An excavation team searching for a stash of legendary World War II-era British fighter aircraft in northern Burma said a wooden crate believed to contain one of the planes has been found, full of muddy water.
How much water damage occurred was not yet clear, and searchers could not definitively say what was inside the crate. But British aviation enthusiast David J. Cundall, who is driving the hunt for the rare Spitfire planes, called the results “very encouraging.”
“It will take some time to pump the water out … but I do expect all aircraft to be in very good condition,” Cundall told reporters Wednesday in Rangoon.
The Spitfire helped Britain beat back waves of German bombers during the war that ended in 1945, and it remains the most famous British combat aircraft. About 20,000 Spitfires were built, although the dawn of the jet age quickly made the propeller-driven, single-seat planes obsolete.
As many as 140 Spitfires—three to four times the number of airworthy models known to exist—are believed to have been buried in near-pristine condition in Burma by American engineers as the war drew to a close.
The wooden crate was found in Myitkyina in Kachin State during a dig that began last month. Several digs are planned nationwide, including another near the airport in Rangoon.
Cundall said the search team in Kachin inserted a camera in the crate and found water. What else was inside the crate was unclear and pumping out the water could take weeks, he said.
The go-ahead for excavation came in October when Burma’s government signed an agreement with Cundall and his local partner.
Under the deal, Burma’s government will get one plane for display at a museum, as well as half of the remaining total. DJC, a private company headed by Cundall, will get 30 percent of the total and the Burmese partner company Shwe Taung Paw, headed by Htoo Htoo Zaw, will get 20 percent.
During the project’s first phase, searchers hope to recover 60 planes: 36 planes in Mingaladon, near Rangoon’s international airport; six in Meiktila in central Burma; and 18 in Myitkyina. Others are to be recovered in a second phase.
Searchers hope the aircraft are in pristine condition, but others have said it’s possible all they might find is a mass of corroded metal and rusty aircraft parts.
Cundall said the practice of burying aircraft, tanks and jeeps was common after the war.
“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.”
Stanley Coombe, a 91-year-old war veteran from Britain who says he witnessed the aircraft’s burial, traveled to Burma to observe the search.
It is “very exciting for me because I never thought I would be allowed to come back and see where Spitfires have been buried,” Coombe said. “It’s been a long time since anybody believed what I said until David Cundall came along.