair base behind friendly lines.
A Kittyhawk fighter of the Desert Airforce
Copling was never heard from again. The exact details of what happened are a mystery, but the discovery of his plane — which remained completely untouched for 70 years — now offers some important clues.
Flight Sergeant Dennis Copling
The condition and position of the plane strongly suggests that Copling crash-landed in the Western Desert; the buckled propeller and landing gear were discovered nearby. Perhaps he ran out of fuel, or the damaged plane finally cut out on him. Indeed, the Kittyhawk was riddled by bullets, but it's not known when, in the large scheme of things, the shots were received.
It's also clear, but for reasons unknown, that Copling strayed significantly off course; the plane rests in a remote location in the Sahara about 250 miles (400 km) from the nearest town.
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What's more, it's fairly clear from the remains that Copland survived the crash. Alongside the plane were the remnants of a makeshift shelter, a ramshackle construction made from the pilot's parachute, a few panels, and a pile of rocks.
It's quite possible that Copling set out on a desperate attempt to find help. And in fact, human remains have been found several miles from the downed aircraft, though it's not clear if they belong to the lost pilot.
The plane, which has been declared the "Tutankhamun's tomb" of aviation history, was recently in a different kind of battle. Though it was discovered late last year, the turmoil in Egypt has made recovery efforts difficult. Thankfully, it has been relocated and now rests in a secure hanger. The Royal Air Force Museum is currently negotiating via the British Embassy in Cairo to make the fighter a permanent fixture of its London display.