This WWII Fighter Plane Spent 70 Years In The Sahara DesertS

A Polish oil worker recently stumbled upon a wrecked World War II fighter plane that's been sitting in the Sahara Desert unmolested for the past 70 years.

Both Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping and the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk he was flying had been lost since the the Allied army tangled with the Desert Fox.

For photos of the P-40 found last week, click here.

Things were tough for the Allies fighting in North Africa in June 1942. The First Battle of El Alamein — which saw the British Eighth Army successfully repulse German and Italian Panzer Divisions headed for the Allied stronghold at Alexandria, Egypt — was raging at the time. Flight Sergeant Copping, the 24-year-old son of an English dentist, was flying his P-40 to another base to have some battle damage repaired when he crash landed hundreds of miles from the nearest town, apparently surviving the crash.

The amazing thing is that it was just sitting there, untouched by human hands over the past 70 years. When Jakub Perka found the aircraft during an oil exploration expedition last week, most of its gauges were intact. It also had all of its guns and a full magazine, which the Egyptian army collected before anyone else could get hold of the unspent ammo. (The plane had six wing mounted .50 caliber Browning machine guns, along with a sizeable pile of the mammoth cartridges that go along with them.) The fuselage bore scars from enemy machine gun fire.

Now that its location has been made public, British Defense Ministry officials are scrambling to get the well-preserved carcass out of Egypt before it is picked clean by local treasure and scrap hunters who already seem to have begun their work.

Military historian and RAF veteran Andy Saunders told the Telegraph that the find was indeed rare, and compared it to Howard Carter and George Herbert's 1922 discovery of King Tut's tomb.

"This plane has been lying in the same spot where it crashed 70 years ago. It hasn't been hidden or buried in the sand, it has just sat there. It is a quite incredible time capsule, the aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun's Tomb. It is hundreds of miles from anywhere and there is no reason why anyone would go there. It would appear the pilot got into trouble and just brought it down in the middle of the desert."

The P-40 — dubbed the Warhawk by American forces and the Tomahawk or Kittyhawk by Commonwealth nations — was one of the most intensively manufactured American aircraft of the war, behind the North American P-51 Mustang and the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. By the time production ceased in November 1944, Curtiss-Wright's Buffalo, N.Y. factory had churned out 13,738 planes. P-40s saw service all over the world, with the U.S. Army Air Forces, the British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, South African and Turkish Air Forces, and with the Flying Tigers, a controversial all-volunteer American contingent of the Chinese Air Force (my, how things have changed).

In general, pilots had a love-hate relationship with the P-40. Its performance was stodgy in comparison with most of its enemy counterparts, but it had a long range, was cheap to produce, and could soak up a lot of bullets and still get the pilot home. For the most part, it was regarded as a "best second choice."

Unfortunately for Copping, his Kittyhawk was a little too badly damaged to get him all the way to a good set of tools. Evidence suggests that his last few weeks in the Earthly realm were rough ones. His parachute had been unpacked and was draped over the side of the aircraft, probably because he was living under it. The plane's battery and radio had also been removed and were set up next to the plane.

Copping's remains were not found near the aircraft, or anywhere else. He is still officially MIA. (Hat tip to Bret!)

Photo credit: Royal Australian Air Force, 1941 via Wikimedia Commons