Burmese Spitfires: are they really there?

A Spitfire Mk II at Duxford (Photo Brian Proctor (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)).

A Spitfire Mk II at Duxford (Photo Brian Proctor (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)).

The latest news about the great Spitfire search in Burma seems quite pessimistic. David Cundall, followed by thousands of aviation enthusiasts, was hoping to locate dozens of Spitfire buried in crates in Burma at the end of the Second World War.

The research team began diggin recently but has only dug up metal sheets that were used to build the runway during the war for the moment.

In addition, Burmese authorities intervened this Wednesday and halted the search, following rumours that the team was tunnelling beneath Rangoon international airport’s runway. The team was finally allowed to resume their search but is now limited to using showels and can no longer use mechanized diggers.

It might be premature to say, as one of the disappointed members of the search team did, that “there are no Spitfires” to be found. Understandably, the whole deal has been considered with plenty of scepticism by many observers from the start.

We’ll have to wait and see, again. As the saying goes: “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is”.




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    • Barron on January 18, 2013 at 6:40 PM
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    • James on January 19, 2013 at 6:05 AM
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    sounds like they need to move to another reported site with no restrictions as to were they can dig and dont waist time on water filled crates…….

    • James on January 20, 2013 at 5:58 AM
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    to many eye witness reports from servicemen from england ,usa and the locals to be BS for me to think this is a misunderstanding about the craited planes. give it more time something will surface david is very sure of himself meaning i think he has positively identified at least one spitfire using a camera via a bore hole.in the last 17 years of trips……..stay tuned douters….

      • Steve Ballard on January 20, 2013 at 6:58 AM
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      Mmmm, not sure James, if a Spit has been identified definitively, where’s the photographs from the bore-hole camera? I’m in an industry that used bore-hole cameras in virtually mud, and the images from that, with virtually zero visibility, are sharp enough to know exactly what you are looking at.

      I believe the quote was ”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,” not that it ‘was positively a Spitfire’, which would have been world-wide news.

      I believe the words used were ‘what appears to be an aircraft’, and that other reports said, ‘searchers could not definitively say what was inside the crate’

      It looks to me like it was by no means a eureka moment, where ‘…we’ve found them!!!’..’..if that had have been me, I would have the photographs in every newspaper in the world. Probably would have also said, ‘I told you so!!’, it’s a simple human reaction.

      When Howard Carter peered inside the crack of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 – he has no fibre-optic bore-hole camera – and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon asked him anxiously, ‘…what to do you see?’, he reportedly replied in awe, ‘…many spendid things.’ Thus far, no one seems to have seen ‘many splendid things.’

      Muddy water inside a crate of aircraft part or any parts for that matter – be they for any machine – almost 70 years down the track is not what anyone could define as ‘pristine.’

      I know where there is a P-38 H Model Lightning is sitting in the jungle in the Pacific Islands, only exposed to extreme heat and tropical downpours of fresh water, and believe me, it is not pristine…the weather, benign in this case, as opposed to being buried in mineral earth, has done its job.

      It’s a good yarn, and I truly hope it proves true for the searchers, they have spent thousands and done their research marvellously, but the historical time frames of WWII simply don’t add up, nor does the enormous effoft that to dig a trench that deep that long and that wide to bury so many shipping containers with a very small machine- I have earthmoving experience, so I have a rough idea of the size of the ‘cut’ which would have been involved – it would take something like a D-9 or a D-10 Caterpillar to do in a reasonably short time frame, and even in soft digging, it would have taken a fair bit of time and a heck of a lot of precious fuel to dig the cut. A big effort when putting them back on a ship and tipping them over the side was a heck of a lot easier.

      For the most part, the army and airforce had no equipment that size, they were little Oliver D-2 or 3 size machines with cable blades, not the ideal deep digging machine, they were designed for making basic flat runways in soft earth…there were simply no big dozers with ‘bull blades’ designed for agressive digging had not been made yet.

      Besides, it would have been easier to put the crates back on a transport and push them over the side, the fate of many such containers…and in any case, some of the young blokes involved in the ‘burial’, the eye-witnesses would still be alive as has been shown, albeit fairly old now, they would certainly have heard of the value of such aircraft, how come they never went back?

