The tragic end of 24 year-old RAF pilot, Flight Sergeant Denis Copping from Southend, Essex, was revealed when his single seat fighter plane was discovered by chance by a Polish oil worker exploring the remote region of the Western Desert in Egypt.
Denis Copping was a member of 260 Squadron, an RAF fighter unit based in Egypt during the North Africa campaign against Rommel in WW2. On 28 June 1942 he and another airman were tasked with flying two damaged aircraft from one British airbase in northern Egypt to another for repair. At some point during the flight, Denis lost his bearings, went off course and was never seen again.
Because the American manufactured Kittyhawk P-40 aircraft has remained undisturbed for 70 years, the evidence of how Denis survived the crash remains. Most of the cockpit instruments remain intact, but the twisted propeller lies a few feet from the fuselage, rendering the aircraft incapable of getting airborne. His parachute was lying around the frame of the plane as a makeshift shelter from the sun, and he had also taken the radio and batteries out of the aircraft and tried to get it working.
However, because he had crashed more than 200 miles from the nearest town, in the vast expanse of a remote and featureless desert, it must have dawned on him that no rescue was coming; and because no human remains were found at the crash site, he must have made a desperate attempt to walk out of the desert.
It is presumed that he got no more than 20 miles in the blistering heat. A search for his remains will concentrate on a 20 mile radius from the crash site, but it is thought extremely unlikely they will be found.
The Mail on Sunday has traced one of his surviving relatives in the UK. Nephew William Pryor-Bennett, whose mother was Denis’ sister, told the newspaper:
“The discovery of my uncle’s plane has been more of a shock than I thought it would be after all this time. Our generation all speculated whether he was still alive somewhere. Obviously the answer was no. Looking down into the cockpit and seeing the joystick, thinking that Uncle Denis was actually manipulating that and sitting in there, is very moving. My mother used to call him her darling little brother. She said he was a very nice, quiet boy, not at all boisterous. They were amazed when he signed up. Even though I was born after he had died, we used to talk about him a lot. We used to have a photograph on the mantelpiece and flowers were placed next to it at Christmas and on his birthday.