Monday, May 28, 2012

Secrets in the sand

Earlier this year, a Polish oil worker came across the well-preserved wreckage of an American-made Kittyhawk P-40 in a remote area of the western Sahara Desert in Egypt. Guns and ammunition were found with the World War II-era plane, most of the cockpit instruments were intact, and the twisted propeller lay a few feet from the fuselage (2nd image, video here). Intact identification plates allowed researchers to track its provenance and service history. Roy Bennett, 75, of Benfleet, Essex, England, saw the photos in the newspaper and says, “As soon as I opened The Sun and saw the Kittyhawk I didn’t have to read the story to know that it was his plane." He was referring to his uncle, 24-year-old Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, who was a member of the RAF's 260 Squadron, a fighter unit based in Egypt during the North Africa campaign. On June 28, 1942, Copping was ordered to fly the damaged plane to another British airbase for repair. He lost his bearings, went off course, and was reported missing in action. The site of the plane crash indicates that he survived the impact. He hung his parachute around the frame of the plane for shelter, and removed the radio and its batteries to try to get it working. But his attempt to walk to safety proved futile, since the nearest town was 200mi away and the heat would have reached 120°F during the day. Copping's other nephew, William Pryor-Bennett of Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland, produced photos from the family album (including 1st image)  and remembers, "Our generation all speculated whether he was still alive somewhere." The pilot's remains were not found, though it is surmised that he did not get further than 20mi from the aircraft. A similar fate was met by American businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett (1944-2007), who flew his small plane out of a Nevada airstrip and disappeared without a trace. More than a year after the search for Fossett was suspended and his death was presumed, the wreckage of his plane was discovered by hikers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The extent of the damage showed that the pilot would have died upon impact. Fossett's remains - in the form of some long bones scavenged by animals - were later located, but Copping's body could possibly remain hidden beneath the windswept sand as a mummy.
Previous posts about planes, pilots, and passengers:

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