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As the story of the RAF Museum’s failure to bring a P40 Kittyhawk found in the Egyptian Desert to the UK, makes headlines thePipeLine examines the implications of the story of ET574 and its missing pilot Flt Sgt Dennis Copping for historic aircraft and the archaeology of aviation.

The unexplained disappearance of Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping during what should have been a routine, forty minute, ferry flight on 28 June 1942 was a sad footnote in the history of World War Two and probably would not have been remembered at all outside of Flt Sgt Copping’s immediate family had not his aircraft, an American built Curtis P40 Kittyhawk serial number ET574, been found by a Polish oil company survey party from Gefizyka Toruń in the Egyptian Desert in the early 2012.   With news of the find going viral on the Internet supported by an array of haunting images of the crashed aircraft, and the publication of full GPS coordinates putting the site at risk, the Royal Air Force Museum [RAFM] in Hendon north London came under pressure from many people in the historic aircraft community to recover the aircraft for its collection.   As a result the Museum reached an agreement to recover the aircraft to the UK with Kennet Aviation Ltd, a historic aircraft operator based at the former Battle of Britain station at North Weald Airfield in Essex. Kennet’s fee for the effort would be the airframe of Spitfire PK664 which was then held in the Museum’s reserve collection having been transferred to the RAFM from the Science Museum.   Now, over two years later, Kennett Aviation have taken delivery of their new Spitfire airframe, the Ministry of Defence and the senior management of the Royal Air Force Museum are the focus of a storm of criticism, and Flt Sgt Copping’s aircraft is apparently sitting in a container at the el Alamein museum in Egypt, the orphan of a broken process. Meanwhile, somewhere in the lonely rock strewn wastes of the Egyptian desert lie the remains of Flt Sgt Copping, unrecognised and unrecovered, or perhaps not?

Given all that the saga of ET574 is clearly a case study in what happens when an important historic artefact is also a valuable, collectible commodity.   The going rate for a P40 on the aircraft collectors circuit is in the region of $1.5 million and at the cost of scrapping around 50% of the aircraft, ET574 [or, depending on which way you look at it, a facsimile thereof] might once again take to the skies in her original 260 Squadron colours. Or the colours of any other Squadron which flew the Curtis P40E. And that is the point.  Are we simply recovering and preserving aircraft types, ticking off the Mark 1’s, Mark 2’s all the way to the Mark 12’s and beyond as an aluminum typology;  or are we also and perhaps as far as the wider museum going public goes, more importantly, recovering and preserving those aircraft in order to tell the story they embody, from procurement to factory, to Squadron and of the aircrew which flew them from family to OTU to operational flying.

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“…a lost or abandoned aircraft becomes a unique, stratified, time capsule, capable of analysis, display and the imparting of meaning.”

A mass produced aircraft is just that. One of a production run which might run into thousands or even tens of thousands.   However, once issued to a unit and flown by an individual pilot an aircraft takes on a deeper history and meaning. Parts are replaced, field modifications are made, colour schemes and Squadron codes are changed and over painted , ammunition is loaded according to Squadron or even pilots preference and the maintenance crews pencil, paint and scratch notes to remind themselves which part belongs where and to which aircraft and even pithy comments about the conduct of their officers and the War.   Like a shipwreck, lost in a moment containing the sum of everything the vessel and her crew had experienced up to that moment, a lost or abandoned aircraft becomes a unique, stratified, time capsule, capable of analysis, display and the imparting of meaning in the way of any other stratified archaeological site from the caves of Lascaux to the ruins of Pompeii.   However, like a lost ship, a lost aircraft can only take on this added resonance and meaning if it is recorded and recovered with knowledge of that potential and the technical skills are available within the recovery team to make such archaeological recording of the site possible.

Most disturbing in this whole story is the suggestion, made by a number of knowledgeable observers on aviation history forums and elsewhere, that the recovery of ET574 was so focused on the return of the aircraft as an artifact that it downplayed, or even completely ignored the possibility, even the likelihood, that Flt Sgt Coppings remains could be found either in association with the aircraft, or, at the very least, within a relatively short distance from it.   From published information it is clear that the pilot survived the initial crash and may have attempted to use the aircraft’s radio to call for help.   It was reportedly found away from its position inside the aircraft’s fuselage.   Elements of his parachute were also found suggesting that he may have improvised a sunshade. However,we will now probably never know because these reports are anecdotal.

