MYANMAR – A British-led excavation team hunting for dozens of rare Spitfires in Burma said Wednesday they were confident of recovering the World War II-era planes after finding a crate buried in the ground.
Project leader David Cundall, who has compared the rumored hoard to the 1922 discovery of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, said a box found in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina appeared to contain man-made objects.
“The two people that buried them put a cross on the map and we found that position and that’s where we have found a crate, a wooden crate,” he said. Researchers have so far been unable to confirm the contents.
But Britain, the former colonial power in Burma, is thought to have buried the brand new planes in sealed crates up to 10 metres (33 feet) underground.
A camera had been inserted into the newly discovered box but murky water was obscuring visibility, Cundall said.
“That’s very encouraging. That’s the sort of image that I would expect to find. We’ve gone into a box, but we have hit this water problem. It’s murky water and we can’t really see very far,” he said at a press conference in Rangoon.
He said he was “very optimistic” about the team’s chances of success and better photographic evidence could be available within weeks.
Britain is thought to have buried the planes in 1945 as they were surplus by the time they arrived by sea.
The 21-strong team believe there could be 36 of the iconic single-seat British fighter aircraft beneath Rangoon airport, a wartime airfield, in the Mingaladon district of the city.
Cundall said the team believed there were a further 18 in Myitkyina and six in central Meiktila, based on eyewitness accounts and earlier surveys.
“I’m confident that we will find Spitfires either at Mingaladon or Myitkyina,” he said.
There are thought to be fewer than 50 airworthy Spitfires left in the world and the digs, which have excited military history and aviation enthusiasts around the world, could potentially double their number.
Cundall said a survey was currently being undertaken at Rangoon airport to ensure there are no modern-day obstacles like electricity cables and the team hopes to begin excavation within days.
If successfully excavated, some of the Spitfires are expected to be returned to Britain, which ruled Burma until independence in 1948.
Cundall, a farmer and aircraft enthusiast, has spent 17 years chasing the rumoured lost Spitfires.
His share of any planes found will be 30 percent, his agents will have 20 percent, while the Burma government will keep 50 percent, according to agreements they have signed.
Stanley Coombe, a 91-year-old former British soldier who is one of eight people who said they saw the burials, has also travelled to Burma as part of the team.
“It has been a long, long time since anybody believed what I said. It was only until David Cundall came along that… people believed there was truth in my story so this is going to be a big, big exciting thing to do,” he told reporters.