Failed Burma Spitfire search a 'scientific success' | Connect Asia

Failed Burma Spitfire search a 'scientific success'

Failed Burma Spitfire search a 'scientific success'

Updated 7 March 2013, 16:02 AEDT

It's a story that began decades ago: in the dying days of WWII, Britain's Royal Air Force buried scores of surplus to requirement Spitfires.

The legendary fighter planes were supposed to be still in their shipping crates, wrapped in grease.

Almost a decade ago, initial on-site exploratory work suggested there may be something to the story.

But Burma's pariah status meant any further investigation was stymied.

That situation changed rapidly with the country's opening up and it really took off when the project got significant financial backing from a wargaming company and political support from the British government keen to build ties with Naypyitaw.

Yet the dream of finding anything up to 124 original Spitfires in pristine condition has now been shattered and the search called off after the first dig at an airport near Rangoon found nothing.

Dr Adam Booth is a geophysicist from Imperial College London. He was on the original exploratory team back in 2004 and returned earlier this year to help with the search under expedition leader and aviation enthusiast David Cundall.

Presenter: Joanna McCarthy

Speaker: Dr Adam Booth, a geophysicist from Imperial College, London

BOOTH: Well David Cundall who's the leader of the group he asked me in 2004 to travel out to Burma with him to conduct some geophysical surveys to see if there was any chance that there was Spitfires buried at that site. Geophysical data showed some promising results, so earlier this year with a larger team, including myself, geophysicists from the University of Leeds and some conflict archaeologists, we travelled out to the site and tried to get to the bottom of the mystery.

MCCARTHY: And of course when we spoke to you last October you were always cautious about giving too much credence to this idea that the Spitfires were buried in Burma. It now seems that caution was well justified?

BOOTH: Yes I always stressed that the equipment wasn't a Spitfire detector and at best I could say there was some metallic components in the ground. And yes it does seem that whilst we would have liked for there to have been Spitfires there, it turned out that there weren't, and indeed it seems these were other sources of metal.

MCCARTHY: And indeed there are now some with of course the benefit of hindsight who were saying that this was always an implausible story, that these large crates could have been buried underground without the benefit of modern excavation equipment in post-war Burma. What were the theories about how it might have happened?

BOOTH: I think that's really one for the archaeologists. To be honest I don't think I can really answer that one.

MCCARTHY: Ok sure, now as you mentioned you travelled with the project leader David Cundall who spent 15 years searching for these Spitfires, quite a passion for him. How disappointed is he by the way things have turned out?

BOOTH: David's obviously disappointed that Spitfires weren't found at that site where he got so many eyewitness reports. But he's still confident that there must be some truth in this large volume of eyewitness data, and so he's still investigating sites in Burma. He's certainly an eternal optimist and I wish him every luck in that regard.

MCCARTHY: And from your own perspective despite not finding the Spitfires you're still quite pleased with the way this went from a scientific perspective, what can you tell us there?

BOOTH: Well yes absolutely and for me this project is such a good experience to be involved with and enjoyed every minute of it and it was a good scientific project. We set out to investigate the story to see if there were Spitfires buried at the site, and through geophysical analysis, through some documentary research performed by the archaeologists, we think that we've answered that question. It's obviously disappointing that there aren't any there, but from a scientific viewpoint it's been a very good and successful project.

MCCARTHY: And you say you've uncovered some nice conflict archaeology, what exactly is that?

BOOTH: Conflict archaeology, if you talk to the conflict archaeologists themselves they say it's the material traces of societies that are involved in conflict or preparing for conflict. What we found at the site was related to some of the eyewitness reports, particularly the story of Stanley Coome, one of the eyewitnesses who actually travelled out with us, he was a veteran who served at the site. He described this story how he was travelling through the site in the back of a truck on the road and he looked over to his left, saw some crates there. So we thought well if we can identify where this road is, which we identified to the left of the road and we can identify where maybe he saw these crates. So we successfully found the road and then either side of the road was trenches filled out with sandbags in, and for that really brought home the human element of this story, the fact that there was an actual conflict going on here.

MCCARTHY: And originally you did say there was a lot of metal in the ground where you surveyed. So you can now account for those readings?

BOOTH: Yes that's right, we weren't allowed to dig a lot of the extent we do normally, but certainly what we did recover was some amount of what we call pierced steel planking, which is essentially like a lot of flat metal lego bricks. And you stick them altogether when you need an emergency road to cover over a muddy site or something like that. So again the anomalies that were detected they directly relate to the conflict going on at the site.

MCCARTHY: So as you say David Cundall hasn't quite given up his passion for this project. Is it fair to say that there are still some diehards who'll continue this search?

BOOTH: Yes I think so, David really wants to find any material trace of these Spitfires that may be left in Burma. And I do think there's still interest from investors who want to go along with him and hopefully, we wish him every luck.

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