A team searching for scores of lost Spitfire planes that were packed in crates and buried in Burma during the last days of World War II believes it may have hit paydirt.
David Cundall, whose 17-year quest to unearth the long-lost planes has cost him his life savings, told a news conference today that searchers have found a crate buried in muck in the northern Kachin state capital Myitkyina. Images transmitted by a camera lowered into the wet ground were inconclusive, but Cundall called the discovery "very encouraging."
"We've gone into a box, but we have hit this water problem. It's murky water and we can't really see very far," Cundall told reporters in Rangoon, Burma's main city. "It will take some time to pump the water out... but I do expect all aircraft to be in very good condition."
If the crate does indeed contain one of the historic aircraft, Cundall, an elderly British farmer who has been vying with potential rivals to find the planes and win from the secretive Burmese government the right to unearth them, will have been finally vindicated.
The search team is being helped by its local partner and Burmese scientists. One, geologist U Soe Thein, showed an image produced using a technique called differential magnetic technology which he said confirmed a Spitfire was inside the crate.
Cundall's team is confident they're digging in the right place because of information provided by 91-year-old war veteran Stanley Coombe, who witnessed American and British engineers bury the Spitfires, which were in their crates and greased and wrapped, on the orders of the British military. The location may be one of several where crates containing unassembled planes are buried.
"I never thought I would be allowed to come back and see where Spitfires have been buried," he said. "It's been a long time since anybody believed what I said until David Cundall came along."
Cundall says it was common practice at the end of the war to bury military machines such as planes, tanks and jeeps.
“Basically nobody had got any orders to take these airplanes back to (the) UK. They were just surplus ... (and) one way of disposing them was to bury them,” Cundall said. “The war was over, everybody wanted to go home, nobody wanted anything, so you just buried it and went home. That was it.”
The Spitfire was also about to become obsolete with the Jet Age approaching, so it was likely the people involved also thought they had no real value. But now, only about 35 working Spitfires remain out of the 21,000 originally built.
Finding the Spitfires buried in what is now known as Myanmar has been no easy task. Dealing with the military-dominated government has been particularly difficult, because of its long-standing suspicions about foreigners and, in particular, its former colonial masters, Britain. It took the intervention of British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit last April aimed at improving relations between the West and the southeast Asian country, to finally get the digging approved.
The British Embassy in Yangon described Cameron's agreement with President Thein Sein to recover the missing aircraft as a chance to work with the new Burmese government "in uncovering, restoring, displaying these fighter planes."
Under the deal, Burma's government will get half of any number of planes recovered, one of which would be displayed at a museum. A company headed by Cundall will get 30 percent of the planes and its local partner 20 percent.
The interest in Spitfires, which helped win the Battle of Britain, has increased through the years because of the planes' history and scarcity and they remain in high demand for aircraft shows and military flyovers.
The reason the Burma search is so exciting to aviation and military enthusiasts is that a huge number of Spitfires could eventually be discovered.
The search team hopes to find about 18 planes in Myitkyina and nearly 40 buried at Yangon's international airport. They believe that more than 120 unused Spitfires could be buried in sites across the country, and hope to assemble and perhaps even fly one or more of them eventually.