      If Ihad been on that detail, burying those aircraft if that is indeed what happened, or had at least seen it, and then found out 40 years later I could get millions for a Spitfire, I am sure I would have been back there in a flash.

    • Steve Ballard on January 20, 2013 at 6:04 AM
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    If ever Occam’s Razor theory could be applied to a story, it is probably this one; the simplest explaination invariably is usually the most accurate….commonsense tends to make one consider that at the end of the war, only months away from the Japanese surrender, what was the rationale for sending the most modern Spitfire models to Burma, where they would not even needed, as the war had already moved way east, and why send them to a ‘unforgotten’ war, that even at it’s height, the allies barely cared about?

    Besides, even if aircraft were needed, Hurricanes would most likely have been send, as they required less maintainance and were easier – and cheaper – to repair, or unused, now-idle, Spitfires in India whold have been shuttled across the Bay of Bengal, as there was no longer any combat in India.

    There are hundreds of these stories – Australian war birds sites are full of aircraft ‘urban legends’ which tell of ‘eyewitness’ accounts of aircraft being secreted away in abandoned coal mine shafts near Oakey in Queensland and in other cases, also buried – and guess what, they were inenvably packed in perfectly sealed crates, wrapped in ‘grease-proof’ paper, some even with drums of aviation fuel with them – why would anyone wrap an aluminium frame aircraft in rust-proofing, aluminium doesn’t rust, aluminium simply turns to power when exposed to any mineral salts from ground water or sea water? – and they are always in ‘pristine condtion,’ almost like the advertisement, ‘batteries not included.’

    Thus far, I don’t believe anyone has ever found any aircraft in that kind of packing, buried or otherwise – all the farmer’s barns around the world with a Mark VIII Spitfire sitting waiting to be found are pretty much gone – anywhere in the world to my knowledge, and certainly after extensive searching at Oakey in Queensland, Australia, just outside Brisbane, for many, many years – and there were, by all accounts some 400 Mark V and Mark VII Spitfires and about 50 P-51 Mustangs’s melted down there, no one has ever found an intact aircraft in an ‘abandoned’ mine shaft. And is hasn’t been for lack of looking. Even so called ‘eyewitnesses’ have taken people to the sites of the burials, and no one has found a thing, except bits and pieces of old metal.

    Memories fade, stories get embellished, I know heaps of people in Queensland who will tell you then know where aircraft are – there are still people searching caves in the mountains near Townsville for ‘hidden crates’ – and no one has ever found a thing. If you ask, they simply say, ‘it was a long time ago, I can’t really know for sure’ but they will still tell you regardless.

    There are heaps of historical photographs of all the Spitfires, Kittyhawks and Mustangs all lined up at Oakey airfield, but thus far, no one has ever found a complete one in ‘pristine’ conditon in a crate in an old coal mine shaft.

    People tend to forget this disposal was overseen by RAAF or RAF officers, so even the scrapers had to fill in all the aircraft serials and do the paperwork before the aircraft were signed over, it’s unlikely these people would risk careers by turning a blind-eye to someone making off with a container belonging to either the lend-lease program or His Majesty’s Government….they were crazy days, at the end of the war to be sure, but paperwork was still filled in, and regulations adhered to: the documentation still exists, as well as the category of the aircraft, and what was to be done to it, what time frame was involved and so forth.

    The Burma yarn is a good legend, and I hope they finds them, but knowing the tropics somewhat- I have flown out of that Rangoon strip many times over the years, and seen sheets of water probably a foot deep deep over that area in the monsoon- the ground water rises and falls each monsoon season, leave an aircraft out in the dry climate of a desert for 60 years and see the deterioration…put them in crates under the earth in the tropics, they will almost certainly not be ‘pristine.’

    I’ve been involved in an operation off the Queensland coast looking for crates dumped at the end of the war: the crates were there, as were the Corsairs, to get them up before they turn to powder?? Forget about it, the water is not deep enough and has too much light penetration, and as the water is also is too warm, oxygen eats them away, and besides, it’s three hours offshore to get to the site…. it’s a nice dream thought….

