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For the past few weeks a team of scientists, archaeologists and documentary makers has been digging at Yangon's international airport in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They are searching for a legendary trove of Spitfire fighter planes, said to have been buried in Burma in the waning days of World War II.
The tale of the Spitfires has lived on among old soldiers and aviation buffs. One of them, 86-year-old British veteran Stanley Coombe, is part of the search team. He recalls his time in Burma during the final, chaotic days of the war. Japan had been defeated. British and American troops were eager to go home. They were getting rid of surplus military hardware any way they could.
A Wartime Memory
Coombe recalls driving past the British air force, or RAF, airfield at Mingaladon one day, when something caught his eye.
"Well, as we got to the end of the road, I saw these big crates, and we didn't know what was in them at the time," he says. "But the next day, I said to an RAF man, 'What was in those crates down there?' and he said, 'Would you believe Spitfires?' "
Coombe told his story to David Cundall, a farmer from North Lincolnshire in England. Cundall had heard the legend of the Spitfires, and put notices in aviation magazines looking for witnesses. Cundall has been flying airplanes and digging them up for nearly four decades.
"Around Lincolnshire, there's lots and lots of World War II airfields, and I've dug quite a few up over the years," he says, speaking in his hotel in Yangon. "I've found engines and propellers and spare parts and spanners, and I have dug up Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters."
Since 1996, Cundall has traveled to Myanmar many times in search of the planes. As Myanmar began its democratic reforms in 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited and discussed the Spitfires with President Thein Sein. But it wasn't until the European Union suspended its sanctions on Myanmar last year that Cundall signed a contract with the government giving him two years to dig for the planes.
Now, Cundall believes his search team is getting close. They have used ground radar mapping and other techniques to pinpoint what they believe is the buried planes' location.
Burmese geologist U Soe Thein has worked with Cundall and claims to have located a trove of planes in Myitkyina, northern Kachin state, not far from where ethnic Kachin rebels are battling government troops. Soe Thein says he's sure they're Spitfires.
"I discovered 18 boxes," he says, "all of them the same size: 11 feet high and 40 feet long. By using advanced technology, we can see the shape of the metal in the boxes."
Cundall and his team are now searching for 60 airplanes at three sites. Soe Thein says there could be as many as 140 planes at about 10 sites. There are now only a few dozen airworthy Spitfires in the world.
Cundall says the planes were buried in crates, disassembled and greased, so they could be in excellent condition. An initial dig in Myitkyina located one crate, which the team bored a hole in and used a remote camera to peer into. They found the crate full of water, with oil on the surface, which Cundall suggests was used to prevent corrosion. The team will have to pump the water out before exhuming the crate.
'A National Icon'
Britons are still familiar with the drone of the Spitfire's engines and the silhouette of its elliptical wings. It is more than just the plane that helped win the Battle of Britain, says the project's lead archaeologist, Andy Brockman. It's a national icon, he says.
"It's not just a superb fighting airplane," he says admiringly, "it's a superb piece of art deco sculpture. It's a superb piece of engineering. And it has a cultural resonance that goes beyond just the artifact of an airplane."
He says the problem is that there's no available documentary evidence that any Spitfires were buried.
"There's no treasure map saying X marks the spot," Brockman cautions. "What we have is a collection of material, circumstantial evidence, [and] reports."
If the planes were buried, it's not clear whether it was just to get rid of them, or for them to be dug up and used again. Cundall says he believes the planes may have been intended for ethnic Karen fighters, who fought alongside the British against the Japanese Imperial Army.
The Burmese at first welcomed the Japanese to help them evict British colonial forces, but later turned against the Japanese.
The quest for the Spitfires is being bankrolled by a video game company called Wargaming.net. The company's special projects director, Tracy Spaight, says his firm has modest expectations for the search.
"We did not approach this as a money-making venture," he says. "In fact, if we do make any money from it, we'll probably donate it to organizations involved in historic preservation of aircraft. Our motivations are primarily to tell a great story."
Chasing A Mirage?
Even as the excavators dig, many skeptics are questioning whether the buried planes really exist, or whether Cundall is chasing a mirage. The team's work has been delayed by bureaucratic obstacles, and pipes and cables at the Mingaladon airport have obstructed the digging. Mingaladon includes a military airbase, and getting permission to dig is difficult.
There are also rival teams waiting to step in if Cundall fails. Cundall says he's determined to find the Spitfires.
"They are coming back to the U.K.; I'm going to make that perfectly clear," he says. "They will generate jobs, and hopefully in three years' time, we'll see them at air shows. But that has taken me about a quarter of my life to achieve. And we're nearly there, but not yet."
British media reported Friday that the team has failed to find any planes and is giving up. The team says those reports are wrong, and the hunt continues.