Spitfire … few can fly today. Photo: Ken Robertson
EXTRAORDINARY plans to raise a lost ''squadron'' of Spitfires that have lain buried in Burma since the end of World War II were revealed at the weekend as David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister, visited Rangoon.
A Lincolnshire farmer who devoted 15 years of his life to finding the planes has spoken about his quest to recover them and get them airborne.
David Cundall, 62, has spent £130,000 ($200,000) of his money, visited Burma 12 times, persuaded its secretive regime to trust him, and all the time sought testimony from a dwindling band of Far East veterans in order to locate the Spitfires.
His treasure hunt was sparked by little more than a throwaway remark from a group of US veterans made 15 years ago to his friend and fellow aviation archaeologist, Jim Pearce.
Mr Cundall said: ''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 US, he told me.''
Mr Cundall realised the Spitfires would have been buried as they had been shipped, still in their crates. Before they were shipped to the Far East, they would have been waxed, wrapped in greased paper and their joints tarred, to protect them against the elements.
The first step was to place advertisements in magazines, trying to find soldiers who buried Spitfires. ''The trouble was that many of them were dying of old age,'' Mr Cundall said. He visited Burma over and over again, slowly building relations with its junta. Finally, he found the Spitfires, at a location that is being kept a secret. Mr Cundall said: ''We sent a borehole down and used a camera to look at the crates. They seemed to be in good condition.''
In August 1945, the Mark XIV aircraft, which used Rolls-Royce Griffon engines instead of the Merlins of earlier models, were put in crates and transported from a factory in the West Midlands to Burma. Once they arrived, however, the Spitfires were deemed surplus to requirements. The order was given to bury 12 Spitfires without even unpacking them. It is possible that a further eight were then buried in December 1945.
Mr Cundall said: ''In 1945, Spitfires were 10 a penny. Jets were coming into service. Spitfires were struck off charge, unwanted. Lots of Spitfires were just pushed off the back of aircraft carriers into the sea. On land, you couldn't leave them for the locals - they might have ended up being used against you.''
Ground radar images showed that inside the crates were Spitfires with their wings packed alongside the fuselages. The Britons want to work to restore as many of the 20 Spitfires as possible and get them flying. There are only about 35 flying in the world.
The final obstacle to recovering the Spitfires, however, is political: international sanctions forbid the movement of military materials in and out of Burma, and it was also feared the regime would not allow any foreign excavations.
But because of the new, reforming stance of the government, the sanctions on movement of military material may be lifted on April 23. With the help of Mr Cameron and his visit to Burma, a deal is being negotiated and hopes are high that it will conclude with President Thein Sein granting permission for the dig.