Burma’s first large-scale export since the suspension of sanctions may well be 36 World War II Spitfire fighter planes buried at Rangoon’s Mingaladon Airport in 1945, according to the man who found them, David Cundall.
Cundall, a British farmer and aviation enthusiast, tracked down the planes’ location by talking to Burmese and ex-Allied forces witnesses and carrying out geophysical surveys of sites where the planes were believed to have been hidden.
He pinpointed their location in 2004 but had to keep it a secret for eight years until the lifting of sanctions earlier this year.
If the planes had been excavated while the sanctions were still in place, they could not have been taken out of the country.
“The aircraft, under the sanctions, were regarded as arms. If we had dug them up we’d just have to have kept them in Burma and they’d probably have ended up as pots and pans,” said Cundall.
Within days of sanctions being suspended, Cundall signed an agreement with the Burmese government to excavate the Spitfires.
“The Burmese government have been wonderful, they have been very helpful, they have given me every facility I could wish for and I’m very happy dealing with them,” he said.
The Spitfires had been shipped to Burma towards the end of World War II and were buried after the war because the British did not want to take them home and did not want them to be used by anyone else.
They were never even assembled and were buried in the packing crates in which they had arrived from Britain.
Over 20,000 Spitfires were built and at that time they were very common but now, according to Cundall, there are only about 37 flying examples left in the world.
Cundall is confident that he has located the Spitfires at Mingaladon because they dug boreholes at the site last February. “We placed a camera down there to have a look. We went into a crate, you can see an object which resembles a Spitfire,” he said.
He thinks the buried planes will be in good condition. “They are all brand new, all the boxes are tarred. They are on massive teak timbers to assist the drainage, there is a wooden roof over them to protect them,” he said.
Cundall had to get special permission from the government to dig within the perimeter and close to the main runway of Rangoon International Airport, at the site of the old Mingaladon Airport.
The planes are buried eight and a half meters down in an area 100 meters wide and 270 meters long. One plane is only 30 meters away from the end of the runway.
Cundall intends to start excavating the planes on Jan. 12 after archaeologists have studied the site for a week.
He thinks the excavation will take four to six weeks. The initial digging will be by mechanical diggers, but once they reach the wooden roof they will use local laborers to dig by hand.
Cundall also has government permission to excavate Spitfires at two other sites, at Meiktila in central Burma and at Myitkyina in Kachin State.
He believes that that there are six crated Mark 8 Spitfires at Meiktila. These are the rarest Spitfires in the world, with only one flying example remaining.
Despite ongoing conflicts in Kachin State, the government is happy to let Cundall excavate at Myitkyina, where he believes there are 18 buried Spitfires. “It is subject to a final decision as to whether or not it is safe but I am very satisfied that the fighting is nowhere near there and we are in an air force camp so it is pretty safe,” said Cundall.
For the past 14 years Cundall has been assisted in his searching by Dr Soe Thein, a professor of geology from Rangoon University.
Soe Thein has already surveyed the sites at Myitkyina and Meiktila with a metal detector and he thinks that he has found the Spitfires’ location.
In January two geophycisists—Dr Roger Clark from Leeds University and Dr Adam Booth from Imperial College, London—will be going to Burma with a more sensitive ground scanning radar machine to carry out further surveys.
They will be surveying the site at Mingaladon prior to excavation and also surveying the sites in Myitkyina and Meiktila to try and get a better idea of what is buried there and the exact location of the buried objects.
Booth previously carried out geophysical surveys to try and pinpoint the Spitfires with Cundall in 1998 and 2004.
“When the locals on the ground saw what was going on they actually did some geophysics themselves and we got involved by giving them some feedback and that was great,” said Clark.
He explained that one of the reasons Leeds University got involved in the project was because they want to establish connections with Burmese higher education institutes.
“We have suggested that if the project is successful and makes a surplus then a nice thing to do would be for the project to fund a scholarship for a Burmese student or students to come over here and go through Leeds,” said Clark.
For the first 16 years of his search Cundall funded himself with over £100,000 (US $160,000) of his own money. He said he could not have afforded to fund the excavation of the planes.
Fortunately, just recently, Wargaming.net, an online war gaming and production company, have stepped in to sponsor Cundall by paying for the excavation and covering any future costs.
They are also making a documentary film of the project.
Frazer Nash of wargaming.net said: “It’s not just about Spitfires, this is also about researching about the people who were here in the war.
“It’s a forgotten part of the war. Everyone talks about Europe, but you don’t see many programs about Burma and the Asia Pacific.”
If any Spitfires are recovered half will go to the Burmese government, Cundall will get 30 percent of the planes and his Burmese agent will get the remaining 20 percent.
Each Spitfire is worth one to one and a half million pounds ($1.6 to 2.4 million).
Cundall is going to return his share of the Spitfires to the UK where there are companies interested in helping restore them to flying condition.
They will then be displayed around the country but will all come together to fly as a squadron of 12 planes three or four times a year at airshows.
Cundall has never flown a Spitfire before. If his expedition is a success he hopes to one day have the opportunity to fly one.