Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Spitfire Heaven

The aircraft shown above is a British Spitfire, one of the premier World War II fighter aircraft.  It was used in every major theater during that war, and for several years afterwards by many allied air forces.

David Cundall spent 16 years pursuing a legend, that a number of these aircraft were delivered to Burma during the early days of the conflict for use by the British Far East Forces.  As the Japanese approached, the Brits buried the aircraft, still in their shipping crates unassembled, to keep them out of the enemy's hands.  After the Japanese were run out, the aircraft were deemed obsolete, and not worth retrieving - and they were forgotten except for a very few people who were aware of the initial burial. 

12 trips to Burma (or Myanmar,  or whatever it calls itself now) and a couple of hundred thousands of dollars in expenses finally yielded success when Mr. Cundall located the site.  Then the fun started.

A Spitfire on the open market these days will fetch in excess of a million dollars.  How much in excess relies on how good a condition the aircraft is in, and how rare the actual model is.  Warbird operators/enthusiasts will spend well in excess of that figure taking pieces and parts and restoring one to flyable condition.  That equates to a whole lot of money buried under Burmese soil ...

Once Mr. Cundall located the aircraft and word of his discovery leaked out, a cat fight broke out, mainly between Cundall, the English Government, and the Burmese Government.  Each claimed the aircraft.  Mr. Cundall thought they were his by right of salvage.  The English thought they belonged to their government, stating that even though they were abandoned and forgotten, they were still English property.  The Burmese felt that since they were buried in Burma and forgotten, it was their land and anything left behind had become theirs (as had been the case with enormous amounts of war material left in place all over the world after the end of the war).

Anyway, a battle ensued over about two years, with a lot of negotiation between all parties, the installation of a new more pro-Western government in Burma, and the British Prime Minister getting personally involved.  An agreement was reached between Mr. Cameron and the new President of Burma, Mr. Sein, during a meeting between the two earlier this year.  I don't have a lot of detail on the agreement, except the announcement that Mr. Cundall, his company, and their Burmese partners will be allowed to excavate the aircraft and take them back to England.

Excavation is to begin in late October.

This is a double edged sword for the Warbird movement.  If you are looking to procure a Spitfire for your collection, chances just went way up that you will be able to get a zero time, essentially brand new one sometime in the next few years.  If you currently have a Spitfire and are looking to get rid of it, the resale value on it just fell through the floor.

As an aviation enthusiast, I am thrilled by this.  The Spitfire is an awesome aircraft.  It is probably second to the Mustang in WWII aircraft (non-trainer) in the number that are on display or flying today.  To see a huge infusion of new ones into the warbird movement will ensure the Spitfire will grace the skies for many, many years to come.

Now, if only someone can find a bunch of brand new buried Mustangs ... or Thunderbolts ... or Warhawks ... or Lightnings ...

Photo - Lone Star Flight Museum's Spiftire LXFVIe, registered as N97RW - shot by yours truly at its home field in Galveston.

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