    • James w on January 20, 2013 at 7:44 PM
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    steve.. i completely agree that the spits will not be pristine after 70 years and would guess all the crates will be full of water but we need to know if this is bs or real for the skeptics one way or another .i think all these people saying they saw the burials were not that dumb to not see what was going on . people are naturally inquisitive when they see something out of the norm…i really hope they are correct . my father was up in Alaska in WW2 buy attu and sitka and was on on a recovery team to go rescue aircrews that crashed their planes in the water and said their was many wreaks in deep cold water that he knew of personally.. pbys / p38, b25, b24, p61 , go look their….the plot thickens as Israeli tries to buy there way into the party. i think david has something up his sleeve and hasent show his true hand

      • Steve Ballard on January 20, 2013 at 9:08 PM
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      I guess a great deal of humanity secretly wants to believe in ‘buried treasure’, but I just know myself from the little I have had to do with warbird recovery assessment in the Pacific Islands and off the Queensland coastline, most of the stories and memories of ‘witnesses’ just don’t match up with what facts are actually known, and are just that – stories from a long time ago. They sound great in a bar over cold beer, but the reality is somewhat different when one gets out in the field or on the ocean looking for ‘targets’, and the $100 bills start being torn up at an incredible rate for zero reward.

      I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the Solomon Islands and other places, and while there are aircraft galore to be found if you want to slog through unbelievably steep mountains and heavy jungle, the days of going and getting them out are long gone; wealthy people got the best ones years ago, and even if the ones left were any good, which most aren’t after sitting in the jungle for all those years, getting permission to get an aircraft out is no longer easy, nor cheap.

      Also, there are very few places were anyone buried anything at all, apart from to run over the aircraft in the small dozers to compact them, and then push the whole tangled mess into a hole, stacking crates carefully into a ‘cut’ just doesn’t make much sense if you really think about it, what was the reason?

      If it was to preserve them so ‘someone’ – it could not have been the military, as who wanted propeller driven aircraft as the jet age approached – could go back later and get them, why did no one ever return, especially when ‘witnesses’ said they watched them being buried, and could easily have gone back to find them? Everything in Asia is available for a cost, I know of a P-51 sitting on a pillar near Jakarta domestic airport that could probably be obtained a lot easier than searching for buried crates.

      I know that without a 30 ton hydraulic excavator, it is extremely difficult to pick up a 6 or 8 ton 20′ container and just move it to a pit, let alone position it into a slot carefully so it fits together with the rest to maximise space…it’s a real chore, I know, I’ve moved containers with a bulldozer on hard surfaces to position them, and it’s very difficult: in soft, muddy dirt, they just dig in and want to tip over. And no one back then had 30 ton hydraulic excavators….they used jury-rigged ‘pole’ trucks or very, very basic old cranes.

      Have a look at one of the best Australian warbird research sites, http://www.brokenwings.com.au/legend2.html, and see all those Spits sitting in long grass waiting for the scrappers….all the stories over years and years and years have persisted, and no one has ever found anything left….the scrappers got them. If anyone, military included, had wanted to preserve virtually an entire Spitfire fighter ‘wing’ for posterity, that would have been the time, and yet, not one of those over 400 aircraft survived as far as I know. Why go looking for buried crates when they were sitting on the runway, just waiting…answer? No one wanted them.

      As kids, we were always told stories of an farmer who bought a P-51 at the end of the war in Australia and tried to use it for crop dusting…he soon found the stall speed was too high for that kind of activity, and besides, the fuel it went through in one flight was almost enough to break him, so it literally did sit in a barn for years until it was bought and restored…but those days are gone.

      I’ve been an opal miner in Australia as well – same thing, looking for buried treasure – and I know plenty of old miners who always ‘knew of places where no one had dug and there was a fortune there just waiting to be dug up…’ When you took them to the places they thought they remembered, they could not find them again…

      Memory fades, what we actually see and what we thought we remember we saw, are vastly different things, the truth is somewhat different for every person, no two people remember the same experience exactly as it happened, especially 70 years on.

      Given the amount of equipment being shipped through those bases at that time of the war, when everyone just wanted to go home, it is hardly any wonder people say, ‘yep, I was there, I saw this happen…’ but often times, it was something else which was going on, containers got pushed to one side of the field while they waited to be moved, and when they were gone next morning on another transport, as is the wont of the military scheduling, rumours started that ‘they got secretly buried in the night.’

