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Vandals may spell an end to the Kittyhawk unless authorities move quickly.

In March a Polish oil exploration team in an expanse of the Sahara Desert inside Egypt encountered a sand-blasted but remarkably intact Curtiss Kittyhawk—the export version of the P-40E Warhawk. Photos reveal a just-visible “HS-B” marking and the serial no. ET574, identifying it as a fighter-bomber of No. 260 Squadron that flew against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Visual clues also hint at how the Kittyhawk met its fate: a tire found hundreds of feet behind the airplane, a bent nose prop thrown to the side, a tattered parachute and a battery-operated radio set feet away.

Records show that on June 28, 1942, Flight Sgt. Dennis Cop­ping took off in ET574 on a flight to a repair depot, seeking help with flak damage and a landing gear that wouldn’t retract. Cop­ping got lost, and either a lack of fuel or mechanical trouble forced him to crash-land. Unable to make a belly landing due to the stuck gear, he tried to land with wheels down, shearing off the gear and prop hub.

“He must have survived the crash because one photo shows a parachute around the frame of the plane and my guess is the poor bloke used it to shelter from the sun,” military historian Andy Saunders told the UK Telegraph. “Once he crashed there nobody was going to come and get him. It is more likely he tried to walk out of the desert but ended up walking to his death.”

Captain Paul Collins, British defense attaché to Egypt, told the UK Daily Mail that while a search would be mounted for Copping’s remains, it was extremely unlikely any would be found. The RAF Museum is working with Collins to recover the airplane, but obstacles remain—including its location near a smuggling route from Sudan into Egypt. “We will need to go there with the Egyptian army because it is a dangerous area,” stated Collins. But it is unclear how much Egyptian authorities will work with the British—the Egyptian army has already confiscated the .50-caliber ammunition for safety reasons—and vandals may spell an end to the Kittyhawk unless authorities move quickly. “Sadly it is being stripped by some locals who don’t regard it as part of their heritage but as a piece of junk that may have some scrap value,” Saunders said.