Buried Treasure

A British farmer's 15-year quest to find legendary fighter planes has finally paid off

Apr 18, 2012 | By Sonia van Gilder Cooke for TIME
MICHAEL DUNNING—GETTY IMAGES

After 15 years, a British farmer’s quest has finally paid off. He has been searching for a squadron of legendary fighter planes that were lost in Burma during World War II. David Cundall, 62, traveled to Burma a dozen times. He spent about $207,000 in the hopes of finding a stash of iconic British Spitfires buried in the Southeast Asian country. Finally, his quest has paid off.

It sounds odd, but in fact burying planes was fairly common toward the end of the war. As the conflict wound down, jet aircraft promised to make propeller-driven fighters obsolete. Many aircraft were scrapped, buried or sunk in order to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

This image from 1998 shows two Spitfire aircraft in flight in England.
LYNNE SLADKY—AP
This image from 1998 shows two Spitfire aircraft in flight in England.

A Successful Search

Cundall started his search after his friend heard from a group of U.S. veterans that they had stashed Spitfires in the region. “We’ve done some pretty silly things in our time, but the silliest was burying Spitfires,” the veterans said.

Cundall began placing ads in magazines to try to find soldiers who might have been involved. After 15 years of searching, he finally managed to locate the missing airplanes. The planes had never been flown and were buried in their transport crates. “We sent a borehole down and used a camera to look at the crates. They seemed to be in good condition,” Cundall told the Telegraph.

The aircraft arrived at a Royal Air Force base in Burma in August 1945. But by that point in the war, the fighters weren’t needed. “In 1945, Spitfires were ten a penny,” said Cundall.

Now What?

Getting the planes out of the ground is one thing. But getting them out of Burma is another. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently visited the country. As the Telegraph reports, Cameron’s help may mean that the Spitfires could soon be on their way back to the United Kingdom. Cundall hopes that with the help of investors, the planes can finally take to the skies.

“Spitfires are beautiful airplanes and should not be rotting away in a foreign land,” Cundall says. “They saved our neck in the Battle of Britain and they should be preserved.”