A British team of archaeologists and surveyors are currently in Burma searching for dozens of Spitfire airplanes that were allegedly buried while still in their crates when World War II came to a close. For archaeologist David Cundall, it's a search that's 17 years in the making — and the product of his life's work. But it's also a potentially lucrative venture, as the increasingly rare artifact is now valued at $1.6 million each.
That the Supermarine Spitfire is so highly valued should come as little surprise. It was the killer-app, quite literally, during the Battle of Britain, and the best British fighter during the war — a plane that is now regarded with legendary status.
Designed by Reginald J. Mitchell, it featured a slender aerodynamic body and elliptical wings, which guaranteed perfect lift. It was also outfitted with a Rolls-Royce V12 engine.
And the pilots loved it. It was a joy to fly, mostly on account of its speed (369 mph/593 kph at 19,815 feet/6,039 meters) and high degree of maneuverability. Pilots of the Nazi Luftwaffe — particularly bomber crews — learned to fear it.
The Mark XIV, which appeared later in the war, and is the version that's currently being searched for by Cundall, was later outfitted with a 1,665 hp Merlin engine. It also holds the distinction of being the first British aircraft to shoot down the Me 262 — the world's first jet fighter.
By the end of the war, nearly 20,000 Spitfires had been produced. And like so many other military weapons and equipment, the abrupt end to the war created a tremendous surplus.
Indeed, soon after WW2, much of the material was written off at the time it was accepted; if too much of it got into the hands of traders (the Chinese excelled at this), it could depress the market for new goods. And in fact, the West did experience several challenging years until their manufacturing capacity was reconverted to the manufacture of peacetime goods.
To cope with this, many Allied countries had to get rid of their surplus equipment. It got so bad that, in some cases, the excess equipment was disposed of by burning, including aircraft. In one account, an entire pier was constructed entirely of new jeeps still in their packing cases.
But according to the recollections of some U.S. veterans, an entire squadron's worth of Mark XIV Spitfires were buried in various parts of Burma — about 140 fighters to be exact. And according to one source, there may be as many as 36 buried close to the runway at the Rangoon airport.
Unfortunately, the initial search has turned up short. As The Guardian reported earlier today, the team of 21 archaeologists had spent the last few days digging up various holes around the Rangoon airport looking for the giant crates. But all they found were bundles of electric cables and water pipes.
According to the archaeologists, they haven't stopped searching, and "cannot stop" now. They consider it a setback and a delay in their work.
We'll continue to update this story as it unfolds.
Special thanks to C. W. Whipple.
Images: Chowells, AP.