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The reason for this is that it is believed that there were no archaeologists or forensic pathologists included in the recovery team and there was no systematic mapping or recording of the site before the aircraft was dismantled.   Indeed, it is understood that this possibility was never even factored into the recovery which appears to have been purely directed at recovering the aircraft as an object.   Not as a time capsule and potential grave site or memorial.

Of course, it is possible to have some sympathy for the difficulties the recovery project faced.   The remote Egyptian Desert in a period of political instability, a short distance from the Islamist playground of Libya is not a place where it is easy for Westerners to do either business or archaeology.   However, the initial deal was done to get the aircraft out of the Desert and the RAF Museum and the British Embassy in Cairo were closely involved. Then it all went horribly wrong.

“This is the kind of swopsies which stamp collectors undertake to complete their collections.”

Adding to both the controversy over the outcome of the recovery effort so far, and to the sense that the only factor in play in setting up the recovery was sense of the aircraft as an mechanical artifact, is the fact that the Museum had chosen to pay Kennet aviation in kind by passing title to one of its reserve Spitfire airframes.  This is the kind of swopsies which stamp collectors undertake to complete their collections.  It is not the currency of professionally negotiated business contracts entered into by publicly accountable charitable bodies in the heritage industry.  Museums can and do exchange artifacts on loan or in part exchange but that is not what has happened here.   A publicly supported Museum has given a valuable part of its collection to a private collector apparently in exchange for services which have not been completely supplied.   This is because, even when the recovery effort stalled, stranding the aircraft in Egypt and for reasons yet to be fully accounted for, Kennet Aviation got paid its Spitfire, while the Royal Air Force Museum still awaits its P40E.   Of course no one is suggesting that Kennet Aviation is not completely within its rights to take possession of the Spitfire, but then the question has to be asked, what kind of management signs off on a contract for an artifact potentially worth hundreds of thousands of pounds whereby the service provider can still receive full payment even when the service contracted for is left unfinished?

Criticism of the method of recovery and payment has been exacerbated by the upset caused to Flt Sgt Copping’s family including his next of kin, his nephew William Pryor-Bennett, by contradictory comments from the Ministry of Defence regarding what everyone agrees are human remains found relatively close to the crash site, possibly in association with further items of parachute silk, a key fob and a button dated 1939.   At various times the MoD has announced that the bones could not be those of the missing pilot, that they might be 800 years old and then that it was not possible to extract DNA to enable a definitive identification to be achieved.   A conclusion which thePipeLine understands to have been challenged by at least one highly experienced independent pathologist with close knowledge of the case.

“The affair will also only add to pressure for the Ministry of Defence to be stripped of its role in regard to military heritage.”

While it is true that the wider archaeological community is only beginning to understand the potential of the archaeology of aircraft to illuminate the past in the same way as a shipwreck can act as a window on the maritime past, the chaotic response to the discovery of PK664 and in particular the apparent failure to factor in the probability that the crash site was at very least a memorial and quite possibly a grave site, must lead to demands from the archaeological community that this is the last time that a lost military aircraft can be seen simply as an object to be collected rather than a site with an archaeological story to be told.   The affair will also only add to pressure for the Ministry of Defence to be stripped of its role in regard to military heritage.   Critics argue the Ministry of Defence has neither the willingness, nor crucially the in house expertise among its civil servants in Whitehall, to make critical, knowledge based judgments regarding heritage projects.

Indeed they point to a series of heritage fiasco’s ranging from the loss of or damage to historic buildings and irreplaceable archives during disposals from the 1970’s onwards; through the utter failure to protect sunken World War One warships such as the three battle cruisers sunk during the Battle of Jutland in 1916 from illicit commercial salvage even when they are designated as protected under UK and International Law; to the acquiescence and even active participation in the awarding of commercial salvage contracts to the Florida based treasure hunting company, Odyssey Marine Exploration which would enable the company to excavate and exploit commercially the wrecks of HMS Sussex, lost in 1692 and HMS Victory lost in 1744.   Aside from their historic and archaeological importance the two vessels represent the memorials and graves of almost two thousand Royal Navy personnel and the case has caused dismay, not just in the archaeological community which has campaigned vociferously against the commercialisation of the wrecks, but also it is understood, among some senior naval officers and the direct descendants of Admiral Sir John Balchen who was lost with HMS Victory.   In the more recent cases it is known that even when expert advice was available from the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the MoD’s own Defence Infrastructure Organisation Historic Environment Team and English Heritage, MoD Civil Servants have regularly not even sought such advice let alone acted upon it.   The result of this is all too often embarrassment to Government Ministers who are faced with repeated questions in Parliament.

