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Resurrected Spitfires: The Find of the Century

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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.

Comments (40)

My father maintained these aircraft during the war, and I remember well the stories that he told me of this glorious and historic aircraft. I believe that these aircraft need to be ( and should be ) flown, but only by the right people. Seasoned pilots with airline captain temperaments only. No racing at Reno, and no "cowboys",.... PLEASE.....

Posted by: Barry Sloane | April 16, 2012 6:03 AM    Report this comment

This is a very exciting possibility. However, I wonder how much difficulty there would be in acquiring one of these planes, getting it shipped to the USA, and then put together and test flown. After all that I'm sure it would be worth millions of dollars. It is the risks and difficulties that can be expected to get to that point that will make these planes somewhat less valuable.

The first one to be sold will certainly attract a lot of money. I'm not sure about the tenth. Who knows, maybe some lucky home builder can pick up the tenth one for $50 at auction.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | April 16, 2012 6:11 AM    Report this comment

One last comment -- Since these planes were shipped into a war zone with full expectation they would enter combat shortly after assembly I suspect they are armed to the teeth. This will present special problems for anyone who wants to turn one into a civilian plane.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | April 16, 2012 6:14 AM    Report this comment

I remember when we had an Military Airshow in the 60,s a couple of Spitfires were there,also a Dornier of the German Airforce and one of our Staff Sgts taking the German Pilots around made a point of stopping by them and giving the Luftwaffe Pilots a potted history of the Battle of Britain and the role of the Spitfire in it, a wonderful find and who cares how much they are worth, just to see them flying will be great, now where did I put that Lottery Ticket ?

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | April 16, 2012 6:46 AM    Report this comment

This is stinkin' cool - best wishes to David Cundall on his find and hope he is successful getting them safely out of the country!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | April 16, 2012 7:39 AM    Report this comment

Back in the early 70's, I talked to a WWII pilot who claimed he was buying P-51's for under $1K and P-38's for $2K after the war. He'd fly them someplace and double his money thinking he was making real money. When I learned how to fly in northern CA 42 years ago, derelict P-51's were fairly common sights at local airfields.

I have also seen pictures of brand new P-51D's flown from LA to Walnut Ridge AAF, AR where they were arranged firewall down in rows with engines removed ... awaiting sale or smelting. The AAF and Reconstruction Finance Corp. brought in as many as 250 airplanes in a day and between 10,000 and 11,000 total airplanes -- including 118 new B-32's -- were sold for scrap from that Base. The Texas Railway Corp bought 4,871 of them for $1.8M and scrapped them all in two years. Can you imagine what they'd be worth if they "stashed" 'em all instead! And Walnut Ridge AAF was only one of six aircraft disposition centers.

So, as Paul says, if this story is true and even a few of the Spit's fly ... it WILL be the aviation "barn find" of the Century. Let's all keep our fingers crossed. I hope everyone notices that the British Gov't is NOT laying claim to these valuable machines. Can you imagine if they were buried as new US Navy HellCats!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 16, 2012 8:55 AM    Report this comment

The same "hope" was put on the 1957 Belvedere that was meticulously stored in Tulsa for 50 years. I doubt if Burma is a better place to bury machinery. It makes a nice story but the reality of moisture and time means that it's impossible to expect rebuildable planes.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 16, 2012 9:09 AM    Report this comment

I believe the story, as my company was asked to help ship the crates out of Burma back in 2004. The move got cancelled at the last minute because the generals decided they wanted fatter brown envelopes.

We have a few Griffon-powered Spitfires flying here in England and they are spectacular. They look, sound and perform one level up from the earlier Merlin Spits, and can give a powerful and jaw-dropping aerobatic display in the right hands.

I really hope it works out this time.

Posted by: Unknown | April 16, 2012 9:14 AM    Report this comment

This is a stunning story and one hopes, will have a wonderful conclusion without the usual political and bureaucratic meddling.

One question however. Who owns these aircraft? Is it David Cundall who found them or some other entity?

Looking forward to reading about a successful recovery of these magnificent airplanes.

