Currently, on the bottom of Lake Mead, sits a B-29 Superfortress bomber, which accidentally crashed into the surface of the lake in the 1940s. Lost for 50 years, the bomber was found in 2002 to be in fantastic condition, with is aluminium skin still shining, complete with its markings.
The pilots’ hatches are missing from when they escaped after the crash, and parachutes can still be seen on the crew’s seats.
Today the wreck is still in remarkable shape, but it is now under threat of reducing water levels and an invasive species of mussel.
The story of the Lake Mead bomber begins in 1945, when the aircraft, serial number 45-21847 was built at Boeing’s Wichita plant in Kansas. The aircraft wouldn’t be delivered until the war had ended, so it wouldn’t see any service in combat.
Like many other newly-built B-29s, 45-21847 was sent into storage, but this wouldn’t last for long.
In 1946 the US Army Air Force and US Navy began a joint upper atmosphere research program, named Project Apollo. Project Apollo gathered huge amounts of data on the upper atmosphere, such as its geomagnetic fields, weather, radiation and more that greatly contributed to our current understanding.
The project needed aircraft capable of reaching extremely high altitudes, while having the muscle to lump heavy scientific equipment along with it. The B-29 was the perfect aircraft for this, with its pressurized cabin and heavy payload – plus there were large numbers sat in storage.
Three B-29s were assigned to the project, including 45-21847 (the Lake Mead B-29).
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But this project also had a clear military goal: to help develop guidance systems for missiles. They were investigating using sun tracking for missile guidance, which could not be jammed by the enemy, unlike radio guided types.
45-21847 was fitted with a sun tracker, which was essentially a gyroscope and a spectrometer that measured the intensity of light from the sun at different altitudes.
The tests required such aircraft to fly specific flight paths up to certain altitudes and back down again to make the proper measurements.
The Lake Mead B-29 Crash
45-21847 conducted one such mission on July 21, 1948, departing from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. The B-29 carried five people; one civilian researcher, and four crew.
It successfully climbed to 30,000 ft for its research, and then descended back down at a rate of 500 ft per minute, levelling out around 400 ft above Lake Mead. However, the aircraft wasn’t at 400 ft, it was actually just above the surface of the lake, a miscalculation that was the result of a fault altimeter.
Reportedly, this error had not been spotted as the lake was so incredibly still that the pilot’s perception was skewed. This is a known phenomena for pilots.
At least this is the Air Force’s explanation. Many have theorised that the crew may have been having a little “fun” with the aircraft, taking it as low as possible.
At around 12:30 pm, the aircraft, hurtling along at 230 mph, accidentally made contact with the surface of Lake Mead. Three engines were immediately torn off, while the forth caught fire.
The crew were able to pull the aircraft up momentarily, but a few seconds later it came back down and skipped along the surface of the lake, eventually coming to a halt.
All five crew were able to escape onto life rafts, and were picked up only a few hours later.
45-21847, missing three engines but otherwise in good condition, slowly sank toward to the bottom of Lake Mead.
Over the years it has often been said that the missions were classified, but this is actually untrue. Much of data gathered by Project Apollo was released internationally and shared in scientific journals. However, the location of the aircraft remained a mystery for decades, at least officially.
Lake Mead is a national recreation area, and so it is administered by the National Park Service (NPS).
The NPS were aware of the crash and its general location, but due to being a few hundred feet below the surface it hadn’t officially discovered it.
In 2001, a team located the B-29 on the bottom of Lake Mead at a depth of around 200 feet, using side-scanning sonar, a tool that is illegal on the lake.
The team withheld the aircraft’s location as if the NPS knew where it was, it would automatically fell under their care, where it would become essentially untouchable.
They avoided this as they hoped to raise the aircraft.
Hearing of this situation, the NPS began their own hunt for the aircraft and discovered it in 2002.
The NPS inspected the site for the first time using camera equipment lowered to the bottom of the lake, and they discovered that divers had already visited the site illegally, perhaps years before its either discoveries. Artifacts had been removed from the B-29, and litter was left behind.
To help with preservation and monitoring its degradation, the NPS sent down a dive team to properly inspect and log the site in 2003. What they found was incredible.
The B-29, having sat on the bottom of the lake for over 50 years, was still in fantastic condition. Its aluminium skin still gleamed in the torch light, and stencil markings could still be read.
There is even a folded parachute in the cockpit, along with a pair of trousers.
Sadly though the aircraft has since become home to a quagga mussel colony, which adds tremendous weight to the delicate wreckage.
This issue is being made worse as the lake’s temperature is slowly increasing, making the environment even more comfortable for the mussles.
The Lake Mead B-29 is hotly debated topic in the warbird community. This is because the aircraft, under the management of the NPS, will never be removed from its current location.
This ensures that this historic site remains untouched and can be preserved for as long as possible. The NPS allows authorized companies to carry out commercial diving to the wreck, with extremely tight tolerances for diver behaviour.
One such company, Las Vegas Scuba, says that “If you touch the B-29, or the dirt your dive will end immediately”. This is in an effort to minimise harm to the site.
However, on the other hand, there are many aircraft enthusiasts that believe leaving the aircraft on the bottom of Lake Mead guarantees that it eventually perish. Even since its discovery, its condition has deteriorated significantly.
Contrasting against the NPS, many wish to raise the aircraft so its condition can be stabilised, and then this historic artifact can be preserved.
Regardless of this debate though, the situation is rapidly becoming more complex because the water level in Lake Mead has dropped dramatically.
Since 1983 the lake’s water levels have been steadily dropping, meaning the aircraft is now in much shallower waters that it has been before. This changes the situation, as the water temperature is increasing (leading to increased mussel growth) and it is becoming more accessible to less-experienced divers.
Today the aircraft sits at a depth of around 100 ft, but eventually it is thought that the Lake Mead B-29 will be completely exposed in the not-too-distant future.