Critics also point to the MoD’s apparent unwillingness to engage with the issue of missing personnel until they are actually, sometime literally, stumbled upon during building or other works. Indeed, under the Protection of Military Remains Act, the Ministry of Defence, Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre [JCCC] which has responsibility for historic as well as current military casualties, will not even grant an excavation license if the presence of human remains is suspected, classing the site as a war grave.   This leads to a policy and functional gap in the capabilities for recovering and identifying the Missing.   This is because, the JCCC which is understaffed and overworked as it is, has no expert investigatory branch along the lines of the American Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command [JPAC] to call on.   JPAC is capable of fielding research teams of up to fourteen specialists including a qualified forensic anthropologist. Equally, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does what everyone accepts to be fantastic work with regard to the maintenance of War Graves and Cemeteries all over the World, does not have an investigatory role and capability of its own.

In such circumstances some would argue the discouraging of excavations where there is a high risk the dead will be disturbed is a respectful attitude designed to discourage the random disturbance of grave sites to fuel the desire either to recover yet another smashed up example of an iconic aircraft type, or material for the militaria market. However, the more cynical suggest it is more likely a desire on the part of the MoD hierarchy not to spend more than the bare minimum of money on historical soldiers, sailors and airmen, even those who made the ultimate sacrifice, when there is little enough to spend on their modern day counterparts.   A view which is at least understandable when, for example, the MoD is faced with building two massively expensive aircraft carriers when they can only afford aircraft for one of them and where there will not be any carrier qualified pilots to fly from the ships because of the disposal of the Navy’s existing carriers [sorry through deck cruisers] and the Harrier force to save money under the Cameron Government’s Strategic Defence Review [Cuts].

“Perhaps the anniversary of the outbreak of World War One…will prompt a fresh discussion as to what we as a society wish our institutions to do with regard to our historic missing servicemen and women.”

Perhaps the anniversary of the outbreak of World War One with the 54,896 “Missing” Commonwealth soldiers recorded on the Menin Gate at Ypres alone, will prompt a fresh discussion as to what we as a society wish our institutions to do with regard to our historic missing service men and women.   Do we accept the status quo, or do we wish to make the investment in a more proactive approach, perhaps sometimes using the kind of forensic resources deployed during the Fromelles excavation of a World War One mass grave, or in the identification of Pvt Alan Mather AIF by the Plug Street Project, which was funded by the Australian Government?   Indeed, do we need a British version of JPAC?   While there is no need to actively go looking for the missing, the sheer numbers involved render that impractical, once an aircrew, soldier or sailor’s remains are discovered surely there should be every effort to identify them, at least so long as there are people alive who have a personal memory or direct connection with that person.   A time period broadly identified by English Heritage Marine Designations Officer Mark Dunkley as three generations.

Here it is perhaps appropriate to recall that under Egyptian religious practice a person was alive so long as their body was preserved and their name was remembered.   A cultural practice which has passed to us through both Classical and Judeo Christian tradition.   Given that we must ask, in situations like this, who are we to subject an RAF pilot like Dennis Copping, or any other sailor, soldier or airman, lost on active duty, to the modern day equivalent of a damnatio memoriae [that particularly vicious attempt to kill the memory of a person for eternity by expunging their name from statues and inscriptions], not on account of being on the wrong side of a political dispute, but to help balance an overstretched budget.

Meanwhile, as far as the desert P40 is concerned what is undoubtedly needed is for a White Knight to step forward to inject a large dose of professionalism, accountability and almost certainly cash, into this process and then to recover both the aircraft and as much archaeological information as might still be obtainable, to an appropriate Museum setting, while also undertaking an assessment and if practical search for the remains of Flt Sgt Copping.   Once recovered the aircraft should then be stabilised, conserved and restored to the state it was when found and no more.  

A factory fresh facsimile of a P40E based on reused parts of Flt Sgt Copping’s aircraft would be meaningless.   However an exhibition of his aircraft, ET574, broken, and fragmented, but placed in its historical and environmental context where it can inspire the imagination of the viewer, would be a haunting reminder of the sacrifice of not just Flight Sergeant Copping, but many other aircrew of all combatant nations, who suffered a lonely death fighting not a human enemy, but the beautiful and lethal wilderness of the North African Desert.  ET574 should be the last occasion where the recovery of an aircraft is undertaken because of what it is rather than the historical and archaeological story it can tell.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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