Resurrected Spitfires: The Find of the Century
When I was kid growing up and fantasizing about airplanes, I'd occasionally read stories about overlooked warehouses stuffed with factory-fresh airplanes slathered with cosmoline and awaiting only discovery by some lucky buyer. As I got older, I assumed these stories to be apocryphal, but when I met Bill Lear Jr. in the early 1990s, he assured me that for him it was true. As a teenager, he acquired a factory-new P-38 for some paltry sum and flew around the country for several years.
Our story on the Spitfire find in Myanmar — the former Burma — reminded me of Lear's experience. If the story pans out in detail and in scale, David Cundall's lifelong mission of discovery will be the aviation history find of the century. It has been well documented that by the end of the war, the military-industrial complex was so cranked up that hundreds of thousands of tons of unneeded material was shipped the world over only to be burned, blown up or dumped in the sea upon arrival. If these Spitfires are as well preserved as initial reports indicate, they may have been the rare exception to escape destruction. (Pray that we aren't being hoaxed here.)
The airplanes are reportedly Mark XIVs—not the classic Battle of Britain airplanes, but later-model ones with Griffon engines and five-blade props. If that's true and the airframes are salvageable, its seems likely we'll get to see them flying one day. Flying Spitfires are relatively rare sights in the U.S. I've seen Merlin-powered Spits fly maybe three or four times. I have never seen a Griffon version, although someone sent me a picture of one and even though I'm not a Spitfire expert, I immediately recognized it for the shape of the cowling, the exhaust ejectors and the prop.
So what are these things worth? A good question. Recent auctions and for-sale offerings have had Merlin versions between $2 and $3 million. Documented combat history makes them more valuable. Late in the war, each successive Mark was built in fewer numbers, although there appear to be spikes for some of the models. The Supermarine Mark nomenclature isn't necessarily sequential. A Battle of Britain vet would likely be the most sought-after airplane, value-wise, so I can only guess where the Griffon-powered versions would appraise. And what effect would having a half a dozen or more of them come on the market at once have, if it really comes to that? No one knows.
According to Wikipedia's entry on the Spitfire, its unit cost early in the war was about $50,000 in 1939 dollars. (That's about $770,000 in 2012 dollars.) So if these recently discovered airplanes really do sell for $3 million—if it even gets that far—it sounds like a great return on a measly $50K. Well, it's actually not that great—about 6.5 percent a year, less whatever it costs to restore them.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Who cares about the money, really? Imagine the time capsule that these airplanes may represent. What a thrill to look into a cockpit that's just as it was when it left the British Midlands factory in 1945. I hope we find out. And soon.