A Piece of American HistoryAt 9:51 a.m. July 21, 1948, a B-29 Superfortress, weighing in at 104,556 pounds, took off from China Lake, California. It traveled to a test area near Lake Mead to conduct high-altitude atmospheric research. After the last measurements were taken, the pilot took the plane a little lower. Both the pilot and co-pilot thought they were around 400 feet above the lake’s surface, but the altimeter was reportedly off. Around 12:30 p.m. traveling at 230 miles per hour, the B-29 struck the water and sank to the bottom of Lake Mead where it still lies today.
THE HIStory OF THE LAKE MEAD B-29
While the plane is mostly known for its function as a heavy bomber used during World War II, the Lake Mead B-29 was used for science.
Susan Edwards, a research archaeologist and historian from Desert Research Institute, said the B-29 was destined for storage until Dr. Carl Anderson, a professor of physics and Nobel Laureate, proposed using the B-29 for cosmic research.
After the war, he requested one B-29 from the Army Air Force. His request went up the chain, and the Department of Defense agreed to give him three B-29s. Project APOLLO, the High Altitude Flying Laboratory Program was approved.
“The missions weren’t classified,” Edwards said, “but what they were going to do with the research was. High-energy particle physics research clearly dominated the B-29 flights, but a wide variety of other upper atmospheric research experiments were interspersed between the cosmic ray studies. The program was really important.”
“It had a protocol that day,” she said. “It had to start at a low altitude and ascend 500 feet a minute and collect readings. At 30,000 feet, it descended at 500 feet a minute. It was a protocol they had done multiple times before.”
At 9:51 a.m. July 21, 1948, a B-29 Superfortress, weighing in at 104,556 pounds, took off from China Lake, California. It traveled to a test area near Lake Mead to conduct high-altitude atmospheric research.
After the last measurements were taken, the pilot took the plane a little lower. Both the pilot and co-pilot thought they were around 400 feet above the lake’s surface, but the altimeter was reportedly off. Around 12:30 p.m. traveling at 230 miles per hour, the B-29 struck the water.
Capt. Robert M. Madison, 1st Lt. Paul M. Hesler, Staff Sgt. David D. Burns and John W. Simeroth escaped and climbed along the spine of the plane and inflated two life rafts. Sgt. Frank A. Rico was still inside. Madison and Simeroth pulled him from the back of the plane out through the co-pilot’s window.
They all climbed aboard the life rafts and watched the plane slip below the surface of the lake.
After two hours in the water, Edwards said the crew was able to signal a civilian aircraft flying overhead. Its pilot saw the rafts and reported it. The National Park Service dispatched rescue crews.
By 6:15 p.m., all men were off the water and in Boulder City.
For decades, finding the plane proved to be quite a challenge. The National Park Service knew the general area where the plane crashed, but it rested a couple hundred feet underwater.
In 2000, a private dive team discovered the wreck, using a side-scan sonar - a device that is prohibited in the park without a permit. The group dove on the plane in 2001 and illegally removed artifacts from the site.
With the location of the plane in a national park it was now a national cultural resource that required protection by law. Therefore, the artifacts were returned to the park service.
The exact location was still unclear to the park service until 2002 when Mark Sappington, a park employee, worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to reprocess existing map data of the area when an outline of a plane appeared.
Fifty-five years after it crashed, the park service dropped an underwater camera at the mapped location and found the plane. 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 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.
During a special event to commemorate the Lake Mead B-29, Submerged Resources Center Chief Dave Conlin recalled that first dive.
He said his crew had to undergo new training and obtain new equipment for a dive this complex. It involved breathing a mixed air that included helium.
“The first time I dove on that plane, I was terrified. We went down and down and down and down and suddenly, there was a plane,” he said. “The lights went on, and it looked like a spaceship. It was in incredible condition.”
At the end of the dive, his team had a map of the area and a better idea of what happened when the plane crashed.
The number two engine hit the water and flipped up under the wing and hit the tail. Then, the number three and four engines hit the water. The number one engine caught fire, and the tail cone broke off.
Conlin said all of the crew members escaped the B-29 before it sunk and hit the bottom nose first.
Following the crash, the plane was recommended for salvage, but the recommendation was canceled Feb. 18, 1949. As an agency dedicated to the preservation of America’s resources, the National Park Service now serves as the custodian of the Lake Mead B-29.
Because the Lake Mead B-29 is such a unique, significant resource, the National Park Service balances recreational access with protection.
Over the next 100 years, the park wants new visitors to be able to experience this moment in history.
2002: Due to the damage and looting discovered at the site diving on the B-29 was banned.
2007-2008: After National Park Service divers conducted a thorough assessment of the plane and crash site, it was opened to limited permitted diving. Commercial tours were provided by Scuba Training and Technology Inc. and Xtreme Scuba.
2009-2014: The B-29 site was closed for public diving while the park service assessed the plane's conditions and reviewed the terms of the permit to help make it more economically viable for businesses.
2015-2017: Commercial tours were provided by Scuba Training and Technology Inc.
2018-2020: The park took a pause in permitted diving to further assess the plane's condition.
2020-2022: Commercial tours are now available through Las Vegas Scuba, LLC and Scuba Training and Technology Inc. Water levels fluctuate at Lake Mead, but the plane usually rests at depths that place it in a technical dive category.
There are many other diving experiences open to the public at Lake Mead, including an aggregate plant and other submerged planes, boats and vehicles.
Last updated: September 2, 2020