After 16 years of searching and lobbying by aviation enthusiast David Cundall, the Spitfires are close to being excavated.
Earlier this year, a partnership agreement was signed by the British and Burmese governments to dig up the historic aircraft.
Dr Adam Booth is a geophysicist from Imperial College London. He travelled to Burma with David Cundall in 2004 when he was a PhD student at Leeds University, to conduct a geophysical survey around the site. He will now be carrying out further geophysical surveys to confirm and update the data that was recorded back then.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speakers: Dr Adam Booth, Geophysicist, Imperial College London.
BOOTH: Well that's a bit of a difficult question to start with to be honest because there are so many stories that have come to light in the last few months since this project really broke that I'm not even sure what I believe anymore. But there's certainly a good chance that they're there given eye-witness records and the amount of data that David Cundall built up on the subject.
COCHRANE: Well what's the story that first sent David off into the jungles of Burma and on this quest to find the planes?
BOOTH: I think David Cundall is such an aviation enthusiast, he spends a lot of his time in air shows talking to veterans. And I think it was stories from veterans that really put him onto that trail in the first place, and so he went off doing desk studies, talking to other veterans, gaining documentary evidence, and eventually he was sufficiently convinced that yes, it does look like there was some aircraft delivered to the site that was subsequently buried and off he went pursuing his dream of recovering them.
COCHRANE: And from there a lot of work has gone into trying to find out exactly where these Spitfires are and whether they actually exist. Tell us a bit about your involvement and what you've helped do in terms of trying to prove where they are?
BOOTH: I was consulting on the project in a geo-physical perspective. So you can get all of the documentary evidence that you want, but the next step is then to go to the site and actually perform a survey and see what the geo-physical response is like. And so the technique I was using essentially a big metal detector, and so we went along to the site, we carried out some investigations and we did recover a large geo-physical response at the target area.
COCHRANE: And what makes you think that large geo-physical response might be planes and not just some sort of rock formation or naturally occurring phenomenon?
BOOTH: Well of course the geo-physical equipment doesn't have settings on it that says 'detect Spitfire' or detect various sorts of different planes and whatever, but it does give us the electrical conductivity of the ground. And at that site the electrical conductivity is very, very high, and that's more than might be expected to happen from any natural formation. And so we start to think that perhaps it is actually detecting metal, and when you add into the mix the theory that there are planes buried down there, so there's a large amount of metal in the ground, that story does kind of start to condense and come together as something coherent.
COCHRANE: What about beyond that? Have there been any other tests that might give any other evidence?
BOOTH: Yes towards the end our survey, there was a trial excavation done, so there was a mechanical digger that's dug down to the target depth. We all stood around this hole of gradually increasing size and you can hear the soil and the mud grinding away, but then suddenly there was a crunch and that sounded very wooden to us and when we looked down we saw that there was wood in the bottom of this hole and the significant thing about that is that these spitfires are supposed to be delivered in wooden delivery crates. And so you could almost start to believe that maybe the mechanical digger had gone through the top of the crate.
COCHRANE: And had it? Did you pull the top off the crate and have a look?
BOOTH: Well at that point because of the sensitivities of working with Burma and the Burmese regime there was then other deals and other contracts that had to be signed. I think at the time the deal between David Cundall and the Burmese was simply a trial to see if there is anything there, and then if it does prove to be anything there, other terms of the contract have to be negotiated.
COCHRANE: That must have been incredibly frustrating to think that you were maybe an inch or so, one layer of wood away from what you've been looking for and what David's been looking for, for all these years, and yet because of a contract and a sensitive political situation, you couldn't go that extra step?
BOOTH: Absolutely, it's frustrating to some extent, but it was also reassuring to actually see that there was something there, because the geo-physical data did appear reliable, that we went through a whole load of nothing essentially, and then hit a target. But then of course yet as you say to then have to wait for another eight years to get anything actually moving to the point where we can sign an excavation contract, is quite frustrating. But everything is looking up now.
COCHRANE: So tell us a bit more about what is happening now, what's the next step for the project?
BOOTH: There's still some contractual negotiations going on about exactly when we can go and survey. I think the latest that we heard that the survey's likely to happen early next year, but this is a highly fluid situation and what is at one time is not necessarily what happens, and we have to wait a few months. And it's always been a little bit like this with this project. But hopefully next year there will be some more geo-physical surveys done just to try and tie down exactly where this target is. And then hopefully there will be more trial investigations, including excavations with some professional archaeologists. I think again we'll take it from there depending on what we find.
COCHRANE: And if you do find the buried Spitfires, I mean what happens with them?
BOOTH: I think David Cundall's dream is certainly that if they are in a state of preservation that you will see original Spitfires flying again. But obviously that depends on the state of preservation. I think there's some negotiation with the Burmese about how many of these planes stay in Burma, how many of them are open to public access and the various interested parties all have to get around the table and negotiate it.
COCHRANE: The project has been going on for many years in Burma, and the country's really come back into the news with its quite dramatic reforms politically and opening up to the rest of the world. Has that helped move the project along that sense of reform and openness?
BOOTH: Absolutely, it would almost seem to me that this project had been forgotten about, but then only over the last few months when Burma has opened up and started to embrace global contact, it's really come to the fore again. And the amount of progress that's been made on the project just in the last few months is quite staggering. But certainly the project was shut down during the monks' protest some years ago, absolutely no negotiation was going on at that time. But yes now that it has started to open up it really has moved things forward.
COCHRANE: You mentioned at the outset that there are so many stories that you're not quite sure what to believe. What else is happening that sort of blurs the lines here?
BOOTH: There's certainly some ambiguities about why the planes were put in the ground in the first place, if indeed they were put in the ground there. Some theories suggest that they were maybe surplus to requirements, other theories suggest that the frontline was changing and so they were buried so they didn't fall into enemy hands. But then there's other evidence, some sceptics out there believe that they weren't shipped out there at all, that maybe they were re-excavated and sold on later. And so there are a whole lot of different stories, and I'm open to hear all of them. All I know from the geo-physical data is that it appears that there is a significant amount of metal in the ground. If that turns out to be planes that's absolutely great, but I can't tell quite what's down there until we actually excavate.