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

A massive B-29 Superfortress airplane flew a top-secret mission over Lake Mead in July of 1948. It was supposed to test a new missile guidance system. Instead, the pilots judged the altitude incorrectly, and the plane crashed into the waters of Lake Mead. The crew all survived, but the plane sank to the bottom of the lake.

Almost 70 years later, the plane wreck site has been discovered. As the historic drought in the Colorado River Basin has reduced the water level in Lake Mead to such an extent that diving down to the wreck site is relatively easy.

Joel Silverstein runs Tech Diving Limited. They have exclusive rights to dive at the site of the bomber. He remembers five years ago, when the water in the lake was much deeper. “This particular boat launch ramp didn’t exist,” he said. “It used to start all the way about a mile and a quarter up the hill.”
Islands and other geographical features that haven’t been exposed since the lake was filled are beginning to come into view. The marina, now abandoned, sits in a dry gully.

Steven Brown came to dive the wreck. He lived in the area during the 80s and seeing the level of the lake now scares him. “Seeing this lake as a child in the ’80s and now seeing it, it just makes my jaw drop.”

There is a silver lining to the drought, though. The plane originally crashed in 260 feet of water. According to Silverstein, that’s very deep for scuba diving.

Now the water at the site is less than 130 feet deep. That means more light and less training is needed for divers to reach the wreck.

Silverstein has been on dives at wreck sites around the world and feels that the B-29 is a unique experience. For one thing, the cool freshwater has kept the plane in remarkable shape.

“That plane has never seen air since 1948. Everything in there, every control that’s inside it, is in its original position,” Silverstein said.

The dive crew puts on their insulated wetsuits and their tanks of nitrox. When they are done, they look more like astronauts than scuba diving. But perhaps that isn’t out of place in the alien landscape Lake Mead is slowly turning into.

When the B-29 was developed during WWII, it was a major technological advancement in aviation. It was originally used for bombing runs in the Pacific and eventually used for the atomic bomb attacks.

Marketing material from WWII describes 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.”

There is only one B-29 operational today. Since the wrecked plane was discovered in the early 2000s, the National Park Service and only around 60 other people have dived the bomber. There are no plans currently to retrieve the plane from the water.

Silverstein finds something new every time he dives the bomber. This time, though, he does not find an artefact.

“We hit a maximum depth on it today of about 102 feet,” he said. “Last time we were on it, we had a maximum depth of about 108 feet. So we’re seeing more water drying up here in Lake Mead than ever before.”

While everyone is hoping for a reversal of the drought trend, it currently provides an opportunity to view a unique piece of history that few have seen like this.

Image@Mel Clark

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE