VIDEO VAULT | How divers found a B-29 Superfortress in Lake Mead

B29 Cockpit.jpg

Seventy years ago this Saturday, a B-29 Superfortress crashed into Lake Mead and settled on the bottom, 300 feet below the surface — the lake level was much higher then.

A search team finally found the wreckage in 2001, with the exact location a closely guarded secret.

The National Park Service is holding a commemorative event on Saturday, with a panel of experts discussing this very rare, World War II-era bomber.

“The aircraft itself its gigantic,” Neptune Divers owner Steve Castle told News 3 in September of 2012. “For its day, it was the most complex airplane ever built. And one story goes Boeing didn't even want to produce it because it was so complex.”

Around 4,000 B-29s were built. Most of the war survivors were mothballed. Others, stripped of their weapons, were re-purposed for classified research, like the one flying above Lake Mead on July 21, 1948.

“Out doing atmospheric testing related to a device called the sun tracker,” explained National Park Service Archeologist Steve Daron. “Which was kind of the predecessor to guided missile technology.”

The B-29 made a high-level run and then a low-level run -- apparently too low.

“They actually hit the surface of the lake and bounced and then came to rest,” said Daron.

The accident probably wouldn't have happened on a windy day. The whitecaps would be a visual cue that the plane was approaching the water. But on that summer day in 1948, the surface of Lake Mead was smooth as glass.

“And you lose sight of your horizon because of the reflection,” said Castle. “The mountains and the horizon become one and the same.”

Three of the four engines ripped away. Water started flooding in.

“Because of pressure, it rised in back, they went out through the back hatch,” described Castle. “As it sank over a period of time, they got in the life rafts. I understand one guy was trapped. They got him out quickly.”

As the headlines faded, interest waned for most. The exception was the diving community. It was a coveted prize sought by many who knew the general area of the accident. When the B-29 was finally discovered in 2001, the feds quickly moved in.

“They then contacted our association and asked if we'd like to send some people to do an exploratory dive with their Submerged Cultural Resources team. And we jumped at the opportunity.”

By that time, even with lake levels dropping, the bomber was still more than 200 feet down, well past recreational limits. Visibility was near zero, but the team took a cue from Hollywood.

“They had established a lighting system,” says Castle. “The same system I understand they used in the movie 'The Abyss.' Halfway through the dive, they turned the lights on. All of a sudden it became much clearer. We had beautiful lighting. because they had a million watts of power coming down from the top.”

For Castle, this was a dream come true. Once they arrived at the bottom, they started at the anchor point near the tail, worked around the wide wingspan, and finally into the cabin area.

“That was the most fascinating thing for me—being a pilot and being a diver. Looking in that window and seeing all the gauges.”

The sights that were available to Castle and the NPS team will never be seen by the general public.

“Bringing it up is not really something the Park Service would do,” says Daron. “It's easier to try and preserve it in place.”

“It's fabric and metal,” adds Castle. “And it's been in the water, so it's been eating away slowly.”

“If you were to bring it up, there would be a lot of issues involved with trying to get it up without it falling apart,” explains Daron. “And then trying to have some place where we could store it and present it to the public.”

So there the B-29 will remain underwater, unless the lake level continues to drop. These days it's about 100 feet below the surface. There is one company—Tech Diving Limited—approved by the NPS to guide experienced divers to the site. But the missions are infrequent and the next one isn't scheduled until 2019.

The bomber is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the best ways to learn a lot more about it is to attend the event this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Lake Mead Visitors Center. More information and reservations are available by calling 702-293-8691.

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