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Spitfires unearthed in Burma
May 22, 2012 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Once more into the breach! Shades of Neal Stephenson: a squadron of RAF Spifires has been unearthed in Burma and is on its way back to Old Blighty. One hopes they can be properly restored so the populace can witness the aircraft that saved England's bacon. At the very least, perhaps they'll appear in a Dr Who episode.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (67 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
if decades of reading SF and fantasy paper backs have taught me anything, it's that those planes are haunted.
posted by The Whelk at 2:08 PM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Doctor Who. DOCTOR.

Buuuuuuuuurn.
posted by m@f at 2:09 PM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


That is to say Spitfires in space were pretty cool.
posted by m@f at 2:11 PM on May 22, 2012


DOCTOR

You are so right. Forgive this Yank (who should have known better).
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:15 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this is cool, and I think Spitfires are cool (although the Hurricane deserves equal billing), but the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:20 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.

That, and the radar thing.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:22 PM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is amazing. Can't imagine what 20 Spitfires in good condition are worth, 20 million or more? The Burmese govt should have held them like the Elgin Marbles (just kidding). Or the Rosetta Stone (just kidding). Or the.. *sigh*
posted by stbalbach at 2:22 PM on May 22, 2012


the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.

I'm not sure a sea invasion would have been a picnic either; the Germans didn't have the marine transport capacity of the Allies.
posted by jaduncan at 2:24 PM on May 22, 2012


By bombing the forward air fields, the Germans were within a couple of weeks of destroying Britain's air force. Radar does do any good if you don't have any interceptors or pilots to fly them.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:33 PM on May 22, 2012


My father spent the war in Burma, maintaining a critical allied oil pipeline that traversed it.

The Germans just kept bombing it, and the Allies just kept fixing it. I wonder if these planes had anything to do with averting those bombings. I kind of doubt it, because the Petroleum Engineers squad were doing a pretty good job with the constant and ongoing repairs.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:41 PM on May 22, 2012


I wonder if these planes had anything to do with averting those bombings.

No, these planes were sent to Burma in the last months of the war, and have never seen service.
posted by pompomtom at 2:45 PM on May 22, 2012


I wonder how easy/difficult flying one could be; after all, if my memory serves, lotsa youngsters were trained in a rush and thrown on them in a short time.
posted by elpapacito at 2:46 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I get that pompomtom, Jeeps, motorcycles, and all other sorts of material where sent packed in barrels of grease. These should be pristine. But what were they sent there for to begin with?
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:47 PM on May 22, 2012


So, I'm walking down the road one day, maybe 5 or more years ago, I don't rightly remember the exact year. My hometown gets an awful lot of overflights from fighter planes, both RAF and USAF, as they fly up and down the coast in training. Maybe less nowadays than before, but they're about. There's also a few small civilian airfields here and there, meaning that I'm used to all sorts of planes flying fairly low.

But on this day I heard a weirdly heavy rumble unlike I had heard before. It seemed to come from behind and to the left of me, and as I turned around to look I saw a small dark plane chugging through the sky at a fairly low speed. It was so low to the ground that I could see that the cockpit was oddly square. I didn't know what kind of plane it was at the time, but it definitely looked WWII vintage. The plane seemed to labor in its flight, but eventually it went behind a tree and I could see it no more. The sound of its engine lessened, as I stood there thinking myself lucky to have seen such a thing in flight.

However, as soon as the sound of the first engine went away, another, seemingly louder engine sound began to come from the same heading as the first had. I could see nothing to begin with, but the sound kept on growing, til I was sure it was almost upon me. Then, from behind a tree a goddamned Spitfire darted out and powered across the sky. It seemed so much more vigorous than the first plane, as though it was really being pushed. It soon made the distance and disappeared behind the same tree as the Messerschmitt.

I stood there absolutely floored at having seen such a thing. Amazing. I guess they must have been in transport from one show to another, and by pure chance I saw them seemingly playing chase. I went home and told everybody I saw about it, and they were all impressed. Who else can say they've seen two old planes just on the off chance? Later I told an older relative, who identified the first plane as probably a Messerschmitt. Even better, a German plane being chased by a Spitfire! But then gave me the terrible news: from my description it was likely that the second plane was not a Spitfire, but a boring old Hurricane. Boo.
posted by Jehan at 2:51 PM on May 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.

