Excavators head to Myanmar to find WWII Spitfires

An airplane-obsessed farmer, a freelance archaeologist and a team of excavators were heading to the Myanmar 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 Myanmar — 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 UK’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 Myanmar 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.

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