Posted by: Jeffery Pooler | April 16, 2012 9:31 AM    Report this comment

I think Mark Fraser will be proven correct on this...it's hard enough to keep a plane of that vintage in good shape with regular maintenance, never mind leaving it buried in semi-tropical mud. But then it isn't impossible, I bought a 'barn-find' PT22 for a song some years ago, it had been sitting for 40 years...I bolted on a refurb'd carburetor and flew it home to Harvey Young in Tulsa from Wharton, TX (I was also present when the Plymouth was buried in Tulsa...not for the opening but did see it on tv)

Posted by: Karl Schneider | April 16, 2012 9:56 AM    Report this comment

There are a few helicopters on the seabed off Saigon going cheap too....

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | April 16, 2012 10:18 AM    Report this comment

It's not about the money (after the politicians are paid off of course). This is the aviation equivalent of finding King Tut's Tomb! It will take millions to restore them; if water and corrosion haven't done a fatal number on them. But even so, what a historical find; I can't wait to see the photos when they are unearthed. We get exicted about finding long-lost wrecks, but finding preserved aircraft is unthinkable...wow

Posted by: A Richie | April 16, 2012 10:18 AM    Report this comment

Assuming this is all factual, it would be interesting to know what the intent was in burying them rather than taking the easier & more direct route of simply destroying them. Perhaps someone had a plan?

Posted by: John Wilson | April 16, 2012 10:24 AM    Report this comment

Paul M - I don't think the guns will present any particular obstacle. They're removable.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | April 16, 2012 11:15 AM    Report this comment

I have pulled wings out of barns etc. but this story is very interesting. There was another similar story a while back about Spitfires in Australia, supposedly buried not too far from Brisbane. Anyone know what happened in that story? The similar nature of the two stories is most interesting!

Posted by: Charles Elliot | April 16, 2012 11:39 AM    Report this comment

Thoughts on Paul M's comments on armaments: I agree with Will A; the guns can be removed. I am certain the aircraft would not have been shipped with any ammunition or ordinance in the crates. I sure hope these planes are recoverable, politically and mechanically!

Posted by: Steven Brady | April 16, 2012 1:42 PM    Report this comment

There is something of the equivalent to be found here in the states in that many many WW-2 aircraft were ditched in accidents or taken out and pushed overboard into the Great Lakes. If someone could just find a way around the US military's stupid prosecution of anyone that "dares" to try and recover one of these treasures. The cold fresh water goes a long way in preserving these machines.

Posted by: Scott McGowin | April 16, 2012 1:42 PM    Report this comment

My wife's stepfather was a seaman in the Royal Navy in WWII, and at the end of the war was stationed in Capetown, SA. After VJ day, the RN loaded some eighty (that's 80) brand new Grumman Hellcats onto the flight deck of a carrier and took them out to sea where he was part of the crew that pushed them overboard into what he described as 'a deep trench' in the South Atlantic. There is one marine trench about 700 miles SW of Capetown that's 18,000 ft deep. These aircraft were like the Spitfires - still sealed in their shipping crates. They used a bulldozer to push the crates over the side. I wonder who will find those ...

Posted by: Francis Traylor | April 16, 2012 3:17 PM    Report this comment

Will, I think this is a side issue, but one that could land you in jail for a long time if you live where I do (Washington State).

If these planes are preserved as I understand then the guns will probably still be in perfect working order. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the planes, but guns are mostly steel (which can be coated in preservatives) and springs. In Washington it is a felony to possess an automatic weapon unless you are a military person performing his duty or a machine gun manufacturer (a cut-out for Olympic Arms). This is something you would need to work out before shipping your new (old?) Spitfire in for rebuilding.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | April 16, 2012 3:41 PM    Report this comment

All this excited chatter reminds one of the MiG-25s buried by Saddam in the Iraqi sand. And maybe that reef of A-6 Intruders someplace off Florida.

Posted by: Wash Phillips | April 16, 2012 5:00 PM    Report this comment

My late Dad was a Spitfire pilot in WW2 and a foundation member of 485, the NZ Spitfire squadron. Then he went to the Middle East and flew with 123 squadron. After the war he was responsible, with Sir Keith Park, for bringing a Spitfire (that had flown in Canada as a training aircraft) to Auckland and it is in our War Memorial Museum. He died in 1991 but I can just imagine how excited he'd be by this news, that amazing plane was his passion. Just recently I took his letters home during the war and his later writings and made them into an ebook. It's free and has had around 8,000 downloads worldwide. The night flying in Spits and enemy engagement descriptions are amazing. If you're interested you'll find it at Amazon and Smashwords, "Our Father's War" by Hal Thomas, edited by Julie Thomas. Really am excited to see what happens with these planes and if they can be restored, it'd be great to see some in museums and flying at air shows.