That, and the radar thing. And the superior intelligence services, code crackers and our commonwealth. And our great British resolve ;-)
posted by 13twelve at 2:51 PM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sending off older-model planes to subsidiary fronts to maximize their utility?

(allow me to join those saying any potential Sealion in the second half of 1940 would have been a stinging rebuke at best and probably an outright failure, regardless of the state of the RAF)
posted by Earthtopus at 2:52 PM on May 22, 2012


"My dream is to have a flying squadron at air shows." I'd pay to see that. I'd pay quite a bit, in fact.
posted by dfm500 at 2:52 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


And our great British resolve ;-)
I'm sure everybody would have kept calm and car...oh, nevermind.
posted by Jehan at 2:53 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


but the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.

Please define "bacon". One of my least-favorite Internet things is the knee-jerk contrariness displayed as superior knowledge, especially about WWII.
posted by yerfatma at 3:14 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.

That, and the radar thing.


Let's not forget 26 million dead Russians.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:16 PM on May 22, 2012 [13 favorites]


Man, the Spitfire was my favourite plane as a kid and probably the reason I got into flying in the first place. I just never felt the same sort of *awesome* about the Hurricane, though it deserves at least as much respect.
posted by mbatch at 3:29 PM on May 22, 2012


if decades of reading SF and fantasy paper backs have taught me anything, it's that those planes are haunted.

Whelk, William Gibson nailed this (or something like it) years ago in "Pattern Recognition":

"[W]e got that Stuka completely dug out. Did I tell you? It’s a whole plane, and for some fucking reason it wound up four feet under the muck […] No idea it would be a Stuka; blew me away; it’s just this most Nazi-looking aircraft, amazing. Dive-bomber, they used them on the Spanish, Guernica and that. Absolutely iconic. So there it is, finally, today, and it’s sitting there, all caked in the gray stuff, like an airplane done up as New Guinea Mud Man, at the bottom of this great fucking hole they’d dug."
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:32 PM on May 22, 2012


Jehan: My father likes to talk about the time he saw pretty much the same thing (a Messerschmitt chased by a Spitfire) over the skies of Edinburgh on his way to school in '43 or '44.
posted by rocket88 at 3:37 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read Cryptonomicon, but my memory must be failing. Remind me: how is the related to N.S.?
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:38 PM on May 22, 2012


Metafilter, I am disappoint. 24 comments and no:

UNto the breach!
posted by Trochanter at 3:47 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, this is incredible. There is no way to use modern technology to create a 67 year old Spitfire. No matter how much effort you put into it, no matter how detailed, it's just not the same. But then a squadron of them turns up, buried and still in their shipping crates. This is like ripping open the fabric of time and smiting Chronos with a big negentropy sword.

The last time I heard anything this cool was a few years back, when a family tore down their father's old grocery store after he died. They knocked open a secret room that nobody knew about, it was created when the store was built in 1968. Dad had bricked up a 1968 Cuda Hemi Convertible with 20 miles on the odometer. It sold for $950k at auction.

But sometimes that doesn't work out so well.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:50 PM on May 22, 2012


the only thing that saved Britain's bacon was the decision by the Germans to start targeting cities instead of airfields.

That, and the radar thing.


And Steve Rogers, obviously.
posted by elizardbits at 4:47 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


With all due respect to Spitfires, I think the single best thing about this is that the farmer in question comes from a place called Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire.
posted by bicyclefish at 5:37 PM on May 22, 2012


Only slightly connected, my great uncle was a navigator for the RAF in WWII. I asked him if the whole "eating carrots makes your eyesight better" was a smokescreen for RADAR. He said he didn't think so. He did tell me that in the winter, nobody wanted to get out of bed to turn off the light, so they got into the habit of shooting it out. At least until they had a complaint about the number of light bulbs they were going through. That and the holes in the roof.
posted by plinth at 5:50 PM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Spitfires over the Kuban - yes, the Soviet Air Force flew them too.
posted by unliteral at 6:04 PM on May 22, 2012


That would be great if they could get all those planes working again because squadrons of Spitfires are awesome.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:10 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Perhaps now, at last, we shall see what Leigh-Mallory's 'Big Wings' are made of.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:12 PM on May 22, 2012


I would just like to say that the study of the Second World War is a complicated thing and that simple one-liner summations to any issue or campaign are almost always wrong, or at least terribly myopic.

