Drought sheds new light on the B-29 wreckage in Lake Mead

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Lake Mead has been hitting records lows throughout the year, raising the specter of water cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada in the near future.The upshot for these scuba divers: the underwater wreckage is easier to explore, as Silverstein explained on the boat ride out. “On its crash, it sank in approximately 260 feet of water and that’s exceptionally deep for scuba diving,” Brown said.

Now it’s less than 130 feet down, meaning more light and divers need less training. Silverstein has gone wreck diving all over the world and said the B-29 stands out. For one, the cool freshwater has kept the plane in remarkably good condition. “That plane has never seen air since 1948. Everything in there, every control that’s inside it, is in its original position,” Silverstein said.

Soon, the crew is wriggling into heavy insulated wetsuits, fastening straps and straddling tanks of nitrox. By the end they look like astronauts, not out of place in the moonscape of Lake Mead.John Fuller is the boat’s captain and one of the tour guides. Bobbing in the water, he gave Steve Brown a “dry run” before the descent.

“Then we’ll go around to the second place where the engine used to be,” Fuller said. “And look at the gigantic hole with all the pipes and tubes and wires and all the stuff. You’re thinking, ‘man, who designed something like that?’” At the time of its inception during World War II, the B-29 was a major leap forward for American military aviation. It could carry out bombing campaigns in the Pacific and was eventually entrusted with nuclear weapons.

B29 bomber lake mead

An old military training video from the time described it as, “The plane you’ve been waiting for and it was worth waiting for. It’s the biggest, fastest, mightiest heavy bomber in the world.” Only one operational B-29 remains in the world today. From video below, you can make out the propellers lodged into the silty bottom, the cracked fuselage caked in mussels and the cockpit with the remains of a parachute, aglow in green murky light.

Eventually, the divers resurfaced, Adam Christopher among them. “We came upon the tail and then went around the port side, around the wing to the only remaining propeller, which is also quite large, but it’s bent as though it hit the water,” explained Christopher, still out of breath from the ascent.

Since the plane was discovered in the early 2000s, the National Park Service and only about 60 people have dived the bomber, said Silverstein. There aren’t plans to pull it out of the water anytime soon, either. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the B-29 was one of the last built and was delivered to the U.S. Army eleven days after the end of World War II.

Stripped of armaments, it became a post-war reconnaissance plane used in an upper atmospheric research program based at Muroc Army Airfield in California. “Part of this research was focused on the development of a device that used the sun as a point of reference to guide missiles as they arched from the United States towards the Soviet Union,” NOAA said. On July 21, 1948, the plane was being flown on a mission to test a secret missile guidance system. While descending over the smooth-as-glass lake, the pilot lost depth perception and flew the bomber into the water at 230 mph. It skipped once, settled onto the surface and sank. All five crew members survived, but the bomber was lost until August 2001, when a team of local divers discovered it sitting upright and mostly intact on the lake bottom.

Image@Mel Clark

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