Lost in the Desert | The Tragic Tale of Dennis Copping’s P-40

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Reported Missing

Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, a 24-year-old British pilot, was part of the 260 Squadron of the RAF Volunteer Reserves flying the P-40 Kittyhawks. 

In June 1942, Copping was tasked to fly one of the P-40s (serial code ET574) on a ferry flight to a neighboring British airbase to have the undercarriage repaired. The P-40s were about to be a part of the upcoming Summer offensive that year.

Copping took off on June 28 and headed West. This would be the last time he would ever be seen – as soon after, both the aircraft and its pilot were reported missing.

70-Year Mystery

Fast forward to April 2012, when workers of a Polish Oil company discovered the remarkably well-preserved remains of a P-40. The desert’s extremely dry conditions ‘mummified’ the aircraft, as it only suffered minimal rust and decay. 

Its wings were half-buried under the sand but were still in good condition, though the fabric-covered control surfaces had rotten away. Nevertheless, the cockpit was still somewhat preserved and the aircraft still had live ammunition loaded in the magazines of its six machine guns. 

Because of its relatively good condition, it didn’t take long for authorities to link the downed Kittyhawk to Dennis Copping exactly 69 years, 9 months, and 14 days later. 

Where Is Copping?

One thing was missing from the wreckage – the pilot, leading many to believe that Copping had survived the crash. But where was he?

well, based on the P-40’s location, it was surmised that Copping made a navigation error during flight, and the aircraft would run out of fuel almost 300 km from the closest inhabited area and 370 km South-West of Cairo. This meant that, at some point, he was alone and lost in the middle of the largest desert on Earth.

Further Investigations

Authorities found a small makeshift camp built next to the aircraft. Near it was the plane’s battery and radio, hinting that Copping might have attempted to broadcast for help. Unfortunately, the internal workings of the radio had been destroyed by the crash landing. At some point after this, Copping decided to leave camp to find help. 

Shortly after the discovery of the wreck, a group of Italian historians uncovered a number of human bones five kilometers from the crash site. However, it was decided that those bones probably “did not belong” to Copping as they were “too old” to be his. 

On-going Case

Interestingly, the bones were never tested for any DNA. The historians were also able to find a section of the parachute, a keyfob, and a buckle stamped ‘1939’ – things Copping might have had with him at the time of his death.

Nevertheless, if the radio had not been destroyed, this story would have ended differently. 

Today, the ET574 has been fully restored, albeit rather poorly, and sports a historically inaccurate camouflage scheme. Perhaps one day, the aircraft could be subject to a more historical and thorough restoration program as it is the last surviving example of a Desert Air Force P-40 Kittyhawk.