Curtiss Kittyhawk Ia ET574, which was discovered by an oil survey team in Egypt’s Al-Wadi al-Jadid desert near the El Farafra Oasis in early 2012, went on display at the El Alamein Military Museum in October. A crude and inaccurate paint scheme was applied to the hitherto ‘time-warp’ combat veteran fighter for ET574 to go on show in time for the 75th anniversary commemorations of the pivotal Second Battle of El Alamein, which took place in late October-early November 1942. Among the dignitaries at the museum’s anniversary event on 21 October was Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s current leader.
The No 260 Squadron fighter disappeared during a ferry flight on 28 June 1942. The pilot, Flt Sgt Dennis Copping, was flying ET574 — which had its undercarriage locked down — alongside another P-40 from the landing ground at Biur el Beheira to No 53 Recovery and Service Unit at Wadi Natrun, where the two faulty aircraft were due to be repaired while the rest of the unit retreated from the advancing Afrika Korps.
Light flak was encountered during the ferry flight, and Copping strayed well off course. He failed to respond to radio calls from the pilot of the second P-40, who then began making hand signals to try and persuade Copping to correct his heading. The wingman finally gave up and set course towards Wadi Natrun. Flt Sgt Copping was never seen again.
Following discovery of the wreck in 2012, no human remains were found in or near the aircraft, indicating that Copping wandered off to try and find help. As the location would inevitably now become common knowledge, the RAF Museum launched a plan to save the aircraft before it was be set upon by souvenir-hunters. Kennet Aviation was engaged to recover the machine from the desert, but there could be no guarantees that the aircraft would be allowed out of Egypt.
The museum had hoped to conserve the P-40 and display it unrestored in a diorama to represent the scene in which it had spent 70 years in the desert sands. Representations to the Egyptian authorities failed to secure the aircraft. The El Alamein Military Museum was seemingly working under pressure to get the P-40 ready for the anniversary, and no doubt had a limited budget. Fortunately, beneath the colour scheme, there appears to have been no effort to rebuild the airframe, so the historic integrity remains relatively intact under the lurid paint.
As part of the deal to recover the Kittyhawk, the RAF Museum presented Kennet Aviation with an incomplete Spitfire F22, PK664, from its reserve collection. The Spitfire is expected to be restored to flying condition.
RAF Museum spokesman Ajay Srivastava explains, “Kittyhawk ET574 is a unique example and needed to be secured from the attention of looters. The choice back in 2012 was either to let the aircraft be destroyed or ensure this important piece of RAF heritage was safe. Our priority was to ensure the Kittyhawk was recovered. This was achieved.
“The process to achieve delivery to the UK was complicated by the political situation in Egypt. The government there said they intended to display it at the El Alamein Museum. The RAF Museum would have preferred the Kittyhawk to be brought back but it is legally the property of Egypt. We welcome the fact it is safe and on display.”