A story that appeared all over the news recently caught my eye for a number of reasons - here’s an example of the headlines: “Frozen in the sands of time: Eerie Second World War RAF fighter plane discovered in the Sahara... 70 years after it crashed in the desert.”
The Western Desert of Egypt and Libya is strewn with well preserved wreckage from WW II, but this is an extraordinary example. This is the BBC description:
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. 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. 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."
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.
A compelling story. And, of course, being a geologist and having spent some time in the Western Desert, I was curious – where, exactly, was the plane found? The location mentioned, Wadi al-Jadid, is a very large area south and west of the village of Mut, part of the sprawling oasis of Dakhla – through which I had passed, travelling to the southwest on my way to the Gilf Kebir several years ago. Geologists have a strange tendency to look at the rocks in a photo or in a movie (and, unnervingly for passengers, out of the car window while driving), and an examination of the photos above reveals a couple of things. First, all the gumph in the press reports about “buried in the sands of time” is exactly that – this is an area of sand-blasted limestone outcrops across which the blasting grains would bounce, swirl, and keep going: no dunes deep enough to have buried the plane could accumulate there. Second, the reports variously describe the location as being one hundred or “more than 200” miles from the nearest town, which is, perhaps, Mut. Vast areas to the south and west of Mut are covered by dunes sweeping across seemingly endless gravel plains – few outcrops,none of them limestone. Only after around 150 miles did we enter the distinctive blasted limestone landscapes. I would suggest that this image from my trip is evocative of the general environment shown in the photos of the plane:
I have no intention of providing a guide to bounty-hunters – the area shown on the Google Earth images below is still huge (and, anyway, I may be wrong - I am, see comment discussion below after this was posted):
Incidentally, the comment in the BBC piece that the area is “also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt” I believe is somewhat misleading. Those photos come from the desert west of the Gilf Kebir and it is there, along the Libyan border, that certainly the main people smuggling routes run – I know (and wish that I didn’t), because we saw some of the trucks in the distance.
The CNN report describes how “The young pilot, according to [British military historian] Saunders apparently became disoriented during the flight and headed in the wrong direction. Another RAF pilot flying nearby ‘tried all sorts of things’ to get his attention, but Copping ‘bizarrely’ ignored a series of warnings.” So where should the pilot have been trying to get to? The Imperial War Museum website proves to be yet another wonderful internet resource. Here are two images from their online archives of the North African Campaign:
Left, “A Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark I of No. 112 Squadron RAF taxies through the sand at a landing ground in the Western Desert. A mechanic sitting on the wing is guiding the pilot, whose forward view is obscured by the aircraft's nose.” Right, “Trolleys loaded with 250-lb GP bombs are drawn up in front of a line of Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark IIIs of No. 260 Squadron RAF at Marble Arch landing ground, Libya, prior to a bombing sortie.” (Reproduced courtesy of the IWM Non-Commercial Licence).
These landing grounds were scattered across the Western Desert, but, appropriately, close to the Mediterranean coast; the Google Earth image above shows one of the British-American joint bases, RAF Gambut, from which the Kittyhawks flew. The pilot of this one was certainly, tragically, a long way from home.