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Spitfires, Real and Imagined

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: March 04, 2013 
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Letter From Aviation History—May 2013

For months the aviation world has been abuzz over the prospect that a buried cache of Supermarine Spitfires had been discovered in Burma. Not just any Spitfires, but rare Griffon-engine Mark XIVs, supposedly protected with grease, wrapped in wax paper and packed in wooden crates. British farmer David Cundall has spent 16 years and some $200,000 of his savings in pursuit of the buried treasure. Based on veteran accounts and his own visits to the country, he believes the British military buried more than 120 Spitfires at various sites in Burma at the end of World War II, including 36 at the RAF's Mingaladon air base (today Rangoon International Airport).

Media outlets worldwide, and particularly in Britain, breathlessly reported on Cundall's effort, as he navigated legal and political minefields to organize an archaeological dig and recovery expedition. "In the Spitfire world it will be similar to finding Tutankhamen's tomb," Cundall enthused. "We could easily double the number of Spitfires that are still known to exist."

With these high hopes and a pledge of $1 million in backing from the owner of a Belarusian videogame company, Wargaming Ltd., the expedition left for Myanmar (as Burma is now known) in early January to start the dig at Mingaladon. But after just two days of digging, the operation was suspended by local authorities over concerns that the airport's underground cables might be cut. All the expedition had to show for its efforts was a small piece of PSP, pierced steel planking used in the construction of wartime runways and commonly recycled in the area to make garden fences. Wargaming canceled a scheduled press conference, and archaeologists involved with the dig reportedly said there was no evidence Spitfires had been buried at the site.

As much as the prospect of returning a squadron of pristine Spitfires to the air fires the imagination, it was too good to be true. Cundall never produced a single shred of hard evidence to support his contentions, instead basing his claims on the reports of aging servicemen, electromagnetic surveys that indicated the presence of buried metal at the site and images allegedly taken through a borehole that according to him showed "an object which resembles a Spitfire." Despite this paucity of evidence and the many problems surrounding Cundall's ever-changing story, few in the media questioned his central claim, no doubt because it made for such good copy.

Which is not to say Cundall might not yet pull a Spit from the ground. After the initial dig failed to turn up anything, he vowed to continue on at Mingaladon and another site at Myitkyina. Here's hoping he does find something, but don't bet on it. In the meantime, read Andy Saunders' "Restored" column (P. 18) about a genuine Spitfire Mark I pulled from the sands near Calais, France, in 1980 and returned to the air in September 2011. Although much of the classic fighter had to be reconstructed, it's as true to the original as you'll find in the world today—at least until one of Cundall's phantom airplanes materializes.


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