Also that I'm pretty excited to see exactly which models were saved, since I gather some of them might be quite rare (there was no single major Spitfire model, any more than there has been one major Ford Thunderbird model - in both cases you have several major releases with large production numbers, along with smaller-run, now-rare models).
posted by Palindromedary at 6:16 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are plenty of examples of Spitfires in museums so that anybody can "witness the aircraft that saved England's bacon", and it's only conjecture and perhaps wishful thinking that these planes even exist, let alone be in a state to be restored to a "flying squadron."
So much else in this article that's just seems to have a pretty loose, probably hastily wiki-researched connection to fact. The RAF was concerned in 1945 about a Japanese occupation of Burma? "The emergence of more agile jets [which the RAF wasn't using until well after the war ended] meant they were never used? More likely - if they are there at all - it was just because it was cheaper to leave them behind than ship them back to the UK.
posted by Flashman at 6:37 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Other stories indicate that these are expected to be Mark XIV, which would have had Rolls-Royce Griffon engines rather than Merlins. So they'd be powerful later examples, which is all to the good. From what I can read it does mean they're pretty likely to have the clipped wing shape, which is in some ways a pity as it's much less iconic looking.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:39 PM on May 22, 2012


UNto the breach!

Again, forgive the Yank. I should have looked that up (the back of my mind was saying "unto").

My only experience with Spits is playing Air Warrior on Genie (with a 2400 baud modem). It was a multi-player air combat game that prided itself on being as correct as possible with the physics of each type of aircraft. Spitfires were a joy to fly. The only plane that could out-turn it was the Zero, but the Spit's cannon made short work of them (the Zero sacrificed armor for maneuverability).

(Actually, the best plane for turning was the Focke-Wulf, because of a bug in the game: one could put a FW into a spin and then slap the joystick to stop it dead, with guns on the opponent. It was derisively referred to as "spinfighting.")

Good times...
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:48 PM on May 22, 2012


There are plenty of examples of Spitfires in museums so that anybody can "witness the aircraft that saved England's bacon"

Seriously? Seeing a plane in a museum is just as good as experiencing it in the air, blasting past the stand in a roar of engine and wind?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:53 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Followup: Cundall pressured to give up his claim on the Spitfires by a UK property developer.

Note, by the way, that the OP link is from April 18. This one's from 10 days later. Looking now to see if there are any more recent development.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:01 PM on May 22, 2012


(developments, dammit.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:02 PM on May 22, 2012


“They were just buried there in transport crates,” Mr Cundall said. “They were waxed, wrapped in greased paper and their joints tarred. They will be in near perfect condition.”

It is nice to think so, but seems unlikely.

And Flashman has it right--the article is crap and these planes may not even exist.
posted by LarryC at 7:02 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Battle of Britain is about to begin...
posted by ovvl at 7:36 PM on May 22, 2012


The Spitfire is, I reckon, about the most beautiful machine mankind has ever produced. The lovely, graceful, elegant shape, the wonderful noise, the singularity in purpose. I grew up with my father describing them as he remembered them as a boy in Yorkshire during the war. If they are graceful and elegant now, they were all that and also the most technologically advanced thing in existence, too.

Whether or not they were actually the saviour of Britain, they were absolutely that symbol. In my father's reverence for them and for what the Battle of Britain represented to young boys in Britain at the time, it's probably the closest thing to a religion that I can understand.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:41 PM on May 22, 2012


P-51's and B-17's were buzzing around Orange County a couple of weeks ago. It was like going back in time. Only $2,200 for a half hour to fly in the P-51. I can't imagine seeing a squadron of them. The noise and the speed must have been spectacular.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:22 PM on May 22, 2012


great story, I only like this just a little bit better...
posted by wallstreet1929 at 9:27 PM on May 22, 2012


My father spent the war in Burma, maintaining a critical allied oil pipeline that traversed it.

The Germans just kept bombing it, and the Allies just kept fixing it.
Just after the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour?

I see that the Torygraph finally realised Spitfires aren't jets, as was claimed in the first draft of that story.

If there really are Spitfires buried somewhere in Burma, I wouldn't be too hopeful these could be restored to flying condition any time soon.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:47 PM on May 22, 2012


I stood there absolutely floored at having seen such a thing. Amazing. I guess they must have been in transport from one show to another, and by pure chance I saw them seemingly playing chase. I went home and told everybody I saw about it, and they were all impressed.