      Like I said, I wish ’em luck, and I really hope they find what they are looking for, but having been to that strip many times over the years, and worked with Burmese crews on ships out of Rangoon – blokes who lived in Rangoon and were kids at the time of the war, and whose fathers had worked on building that strip – none of them ever could say they remembered anything like that, and believe, me, being a warbird chaser, I asked a lot of questions…and villagers are naturally curious, and spend a lot of time watching.

      It’s a bit like the search for Smithy’s plane off Burma, you can ask a hundred Burmese in the villages around Sittway – been working out of there many times also – and they all tell stories as well…but they are just that, I think.

      I know if I had the money I would be doing what you say about the aircraft dumped off the Alutian Islands at the end of the war….they are all in deep cold dark water, and if you had the money, they are the ones that you have the best chance with, look at how well ‘Glacier Girl’ was preserved by the cold. I see someone has recently dragged a JU-88 out of some fijord in Scandanavia, and it is in pretty good condition.

      We’ll soon see with the Burma story, I know that disappointment of digging a massive hole and finding nothing…been down that track many, many times in the opal mining game, and it is hearbreaking…it’s bad enough when there is no one watching the wheels fall off an operation, but when a great many folk are all following the story, all watching, waiting and hoping, and then things start looking thin, people start pulling out of the project as things start to go astray, it’s sure hard to take.

        • James w on January 21, 2013 at 7:00 AM
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        steve. i hope you are wrong. i personally inspected the swamp ghost b17 at planes of fame last year that had been sitting in a swamp for 65 plus years and looked pretty clean and restorable to me.also at the planes of fame chino California museum is a me-109 that was sitting in a lake for 65 years that was 95% in tact that will be restored to flying shape at some point……..we will see soon

      • Steve on February 13, 2013 at 10:50 PM
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      Unfortunately, there is a big difference between believing and actual facts…..I’ve been a gemstone miner for a long time as well, and if I believed every story an old timer told me where ‘the others had missed the main run of opal’ I would be a millionaire….it’s a nice story, but I don’t see the facts thus far.

      1. Indeed. I have no expectation of any a/c turning up. I think this sums it all up quite well:


    • gerald on January 29, 2013 at 5:43 AM
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    the spitefires went to Israel
    a behind the back little deal
    Just athought !!!!!!!
    Wish them all the best& would love to see
    t be a suuccsegeh

    • John Guedel on February 6, 2013 at 2:16 AM
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    Well then, David Cundall put his “money AND his time” where his mouth is. I mean absolutly no dis-respect to anyone…..butt, it is a great dream, isn’t it? Once a pon a time I stood with Dave Zeuschel on/at the aircraft backlot junk yard at Universal….the Dean Hess ’51 was there, sans engine, with a broom stick….there was lotsa stuff there…Dave got some of it, I guess….the ’51 was towed up Lankershim Boulevard in the middle of the night by the B-25 guy….can’t remember his name, damit….butt it flys now. Tons AND tons of great stories…knott the same as the Spitfires…..butt, comon….wouldn’t it be beyond cool…???? Go gettem Dave….Rock ‘n roll. MadDog

      • Steve. on February 14, 2013 at 5:09 AM
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      With respect John, sometimes it takes somewhat more than putting one’s money and time where one’s mouth is; one can stand to lose a heck of a lot of money and have a wide-open and very stunned mouth to show for the risk taken for zero reward in a high-stakes game.

      Calculated facts based on percentages and extensive study of the game one is playing is needed if one is going to sit down at the table and risk the lot. Dreaming is great, but it’s not enough most of the time.

      I never knock anyone for dreaming, and I still hope they find what they are looking for, but as the saying goes, ‘..it is great to dream….now put the foundations beneath the dream.’

      Ask anyone at a hold ’em poker game who has tried to take on a very,very possible flush routine showing to the player you are betting against – even the slightest doubt is enough to make one fold then and there – when one is hoping to draw a full house, which even if one draws it, the hand won’t win the game if the other bloke draws the flush cards; it’s a low-percentage play.

      A full house of aces is a great hand, but if the other bloke is holding an open-ended flush routine, he has eight chances – four cards either side – of beating you – that’s a heavy risk bet.

      Watch ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ sometime, it’s all down to that one queen.

