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Hunt for lost Spitfires comes up empty

The hope was to find scores of the famed British Spitfire planes buried at the close of the second World War in Burma.

But despite spending more than a million dollars to fund the search so far all that has been found in the trenches they've dug has been rusting metal.

The quest for the buried Spitfires that American engineers are believed to have buried in large crates in several locations in Burma in 1946, started in earnest a couple of weeks ago after years of trying to track them down.

It was the brainchild of an elderly English farmer and businessman, David Cundall, who has put his life savings into his 17-year hunt for the planes, which helped win the Battle of Britain against Nazi Germany.

He is leading the current team of archeologists, geo-physicists and representatives of the sponsors, video game company Wargaming.net.

But there is now a danger of a war of words breaking out amongst the group over not finding any Spitfires.

Some of the archaeologists working at the dig at Rangoon airport say that the evidence they've seen doesn't support the claim that the historic aircraft, believed to number over 130, are hidden below ground.

A news conference planned in Rangoon on Thursday to highlight their initial findings was hurriedly cancelled after the dig at the airport was halted after they found electricity cables underground where they were excavating, rather than the 36 aircraft they hoped for.

Team leader David Cundall publicly voiced his disappointment at the progress. "The digging went incredibly slowly and I made my opinions known," Cundall said. 

And he questioned whether they were digging at the right place.

"The archaeologists weren't digging in the area we believe holds the Spitfires, instead they wanted to see what sort of war remains were buried."

Some on the team have already openly questioned if the aircraft were there, suggesting it wouldn't have made sense to bury them rather than destroy them after the war because there was very limited earth moving equipment in Burma at that time.

But Mr. Cundall has staked his reputation on finding the Spitfires and has used eyewitness accounts by military personnel in the country at the time to back up his claims.

91-year-old war veteran Stanley Coombe says he witnessed the American and British engineers bury the Spitfires and he's still optimistic that aircraft can be found.

"It's been a long time since anybody believed what I said until David Cundall came along," he said.

Cundall believes there were no orders to take the Spitfires back to Britain at the end of the war and they just disposed of them by burying them.

But so far all they have come up with are rusting metal and bundles of electricity cables.

The reason there is so much interest in the current excavations in Burma is because there remains a huge demand to see the Spitfires at aircraft shows, military fly pasts and at museums.

But there is only 30-40 still able to fly out of the 15,000 produced during the war.

If more than a hundred could be recovered from buried crates in Burma it would be a dream for aviation and military enthusiasts and they would likely be in great demand if they could be made airworthy again.

Interest in the lost Spitfires even went as high as the British  government.

There were problems dealing with the secretive military dominated government of Burma to get approval for the excavation team and only the intervention of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, on a visit last April to try to improve relations between the West and this southeast Asian country, to finally get the approval.

Under the deal, Burma's government will get half of all those recovered.

A company headed by Cundall will get 30 percent and his local partner 20 percent.

So far all the parties involved have got a percentage of nothing because of the failure to discovery a single Spitfire.

Despite friction in the team it looks likely the hunt for the aircraft will continue.

"We haven't stopped [searching] and we cannot stop," Soe Thein, a retired Burmese geology professor who has been helping in the search told the Associated Press.

"It is just a delay in our work."

Two other sites have still not been excavated at all and they are still hopeful about an excavation in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina where a crate has been discovered, but muddy water has stopped them identifying its contents and will take weeks to pump out.