In the summer of 1966, just after my junior year in high school, I lived in Salina, Kansas. One afternoon, I was at my uncle Tommy's house when we heard this loud loud mix of jet and propellers and looked up to see 4 planes flying in a diamond formation: a ten engined -- six props and four jets-- B-36D, a B-52, a B-47 and a B-29. Or B-50, in the case of the last, since I wouldn't know the difference at a distance.

That B-36 was huge. It made the other planes look like fighter escorts. I was big on fighters and bombers when I was really little and can remember seeing the first three planes at different times when I was really young but to see these four fly over about a thousand feet off the ground, so loud that you couldn't hear anything else when they passed over, man, that was something. My uncle and I were just speechless. And when it was got quiet again, my uncle just said God damn! That about said it all.
posted by y2karl at 11:06 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Air Warrior on Genie (with a 2400 baud modem)

OMG I had totally forgotten about that game. You lucky bastard, I only had a 1200 baud modem.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:08 PM on May 22, 2012


That said, we have a B-17 visiting Boeing Field for Memorial day weekend and it's going to be taking folks for a ride for abotu $900 a pop. I am going to keep an eye out for it. I have seen one fly over Seattle every couple of summers of late and saw a Lancaster do so two summers ago.
posted by y2karl at 11:10 PM on May 22, 2012


My father likes to talk about the time he saw pretty much the same thing (a Messerschmitt chased by a Spitfire) over the skies of Edinburgh on his way to school in '43 or '44.

A Messerschmidt over Edinburgh? That sounds pretty unlikely, unless it was the twin-engined 110, and those would have been very unlikely to venture over Britain so late in the war. The Messerschmidt 109 was a surprisingly tiny aircraft, and notoriously short-legged as a result. Even flying from Calais, its range was just about enough for a few minutes of flight over Southeast England before having to turn back. What your father saw was most probably a Junkers Ju-88.
posted by Skeptic at 11:11 PM on May 22, 2012


I am guessing that when I saw the four bombers, that they were on their way to an air show. I don't think B-36's were in service by then, and certainly, neither were B-50s.
posted by y2karl at 11:13 PM on May 22, 2012


What you saw was what I saw; it's basically a tour that's heading up the coast right now. I will try to find the link when I'm back at my computer.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:18 PM on May 22, 2012


That B-36 was huge. It made the other planes look like fighter escorts.

After checking up on the history of the B-36, I see that it couldn't have been 1966. The last flight of a B-36 took place in 1959, when I was still in grade school. So, either I saw the four planes during an earlier summer visit to Salina or my memory is a xerox of xerox of a xerox that bears no resemblance to what I saw. I know I once saw four bombers flying in diamond formation over Salina, Kansas. But what they were, now I wonder. Memory is such a tricky thing.
posted by y2karl at 11:47 PM on May 22, 2012


This could be a fantastic find and weirder things have happened. I admire the lengths people go to recover these old vehicles.

Some of my favourite finds:

The 'Santa Fe' wreak

Stug III bog find and video

Captured T-34 lake find

U-534

Plan to raise a 'complete' D-17. If you want to help with this here's the donation page.
posted by gwildar at 1:15 AM on May 23, 2012


With all due respect to Spitfires, I think the single best thing about this is that the farmer in question comes from a place called Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire.

Old (British) football puzzle:
Q: Name three teams with a swearword buried in their name
A: Arsenal, Scunthorpe, and Manchester Fucking United

posted by metaBugs at 1:24 AM on May 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


A few years ago I lived right under the flight path to Filton airport in Bristol. It's the base of BAE and also Airbus in the UK, and seems to act as a staging point for aircraft flying to Yeovilton for the airshow.

As I was doing the washing up, there was a huge roar. I ran outside just in time to see the battle of britain memorial flight do a flypast. A Lancaster and four spitfires at 500 ft is quite incredible to see. Unfortunately I missed the heyday of stupidly expensive cold war aviation. Watching V bombers and the huge riffraff of aircraft the RAF used to fly landing and taking off must have been incredible. In these days of turbofans, you forget just how *loud* early jets are.

I'm sure most people would hate to live under the flight path of loud military aircraft, but I'd love it!
posted by leo_r at 2:27 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


One memory for which I can safely vouch: Salina, KS used to have an airbase with a B-47 wing stationed at it during the Eisenhower administration. They would often test engines in the wee hours, like at 3 AM, back when it was operational. It wasn't so much like living under a flight path -- more like living under a bomber.

