By Peter Schwartzstein
LONDON (Reuters) - A British farmer and flying enthusiast who has spent the past 16 years scouring the jungles of Myanmar believes he has finally found what he was searching for - a horde of buried Spitfire fighter planes dating back to World War Two.
Rumors of a huge treasure trove of buried aircraft in Myanmar have circulated for years but now geological surveys of one specific site have lent credibility to the idea and David Cundall plans to start digging as soon as possible.
"I've been digging up dumpsites and crashed military aircraft for 35 years, but this is something else," Cundall, 62, told reporters.
Why an estimated 36 planes - and possibly more - should have been buried in the tropics of southeast Asia, is a source of much speculation.
But what is known is that after four years of brutal battles against the occupying Japanese forces, the victorious British buried much of their inventory in 1945.
And at Mingaladon airfield, just outside the former capital city of Yangon, Cundall thinks he's found the exact location.
Cundall first caught wind of the tales of buried British airplanes in the late 1990s.
He spent two years grappling with visa restrictions, and after amassing eight matching eyewitness accounts of the exact location where U.S. and British servicemen had dug a massive trench, he devoted himself to the project.
Long encumbered by unhelpful local bureaucrats and beaten to the initial contract by an Israeli bid, a thaw in the West's relations with Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - facilitated the excavation process.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is believed to have discussed the recovery of the aircraft during a trade visit to Myanmar earlier this year.
In the event, with a 50 percent share in whatever is dug up, Myanmar's cooperation is not entirely altruistic.
There are only about 40 airworthy Spitfires left in the world, and with models in good condition commanding prices of several million pounds each, Cundall is potentially sitting on a fortune.
However, what condition the haul will be in after decades immersed in tropical soil remains to be seen.
"Unlike some aircraft which suffered terribly from the heat and humidity, Spitfires had a very good reputation for reliability," said John Delaney, collections manager at Britain's Imperial War Museum in Duxford, eastern England which has several vintage military aircraft.
"But what kind of condition they're in now depends on how well they were packed."
Cundall says he's unconcerned by their exact state.
"It's like opening a can of 67-year-old beans. It's not going to be at its best, but if you're hungry, you'll eat it."
Project archaeologists are at pains to point out that no physical evidence has been uncovered yet.
Neither is there any obvious reason why an air force should take the trouble to pack and bury a near-obsolete model of aircraft.
Even lead archaeologist Andy Brockman concedes it might all turn out to be an elaborate wild goose chase.
"It's a story that needs investigating," he said.
The monsoon season rains ended in late October, and after a two month hiatus to allow the water table to drop, Cundall and his team hope to start digging in earnest in early January.
(Reporting by Peter Schwartzstein, editing by Paul Casciato)