Historic B-29 Bomber
At the bottom of Lake Mead, there is a relic of the past, deep below the surface. July 21, 1948, during a test flight, the B-29 Superfortress crash-landed on the lake and sank to the bottom. All crew members survived.
The B-29 ("B" is the code that identifies it as a bomber) was a four engine propeller aircraft, the largest aircraft flying during World War Two, and very advanced for it's time. The same type of aircraft delivered the atomic bombs that ended the war.
This specific aircraft was put into service on September 13, 1945. In 1947, the aircraft was converted into a reconnaissance duty and stripped of it's battle equipment. It was then assigned to an Upper Atmosphere Research Project, the purpose was to work on development of the country's intercontinental ballistic missile system.
The day of the crash the task of the crew was to test a secret ballistic-missile guidance system known as "sun-tracker". The B-29 was one of the first pressurized aircraft which allowed it to fly at high altitudes, perfect for the task it was to perform. The sun-tracker device was attached to the top of the aircraft, and the purpose was to allow a missile to get its elevation and orientation from sighting the sun. Previous to this time ballistic missiles had primitive guidance systems and were not very accurate. This test aimed to improve guidance performance.
On July 21, 1948, the pilot, Captain Robert Madison, and crew of five flew to an altitude of 30,000 ft. east of Lake Mead. The plan was to dive to a height of just 100 to 300 feet above the surface of the lake and level off. According to the crew the lake was looking "like a mirror" and the sun reflected brightly off the surface, which disorientated the pilot as they came closer to the surface. As the aircraft leveled out and the lake surface blinded the crew, the plane kept descending and eventually struck the lake, skipping along the surface. Three of the aircraft's engines were ripped from its wings and the fourth engine burst into flames. The aircraft rose and fell eventually settling back to the surface in a nose-up position and slowly coming to a stop. The five man crew were able to evacuate into life rafts and from a distance watched the aircraft as it sank.
The crew was eventually rescued by National Park Service employees six hours later. The crew was instructed not to talk about the mission or the aftermath and the entire incident remained classified and details were not released for more than fifty years.
In 2001, a private dive team discovered the wreck, using a side-scan sonar, at the bottom of the Overton Arm in Lake Mead. With the location of the bomber in a National Park it was now a national cultural resource that required protection by law.
In 2002, the National Park Service, along with contractors, explored the wreckage using a remotely operated submarine. It was found that there were ropes and lights from previous un-authorized dives and parts of the aircraft were missing due to looting. In 2003 the Park Service sponsored a team of technical divers to survey the wreckage. Since the aircraft was now at almost 300 feet below the surface (water levels fluctuated year to year) and that required special diving equipment and back-up systems. Due to the damage and looting discovered, the Park Service banned all further diving on the site until 2007.
In 2007, with the aircraft secured with fixed moorings to prevent damage from boat anchors and guide lines to the bomber, the Park Service began allowing limited guided technical dives to the aircraft. However, due to a limited market the program was halted in 2009.
In 2014, with lake levels dropping due to extreme drought conditions in the western United States, the water level was low enough at 110 feet to allow advanced recreational scuba divers, which was much more attractive to potential dive operators and visitors. The Park Service authorized two commercial dive operators to once again start dive operations to the aircraft. In April of 2015 dive tours resumed to the B-29.
As of January, 2018, the B-29 is considered a protected cultural resource. Diving on the B-29 is not allowed at this time.
Last updated: July 20, 2018