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World War II Kittyhawk fighter found in Sahara, shedding light on pilot's fate

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The discovery of the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk in the Sahara Desert was described by one military historian as "the aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun's Tomb."  (Jakub Perka) The discovery of the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk in the Sahara Desert was described by one military historian as "the aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun's Tomb." (Jakub Perka)

By Michele Neubert, NBC News, and Ian Johnston, msnbc.com

A remarkably well-preserved fighter plane that crashed in the Sahara Desert during World War II has been found 70 years later, shedding new light on the pilot's struggle to survive.

The American-made Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk was discovered by a Polish oil worker, Jakub Perka, who was exploring the desert in Egypt, The Telegraph newspaper reported. It was about 200 miles from the nearest town.

It is believed that the pilot, Dennis Copping, 24, ran into trouble while flying in 1942, but still managed to land the plane on the sands, the paper said.

Military historian Andy Saunders said that the British flight sergeant "must have survived the crash" because a photograph of the plane showed a parachute had been put up on the side of the plane, apparently as a form of shelter, The Telegraph reported.

"The radio and batteries were out of the plane and it looks like he tried to get it working. If he died at the side of the plane his remains would have been found," Saunders added. "Once he had 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. It is too hideous to contemplate."

He said the discovery was "the aviation equivalent of Tutankhamun's Tomb."

Air enthusiasts excited

The Vintage Wings of Canada website speculated that the plane had a mechanical problem, ran out of fuel or that the pilot simply got lost.

The website said there seemed to be a growing consensus that the plane's serial number was ET 574, based on what could be made out from photographs. If this is confirmed, the website said it was possible that Canadian flying ace James "Stocky" Edwards had previously flown the fighter.

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"To say we, at Vintage Wings, are excited by this find in an understatement," the website said.

It expressed concern the plane had been "seriously vandalized -- a travesty the whole aviation world seems unable to stop."

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Michael Creane, of the Royal Air Force Museum in London, U.K., told NBC News that it was "incredible" the plane had not been submerged by the shifting sands of the desert.

He said they were "hell bent" on bringing the aircraft to the museum, although he said there were "lots of hoops to jump through."

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