RANGOON — A quest to unearth dozens of British Spitfire aircraft thought to be buried in Burma looks likely to come to an unsuccessful end in October, with monsoon rains hampering excavation efforts as the two-year search contract’s expiration nears.
For years, rumors have persisted that many of the unassembled planes had been buried in Burma after World War II in 1945, though hard evidence to support the claims has not surfaced. During the war, the famed Spitfire fighter planes were used by the British in multiple theaters, including over Burma.
David Cundall, a British citizen and aviation enthusiast who has acted as team leader, took the reins of the project in late 2012, telling journalists that searches would being carried out at three locations: in Mingaladon Township near Rangoon International Airport, Myitkyina Township in Kachin State and Meikhtila Township in Mandalay Division.
Cundall said he believed there were at least 60 Spitfires buried after World War II by Britain’s Royal Air Force. The majority of the planes were said to be buried within Rangoon’s Mingaladon air base compound, today the site of the commercial capital’s international airport.
In mobilizing support for the search, Cundall has cited the testimonies of American, English and Burmese eyewitnesses who claimed to have helped bury the planes.
However the excavation team has been prevented from digging around Mingaladon airport since June due to heavy rains. Excavation efforts have been carried out by Cundall’s DJC company and local partner firm Shwe Taung Paw, with the permission of Burma’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA).
“We’re going to end the project to excavate the Spitfires in October when the contract ends if there are no leads. We still believe that there might be Spitfires in Burma,” said Tun Kyaw, a spokesperson for Shwe Taung Paw said.
He said Cundall had returned to his home in Britain in June.
“We’ve stopped surveying around the airport since June because of heavy rains. Since then, we have been prohibited from surveying in some restricted areas of the airport due to international air rules. We still hope that there might be Spitfires under the ground [in restricted areas], but we can’t dig there,” Tun Kyaw said.
He added that excavations in Myitkyina and Meikhtila were halted early last year due to security concerns.
“So Mingaladon Airport was our only major excavation site. Now, we are going to stop all surveying,” Tun Kyaw said, adding that digs around Mingaladon had produced no trace of the planes.
Win Swe Tun, the DCA’s director general, told The Irrawaddy that the contract to search for the Spitfires would not be extended beyond October. The search team would be expected to cover the cost of restoring excavated airport grounds to their pre-hunt condition, he added.
Tun Kyaw declined to reveal how much the team had spent on its Spitfire search. Early reports indicated that Belarus-based Wargaming.net, a video gaming company, had pledged to put up to US$1 million toward the project, before pulling out in February 2013.
The iconic Spitfire is one of Britain’s most famous combat aircraft and gained its reputation during the Battle of Britain, when the agile single-seat fighter played a major part in fending off the German aerial assault. While some 21,000 Spitfires were built, only 35 remain in a good enough condition to fly.
Despite the enthusiasm generated among aviation enthusiasts by the prospect of the buried planes, a growing chorus of voices has cast doubt on their existence, with little in the way of official records that might be related to the rumor.