I remember my aunt and uncle talking to my mom about what they would do if World War III started: just sit there and hold hands. Pretty grim stuff for a kid to hear.
posted by y2karl at 3:26 AM on May 23, 2012


One of my least-favorite Internet things is the knee-jerk contrariness displayed as superior knowledge

Do you have a citation for that?
posted by thelonius at 4:17 AM on May 23, 2012


Often those B-17s which tour the country offering rides, will also allow just a simple tour of the plane. When Aluminum Overcast visited a local airfield, I paid $5 for the chance to climb up in the craft and walk its length to exit by the rear guns. Biggest impression was how narrow and cramped the bomber was on the inside, something definitely not conveyed in a movie like Memphis Belle. When it arrived it flew a circuit over the state capitol (across the street from where I work), its loud roaring engines the first thing I noticed as I sat at my desk. I leapt to the window and was allowed the opportunity to watch her gracefully circle in the sky before disappearing.

Now I just need to hunt down a Cleveland class light cruiser so I can walk a ship similar to the one my grandfather served upon!

I will place my hope in the good condition of the spitfires. To have something precious to history in such great shape would be marvelous.
posted by Atreides at 6:54 AM on May 23, 2012


Now I just need to hunt down a Cleveland class light cruiser

Wikipedia says that Little Rock, a museum ship here in Buffamalo, is the only one left. Extensively modified to serve as a guided missile cruiser, though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:35 AM on May 23, 2012


That's a lot of effort to dispose of a bunch of old airplanes. Curious to know exactly when and exactly by whom and to what purpose the decision to bury the things was made. Also where exactly they were buried and to what use the airfield was put in the after war years. Also what other stuff might be buried out there. (Or possibly tossed in the ocean?)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:48 AM on May 23, 2012


That's what I thought.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:33 AM on May 23, 2012


The fact that the guy was from Scunthorpe is probably relevant. Sometimes in Lincolnshire you get the feeling that most of the county was an airfield in WW2, and bits of the airfield infrastructure have become tatty farm outbuildings.

I'm hoping that this is doable - the Battle of Britain Flight is a sight to behold, and just the rumble of those engines does something special to me. The idea of getting 20 Spits flying is amazing (though I'm probably odd in that I'd be even happier with a bunch of Wellingtons or Lancasters). But I must admit to being a little doubtful - I'll believe they're in good enough nick to get flying again when they're dug up and assessed.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:45 AM on May 23, 2012


Wikipedia says that Little Rock, a museum ship here in Buffamalo, is the only one left. Extensively modified to serve as a guided missile cruiser, though.

Thanks for the tip. For some reason I thought there was one moored somewhere in North Carolina. Hopefully there'll be one of those fantastic tour guides who can tell me exactly how things changed from when she was launched to the present day. I'll tell my father, as he's been to Buffalo a lot lately.
posted by Atreides at 9:04 AM on May 23, 2012


We've been watching this play out on a WWII mailing list I am on. Apparently the guy's financing fell through, but he claims to have a lock on dealings within Burma. Aaaaand then a few days later the U.S. announces that it's cool to do business in Burma again. D'oh!

I asked whether it would even be possible to find people who could work on these aircraft, and I was assured that yes, indeed, there are folks who can apply general mechanical skills as well as Spitfire-specific knowledge to getting them unearthed, degreased, and possibly even in the air. The odds are better when you can count on cannibalizing a few planes to get their others finished.

Also, there was a collective squeee! among our listmembers over the prospect of seeing & hearing a bunch of these things flying overhead. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:33 AM on May 23, 2012


With all due respect to Spitfires, I think the single best thing about this is that the farmer in question comes from a place called Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire.

I've had the word "Scunthorpe" stuck in my head all day, ever since I read the article, but could not remember why. Now I know and it will probably be stuck in my head again today.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:02 AM on May 23, 2012


Recently got a chance to tour 'Aluminum Overcast' myself: I was struck, too, by the narrow confines; and also just how many of the interior fixtures (ammunition boxes, small tables, even some flooring in the nose) were made of wood.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 7:26 PM on May 23, 2012


And I got to see it Sunday morning, flying over Harbor Island on its way back to Boeing Field, no doubt carrying some passengers who ponied up the $900 each for a flight over Seattle.
posted by y2karl at 12:21 PM on May 29, 2012


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