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Excavators head to Burma hoping to uncover buried stash of WWII fighter planes

british_spitfire.jpg

In this April 3, 1946 file photo, the Civic Hall in Rangoon, Burma, is seen with a crowd surrounding a British Spitfire, center, and an Auster aircraft (AP/British Official Photo)

An airplane-obsessed farmer, a freelance archaeologist and a team of excavators are heading to the Burma city of Yangon on Saturday to find a nearly forgotten stash of British fighter planes thought to be carefully buried beneath the former capital's airfield.

The venture, backed with a million-dollar guarantee from a Belarusian videogame company, could uncover dozens of Spitfire aircraft locked underground by American engineers at the end of World War II.

"We could easily double the number of Spitfires that are still known to exist," said 63-year-old David Cundall, the farmer and private pilot who has spent nearly two decades pursuing the theory that a batch of the famous fighter planes was buried, in pristine condition, in wooden crates in a riverbed at the end of an airport runway.

"In the Spitfire world it will be similar to finding Tutankhamen's tomb," he told reporters Friday, ahead of his flight.

Not everyone is as convinced. Even at the conference, freelance archaeologist Andy Brockman acknowledged that it was "entirely possible" that all the team would find was a mass of corroded metal and rusty aircraft parts — if it found anything at all.

But Cundall said eyewitness testimony — from British and American veterans as well as elderly local residents of Burma — coupled with survey data, aerial pictures, and ground radar soundings left him in no doubt that the planes were down there. And others not involved in the trip have expressed cautious optimism.

"There is a high percentage chance that something is buried there," said Charles Heyman, who edits the reference book, "The Armed Forces of the United Kingdom." Heyman said it wasn't unusual for British forces to leave behind high-grade equipment in former war zones - even in recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Spitfire remains the U.K.'s most famous combat aircraft, its reputation cemented by the Battle of Britain, when the fast-moving, sleek-looking single-seater aircraft helped beat back waves of German bombers. Britain built a total of some 20,000 Spitfires, although the dawn of the jet age at the end of World War II meant that the propeller-driven planes quickly became obsolete.

Many were written off as the British war effort wound down, but why a batch of Spitfires would have been boxed and buried, as opposed to scrapped and dumped, remains the biggest question hanging over the project.

Cundall, who has long scoured crash sites to recover buried aircraft, said he first heard of the Burma theory from a fellow plane hunter Jim Pearce, who was at a party in Jacksonville, Florida, when two American veterans approached him with an unusual story. The men said they had worked as engineers in what was then known as Burma when they were tasked with carving out a large pit burial pit for the aircraft.

"It was the craziest thing you Brits asked us to do," Cundall quoted the men as saying.

Cundall said he believed the story immediately. Advertisements seeking more information were placed in magazines with names like FlyPast and Warbirds, and soon other witnesses came forward.

One, a British veteran named Stanley Coomb, described driving along the air field's perimeter while engineers lowered huge wooden boxes — described as the size of double-decker buses — into a pit. Radar soundings appeared to show large, plane-sized objects lurking roughly 25 feet below the surface, Cundall said.

But finding the site was just half the battle. Cundall said it took 17 years of lobbying to get permission to dig in Burma, a task complicated by European sanctions against the country's authoritarian government, and, more recently, its tentative steps toward democracy. Cundall beat out other groups in an effort to win exclusive rights to the dig, finally signing an agreement in early October.

Along the way he found an unlikely ally, a Belarusian company called Wargaming.net best known for its multiplayer titles including "World of Warplanes" and "World of Tanks." The company's American director of special projects, Tracy Spaight, said he got his company involved after hearing about the Spitfires in the news, promising $500,000 toward the dig and up to another $500,000 if the Spitfires were found.

Company spokesman Frazer Nash batted away repeated questions about what the video game maker in the country known as Europe's last dictatorship hoped to get out of the deal, saying the company had an "open bucket" to dispense cash if the dig was a success.

"Money's not an issue," he told journalists. "Have you seen the profits for gaming?"

The reporters seemed mollified.

"Can I have a job?" one asked.

The Spitfires — if any are ever found — would be divided between the Burma government, in line for about half the total, a local company, which would get another 20 percent, and Cundall, who would get roughly a third. The Burma government might decide to sell its planes, Cundall said, although he promised that his share would be coming back to the U.K., "where they belong."

"It was a tool of war, but I want to make it a tool of friendship to bring Burma and Britain closer together." Also, he said, "I would love to fly one!"

After a last round of television interviews at the hotel Friday, Cundall slipped a jacket over his black Wargaming.net T-shirt and rubbed his hands together against the cold, casting his mind to his upcoming trip, and the moment of truth.

"Only a matter of time now before we start digging and find out: 'What's in the box?'" he said.