A Spitfire LF Mk IX, flown by Ray Hanna in 2005. (Wikipedia / Franck Cabrol)
Like a treasure chest stuffed with priceless booty, as many as 20 World War II-era Spitfire planes are perfectly preserved, buried in crates beneath Burma — and after 67 years underground, they’re set to be uncovered.
The planes were shipped in standard fashion in 1945 from their manufacturer in England to the Far East country: waxed, wrapped in greased paper and tarred to protect against the elements. They were then buried in the crates they were shipped in, rather than let them fall into enemy hands, said David Cundall, an aviation enthusiast who has spent 15 years and about $200,000 in his efforts to reveal the lost planes.
The 62-year-old man — a British farmer by trade — realized the fate of the aircraft thanks to an offhand comment a group of American veterans made to a friend, he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘We’ve done some pretty silly things in our time, but the silliest was burying Spitfires.’
– David Cundall, aviation enthusiast
”They told Jim: ‘We’ve done some pretty silly things in our time, but the silliest was burying Spitfires.’ And when Jim got back from the U.S., he told me,'” Cundall said.
The location of the planes, which remains a closely kept secret, was confirmed during a recent trip to the Far East country, he said.
”We sent a borehole down and used a camera to look at the crates. They seemed to be in good condition,” Cundall told the Herald.
The Spitfire Mark XIV planes are rare for more than one reason: They used Rolls Royce Griffon engines rather than the Merlins used in earlier models to achieve tremendous speeds. Griffon-powered planes could reach 440 mph thanks to the hefty, 2,050-horsepower engines.
When production of the planes ultimately ended in 1947, 20,334 Spitfires of all versions had been produced, but just 2,053 of them were Griffon-powered versions, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The planes were deemed surplus and were buried in Aug., 1945 — potentially along with another eight later in the year. At that time, propeller planes were falling out of fashion in favor of newer jet-engine designs — Cundall said Spitfires “were 10 a penny.” British military officials decided burying them was cheaper and more practical than bringing them home.
International sanctions prevent military material from leaving the country, but a recent visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron may enable the safe exhumation and return of the planes to England.
Only about 35 Spitfires are currently flying.