Posted by: Julie Thomas | April 16, 2012 8:59 PM    Report this comment

Paul, from what I've read of several warbird restorations over the years, the guns are removed either before shipping or before the plane arrives at the resto shop. Like you alluded to, it depends on the local laws covering such things.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | April 17, 2012 9:19 AM    Report this comment

Somebody is buying into the UK Telegraph story hook line and sinker, but if you go to any of the knowledgeable warbird sites, like Avforum, WIX or PPRuNe's History and Nostalgia section, you'll see that a lot of it has already been declared buehlchit, as Gordon Baxter used to say. I'm guessing this one will go onto the urban-legends list with the JATO-powered Camaro.

Posted by: Stephan Wilkinson | April 17, 2012 1:58 PM    Report this comment

Did the British PM secure a deal to release the Spits during his visit?

Posted by: Bob Hannington | April 17, 2012 5:36 PM    Report this comment

Stephan, I looked through the messages on that WIX site, it looked like a bunch of precocious 8th graders arguing about string theory...

Posted by: Karl Schneider | April 17, 2012 6:40 PM    Report this comment

Actually, that's the least authoritative of the sites, since it's U. S.-based, and you're right. But the Brit sites have been through this "buried Spitfires" stuff so many times, and they do know what they're talking about, right down to the reggie numbers--there, I'm even speaking like a Limey--of the purported Spitfires... They're pretty much all rolling their eyes.

Obviously this whole thing could turn out to be absolutely true, and somebody will uncrate 20 Spitfires, fuel 'em up and take off (kidding, kidding), but what I was basically posting originally is that the Telegraph article is a very bad place to start, since it's not reliable, and that's obviously what AvWeb did.

Anyway, just to deal with a single anomaly, the report is that the Spitfires are buried 40 feet deep. Any heavy-equipment operators out there who know what a job it is, particularly in a Burmese war zone, to dig a 40-foot-deep hole big enough to bury 20 airplanes? Particularly when a 10-foot-deep hole would do just as well? Makes no sense. You'd need some major equipment to excavate that, and it would take weeks.

Also, the reports are that ground-penetrating radar has shown "Spitfires with their wings stowed next to the fuselages." The best GPR in the world could barely show a magnetic anomaly, if that, 40 feet under the surface in the kind of damp, heavy soil you'd find in Burma. I could go on, but at this point, I'm just taking bets.

Posted by: Stephan Wilkinson | April 17, 2012 7:04 PM    Report this comment

This finding really is a lifetime dream come true for any WW2 aviation fanatic, and i will be following all the information about this

Posted by: Antonio Rangel | April 17, 2012 7:40 PM    Report this comment

I am a hopless romantic and so want this to be the real deal but like so many others they become urban legends like Charles Elliot was saying. The Spitfire story here in Australia which appeared on the local news channels with camera evidence of a cache of Spitfires parked in a sealed cave was never to be spoken of again as was the aircraft found off the Queensland coast. At least these Aircraft were tangable in that a centre section of a Corsair was recovered. Also the story of Vultree Vengances burried at Melbournes Laverton airbase could not even raise the interest of the RAAF museum afer a whitness came forward to tell his story. The bottom line is I want this to be real so bad to keep credibilty into all the other stories that one day may turn out to be factual.

Posted by: Garry Thiele | April 18, 2012 3:42 AM    Report this comment

For all ye of little faith / http://www.modoracle.com/news/Lost-Spitfires-Buried-In-Burma-Since-WW2_25546.html?category=all

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | April 18, 2012 6:05 AM    Report this comment

http://www.modoracle.com/news/Lost-Spitfires-Buried-In-Burma-Since-WW2_25546.html?category=all

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | April 18, 2012 6:06 AM    Report this comment

Lost Spitfires Buried In Burma Since WW2

Monday, April 16, 2012

Source: BFBS

Twenty "lost" Spitfires that have remained boxed and buried in Burma since the Second World War could be recovered and flown again.

David Cameron and Burmese president Thein Sein have agreed to work together to find and restore the historic aircraft as part of a thaw in relations. British statesman Earl Mountbatten ordered the RAF to bury them in the summer of 1945 amid fears that they could be either used or destroyed by Japanese forces.

Within weeks, the atom bomb was dropped to end the conflict, and the brand new planes - which were in crates and yet to be assembled - were seemingly forgotten.

