Sponsor out; WWII Spitfire mission goes on

KYAN KHINN SU, Myanmar — No matter what anyone else says, antique-aircraft buff David Cundall remains adamant about finding valuable World War II Spitfires buried somewhere in Myanmar.

The English farmer and aviation fan, 63, said in Yangon recently that he would continue his search even though his main sponsor had backed out.

Cundall has already led a 21-member team digging and surveying for several weeks this year near Yangon’s international airport in Mingaladon, convinced that dozens of the planes were buried unassembled in wooden crates at the end of the war in 1945. He maintains that more than 100 Spitfires — famously used against Nazi bombers during the 1940 Battle of Britain — sit some 25 to 40 feet underground, their fuselages wrapped in brown grease paper, their joints covered in tar to protect against water damage.

He says he knows their rough location based on survey data, aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar and the recollections of military veterans. But extensive searching has turned up nothing.

Setbacks have not stopped Cundall. When his main sponsor, Belarusian video gaming company Wargaming.net, pulled its $500,000 worth of support in February, the company said it thought the planes didn’t exist, that accounts of the burial were a myth, and that it was “almost impossible” that the crates were buried given bad weather and equipment shortages at the time.

“Reality check time,” Martin Perry wrote on the Facebook page Burma Spitfires. “A wild goose chase of mythical proportions,” wrote Derek Tonkin, chairman of the nonprofit forum Network Myanmar and former British ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, in a Myanmar Times article.

Cundall, meanwhile, has pledged to press on, saying: “There is no shortage of money. I’m still confident to find Spitfires.”

He’s reportedly made at least 12 trips to Myanmar, also known as Burma, spending $200,000 of his own money and lobbying the long-secretive government over the last 17 years. His quixotic quest gained some credibility last year when British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the idea with Myanmar President Thein Sein.

Under an agreement reached in October, Myanmar’s government would get 50 percent of the value of any find, local Burmese agents 20 percent and Cundall’s group 30 percent. Each Spitfire could be worth more than $2 million, based on the 2009 auction of a refurbished one that sold for $2.5 million.

The project had generated excitement, with Wargaming.net, creator of such titles as “World of Warplanes,” pledging to provide even more than the initial $500,000 if any Spitfires were found. The publicity, an interest in military history and the chance of turning the search into a video game drove the decision, company head Victor Kislyi said, and any actual discovery would be considered a bonus.

“There aren’t too many adventures like this on this planet,” Kislyi had said.

But like many treasure hunts, this one has had its share of doubt, distrust, intrigue and accusations of wrongdoing.

There are no known records of large Spitfire shipments to Myanmar in 1945, let alone burials.

Keith Win, founder of the Myanmar Britain Business Association, who worked with Cundall from 1997 to 2010 to identify likely burial spots, also has become convinced that there are no crates to be found.

“He certainly has egg on his face,” Win said of Cundall.

During the last decade, the supposed number of buried Spitfires cited by Cundall has risen from a dozen to 60 to 124, while his Burmese partner Soe Thien has said there could be 140 — a figure some experts say raises red flags.

“When someone says there’s 15, then 30, then 60 planes, it looks like a case of a fish that keeps getting bigger,” said Ric Gillespie, executive director of a Delaware-based nonprofit group that excavates historic aircraft. “I hope they’re right. But this smells.”

Gillespie, who’s searched 25 years for the wreckage of aviator Amelia Earhart’s plane, which disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific, said transparency is essential in high-risk search projects. Cundall’s quest has been characterized more by excuses, share sales and claims than by evidence, he said.

Gillespie said his group had used ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors as well, and while Pacific island and Burmese soil differ, scans are often inconclusive and frustrating. Cundall raises doubts because he has often presented his findings with great certainty, Gillespie said.

Nevertheless, military veterans such as Cundall team member and ex-British soldier Stanley Coombe, 91, deployed in Myanmar at World War II’s end, have said they saw large crates being buried near the Mingaladon airfield.

About 20,000 Spitfires were built, but the propeller-driven aircraft became obsolete with the advent of jets.

For the time being, the Cundall project continues to involve a large dose of wait-and-see for everyone, including villagers who have witnessed the activity near the Yangon airport.

“I hear there are two planes behind the taxi stand,” said Soe Kyaw, a motorbike taxi driver.

“I hear they’re near the police station,” countered shop owner Min Htet San.

Aung Myo Zaw, a peddler, chimed in too, but without a guess regarding the whereabouts of any decades-old aircraft.

“I’m amazed that foreigners are so interested in this old stuff,” he said. “Why are they running around looking for things in the dirt?”

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