On July 21, 1948, a modified B-29 Superfortress conducting secret research to develop a sun-based missile guidance system slammed into the surface of Lake Mead. The heavy bomber, which had been disarmed and reclassified as an F-13 reconnaissance aircraft, was flying at 230 miles per hour at the time of impact. Three of its four engines were torn from its wings, and the aircraft skipped along the lake’s mirrorlike surface for approximately a quarter of a mile. The five-man crew – four military, one civilian – escaped on a life raft before the ruined airplane sank in one of the largest manmade bodies of water in the world. (Formed by the construction of Hoover Dam in 1936, Lake Mead straddles the border between Nevada and Arizona.)
More than half a century would pass before anyone laid eyes on B-29 No. 45-21847 again. A team of private divers found the wreckage using side-scan sonar in August 2002, about a year after the crash report, which had remained classified since the incident, was made available to the public. The following summer, the National Park Service dispatched divers from its Submerged Resources Center to map and document the wreckage. In August 2003, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the Historic Aircraft Recovery Corporation, which had tried to claim ownership of the submerged B-29.
Last month, the National Park Service started accepting applications from dive tour operators who want to lead qualified divers down to view the decaying bomber, albeit from a respectful distance: It’s a protected historic artifact. Touching it is forbidden.
In 2008, the NPS granted two companies one-year licenses for guided dives. (Smithsonian magazine documented the efforts to prepare the site for visitors in 2005.) At the time, the wreckage sat approximately 160 feet below the surface, meaning visits to the sites were “technical” dives, which require more specialized training and equipment than “recreational” dives shallower than 130 feet. The NPS did not renew the licenses once they expired because the companies found them too restrictive to be profitable, Christie Vanover, a Lake Mead National Recreation Area spokesperson, explained via e-mail.
The new application rules have been made more alluring to potential operators in several respects: The licenses will be good for two years, and will allow up to 100 client dives during each 12-month period. The licensees will also be allowed to conduct “unlimited diving instruction and scuba charters in all open areas of Lakes Mead and Mohave.”
Also, because the water level of the reservoir has dropped in recent years, the B-29 is now in shallower water. Vanover said by phone that the NPS does not release the exact current depth of the wreckage “for the protection of the artifact,” though she said it now fluctuates between “recreational” and “technical” depths. Once the licenses are awarded, patrons wishing to make the plunge will be able to call the tour operators and be advised on what type of dive they’ll be making.
Mel Clark, who dived to the B-29 site in 2008, wrote about and published photographs from his expedition in Advanced Diver Magazine that year. He noted that damage to the nose section allowed him “to peer into the cockpit. There is a folded parachute, a crescent wrench, and a pair of pants lying undisturbed.”
Steve Schafer led tours to the site in 2008. He dived to the wreck again in 2013, under a scientific permit, to check its condition. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that quagga mussels had proliferated on the wreck’s surface in the five years since he previously saw it.
According to the National Atmospheric & Oceanic Administration, the Lake Mead B-29 was one of the last of the 1,620 such bombers manufactured by Boeing at their plant in Wichita, Kansas. It was delivered eleven days after Japan formally surrendered on September 13, 1945. A total of 3,960 of the revolutionary long-range bombers were built. As of 2014, only one was still flying.
The Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.