Experts from Leeds University have linked up with an academic based in Rangoon and believe they have identified the sites where the craft are concealed using sophisticated radar techniques.

Although around 21,000 Spitfires were built during the war effort, only 35 are believed to be in flying condition today.

Mr Cameron raised the fascinating find when he met Mr Sein for talks yesterday. Officials said the president was "very enthusiatic", and if the planes can be salvaged, some could potentially go on display in Burma.

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | April 18, 2012 6:10 AM    Report this comment

Piltdown Man, Spaghetti trees, UNFCCC, and now 20 preserved Spitfires. P. T. Barnum would be proud.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 18, 2012 7:12 AM    Report this comment

just amazing!....I remember a friend telling me that he knew of WWI Le rhone engines found in an old warehouse in Brooklyn New York! in the 70's.

This is a great find and what a great documentary it would be to watch!!!

Posted by: Richard Wyeroski | April 18, 2012 7:40 AM    Report this comment

To the poster commenting on why the military in the US won't let you salvage A/C. Its just the Navy/Marines that are a problem the Air force is actually helpful in the matter. Though the Navy are several unprintable words when it comes to recovery. They never release planes from their books so even though they might be in Lake Michigan several hundred feet down and long abandoned they are still considered Navy property.

Posted by: Benjamin Johnson | April 18, 2012 10:27 AM    Report this comment

This would be the ultimate "find', I can already see the claims , of the current govt, etc, and would really love to see these reassembled, and flown again, the sound of those merlins, really get me going. Have any of you ever heard a Lancaster bomber fly by ? That was a sound I will never forget, I saw on from the RAF, in '57 in the west Indies, also about that time the only B36 I ever saw, over flew Kingston Jamaica,at low altitude.

Posted by: Leighton Samms | April 18, 2012 8:12 PM    Report this comment

Depends on the terrain where they were buried. If alongside a small hill one can just push the soil over onto one side of the hill with the Spits under it...or in a mineshaft. Supposedly many RR engines were buried under the ground upon which Toronto's Lester B. Pearson Airport now resides. They were buried beside the old Toronto flying club hangars. There was also the old story about a factory in which many Siemens Halske engines (think Bucker Jungmeister) engines were stored in Sweden. I do not think anything came out of that one. Nevertheless, for collectors, aficinados, and historians hope is eternal. Me too! Perhaps needed is a lot near Davis Monthan to which supposedly "beyond restoration" wreckage can be taken for future restoration when technology improves and also for the reference of replica builders. And why not? They are already building new "replica" engines in Australia!

Posted by: Charles Elliot | April 19, 2012 9:43 AM    Report this comment

My Dad spent about 3 years in the Pacific including the end of WW II. He told me that even before the war ended the army/navy would offload jeeps, 3/4 tons, artillery, fighter planes, etc. still new in the crates onto anything that would float and use them for gunnery practice. He said it had to do with not wanting a bunch of surplus equipment going back into the civilian economy and depressing demand for new equipment. No telling what just the new stuff that was destroyed would be worth now.

Posted by: Dale Rush | April 19, 2012 1:57 PM    Report this comment

"This will present special problems for anyone who wants to turn one into a civilian plane." "one that could land you in jail for a long time if you live where I do"

Really, is that all you got for the thread? I suspect there will be a whole raft of experts clamoring to assist in a task like this. This is easily a seven figure restoration. The mission will not be handed over to anyone with a checkbook. The Brits will do a good job making sure that the winning candidates have the tools to do the job right.

Fingers crossed that the planes are in good enough shape for a flying restoration. What a great potential documentary!

Posted by: Ray Damijonaitis | April 22, 2012 8:26 PM    Report this comment

Least this has a story at the end of the "rainbow". Its a shame what was wasted due to the lend lease programmes after the war, like the stories of complete aircraft dumped of the Western Australian coast out near Rottnest Island still in crates. Vehicles etc as well. Lets hope this all comes to fruition and the citizens of Burma may also benefit as well.

Posted by: Ryan O'Connell | April 24, 2012 10:44 AM    Report this comment

People did not "pickle" machinery for more than a few months. It was done for temporary storage and shipping. Imagine what a buried boxed lawn mower would look like after 60 years; the protection lasts a few months; corrosion gets 59+ years.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | May 1, 2012 12:09 AM    Report this comment

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