A British team preparing to dig for a rumoured hoard of World War II Spitfire planes in Myanmar said Wednesday it would be one of the most fascinating discoveries in aviation archaeology if they were found.
The team believe there could be 36 of the iconic single-seat British fighter aircraft buried in sealed crates up to 10 metres (33 feet) beneath Yangon International Airport, a wartime airfield, with more at two other sites in Myanmar.
Britain, the former colonial power in what was then Burma, is thought to have buried the brand new planes in 1945 as they were surplus by the time they arrived by sea.
The dig, set to start in early January, has excited military history and aviation enthusiasts around the world.
There are thought to be fewer than 50 airworthy Spitfires left in the world and the digs could potentially double their number if they remain in pristine condition.
"Eyewitnesses talk about 36 being buried in this particular spot, though we do have evidence that there might be more," project leader David Cundall told a briefing at the Imperial War Museum in London.
"They are buried at eight to 10 metres. There's no oxygen down there so we don't think they've corroded.
"It's like opening a can of beans at 67 years old: it's not going to be at its best but if you're hungry, you're going to eat it."
The leaders of the expedition admit that the entire project could end up being a wild goose chase, with no physical evidence that the rare Mark XIV Spitfires exist.
Cundall, a farmer and aircraft enthusiast, has been on the chase for the rumoured lost Spitfires for 16 years.
He first heard of the story from another aircraft recoverer and gathered eight eyewitnesses, including US servicemen who dug the holes and Myanmar locals who shifted teak timber to seal the crates in.
"They all pointed to the same spot", and the same shape of hole, he said.
In a preliminary exploration, a borehole was dug which penetrated a crate and a shape that could be an aeroplane was identified.
Experts determined that there was certainly something metallic at the site and that what is under the surface is not a natural feature.
"We really need to dig it and see what's down there," Cundall said.
Belarus-based strategy game developer Wargaming.net is underwriting the project, estimated at £1 million ($1.6 million, 1.2 million euros) at present.
Cundall's share of any planes found will be 30 percent, his agents will have 20 percent, while the Myanmar government will keep 50 percent, according to agreements they have signed.
The planes' value is not known but the participants insisted they are not motivated by money.
All Cundall's planes will be coming back to Britain and will hopefully be restored to full working order within three years. He said his understanding was that Myanmar's Spitfires will be put up for sale.
Lead archeologist Andy Brockman said it could be "one of the most facinating discoveries in aviation archeology", while it would help fill in the picture about the war in southeast Asia and the commitment Britain was prepared to make.