      Here’s the play: Edward G Robinson draw the 8 of diamonds and the Steve McQueen the 10 of clubs. Robinson bets $500 and calls. Robinson gets the queen of diamonds and McQueen the 10 of clubs.

      McQueen bets $1,000 and Robinson raises $1,000. McQueen calls. ( I would have folded then, as Robinson obviously is looking like pulling a straight flush, the first loss is always the best one.)

      Robinson draws a 10 of diamonds and McQueen gets the ace of clubs. McQueen bets $3,000 as he has just filled his full house and Robinson calls.

      Robinson’s next card is the 9 of diamonds, so he has the 8, 9,10,and queen of diamonds; McQueen gets the ace of clubs he needs to fill the house, but he isn’t sure, so he checks. Robinson bets $1,000. McQueen raises $3,500 in an attempt to bluff him off, but then Robinson plays the sucker punch and raises another $5,000. He agrees to take McQueen’s marker and McQueen calls.

      Robinson turns over the jack of diamonds for a queen-high straight flush. McQueen turns over the ace of hearts, he’s got aces over tens, a great full house, but the queen high royal routine closes it out.

      An old gambler taught me the way to win consistently is to ‘fold early, and fold a lot’ and it’s always been a fair stand-by. Boulder opal mining is one of the highest risk mining games going, and there’s no way I would dig a massive cut with a dozer and excavator and pour 60 drums of diesel into it unless I had drilled the whole location and knew there was at least enough there to pay for the cut.

      Facts, figures and research is the secret to winning high-risk games, and even then, no one can count on drawing that jack of diamonds….

      As I said, I wish them all the best and hope they turn up what they are looking for….the foundations of the dream are beginning to look very unstable thought, one must admit

        • James w on March 17, 2013 at 8:33 AM
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        Steve if you dont plan on recovering the p38H you mentioned tell me were it is and i will see that it is brought back to the states and restored instead of rotting away . nothing pisses me off more that people that allow intact vintage planes to turn to complete garbage for no good reason other than they dont have the resources to complete anything. james w

          • Steve on March 17, 2013 at 8:51 AM
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          Hello James, I am afraid that one is strictly off bounds…it is in a small unofficial ‘museum’ in the Solomon Islands near Tambea Point, and there’s no way anyone is getting it out of there….believe me, I used to dive in that area and knew some of the local people, and they are not parting with it for anything…besides, I last saw her back in ’98, there’s been a civil war since then, and even the road getting up there is gone now….and besides, she was originally salvaged from the ocean, the just stripped of the guns, so while she in intact, apart from that guns, she is dissolving in aluminum powder…all the would be good for is for wing templates, the Allisons and all the rest are simply now returning to the earth as powder….and I would not like to go into that ‘museum’ built by the locals, modest as it is – just a jungle clearing – and have a go at moving it. I doulb these days you would get out alive, no one even goes up there to dive the B-17 wreck, ‘Bessy the Jap Smasher’ or the Bonegi I and II wrecks because of inter-tribal bickering. Nope, she’s there for good. If you have the time and money, there are a lot of wrecks in the mountains around Henderson Strip – where commercial aircraft still land – but the Solomons is not like New Guinea, even if she was in top condition, they would not grant a permit to move her.

    • sam on February 15, 2013 at 8:29 PM
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    p38 is close to the sea if its the one i saw up there.minus guns and generators in 1990 but looked okish from hover.

      • Steve. on February 16, 2013 at 12:25 AM
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      Which P-38 are you referring to Sam, I imagine it is one of the ones off the Aleutian Islands offf Alaska? If it’s the one in the Solomon Islands near the ocean at Tambea Point at the small ‘museum’, you can forget about it, the pilot put her down in the ocean before the end of WWII, and the aluminium has corroded to powder in most places…it was salvaged about 40 years ago, the guns taken and then left to the elements. She’s not worth moving, even if the locals would let it go…she’s no ‘Swamp Ghost’, the folks there would not let anyone move her, even if she was in recoverable condition…I’ve been there many times, and while it is a shame to see her melt away into dust, there’s no way of getting her out. Everything I know of in the Aleutians is in deep, very, very cold dark water, hence their reasonable condition….one just needs an oilfield work-class ocean vessel – probably $20,000 a day – and a big bank account to have a go!

  1. I see that David Cundall hasn’t given up just yet!


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