Drought Sheds New Light On WWII-Era Wreckage In Lake Mead

Published: Thursday, July 9, 2015 - 8:37am
Updated: Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 11:12am
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(Photo courtesy of National Park Service)
The low water level in Lake Mead is making it easier to explore the underwater remains of a World War II bomber.
(Photo by Mel Clark)
Diver Joel Silverstein explores the only remaining propeller and engine of the B-29.
(Photo by Mel Clark)
Diver Joel Silverstein explores the nose section and cockpit of the B-29.

July 1948, a B-29 Superfortress zips over the remote waters of Lake Mead. It’s a secret test mission for a missile guidance system. Except there's a problem: the pilots misjudge the altitude. The massive bomber plunges into the lake. The crew survives, but the plane is lost.

Nearly 70 years later, another crew waits on the shore not far from where that bomber went down, watching a much slower-moving disaster unfold: the historic drought in the Colorado River Basin. 

"All this was underwater at least five years ago," said Joel Silverstein, who runs Tech Diving Limited, which has exclusive access to the submerged remains of that mission gone awry.

“This particular boat launch ramp didn’t exist," he said. "It used to start all the way about a mile and a quarter up the hill."

In recent years, Silverstein has watched the water line creep back, exposing chalky rings and islands unseen since the lake was filled. This is all due to the historic drought in the Colorado River Basin. The marina here now sits abandoned in a dry gully.

Steven Brown is one of the divers coming to tour the bomber with Silverstein's company.  

“Seeing this lake as a child in the '80s and now seeing it, it just makes my jaw drop," Brown said. "To say I’m scared now, I think is actually a realistic statement."

Lake Mead has been hitting records lows throughout the year, raising the specter of water cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada in the near future.

The upshot for these scuba divers: the underwater wreckage is easier to explore, as Silverstein explained on the boat ride out.

“On its crash, it sank in approximately 260 feet of water and that’s exceptionally deep for scuba diving," Brown said.

Now it’s less than 130 feet down, meaning more light and divers need less training. Silverstein has gone wreck diving all over the world and said the B-29 stands out. For one, the cool freshwater has kept the plane in remarkably good condition.

“That plane has never seen air since 1948. Everything in there, every control that’s inside it, is in its original position,” Silverstein said.

Soon, the crew is wriggling into heavy insulated wetsuits, fastening straps and straddling tanks of nitrox. By the end they look like astronauts, not out of place in the moonscape of Lake Mead.

John Fuller is the boat's captain and one of the tour guides. Bobbing in the water, he gave Steve Brown a "dry run" before the descent.

"Then we’ll go around to the second place where the engine used to be," Fuller said. "And look at the gigantic hole with all the pipes and tubes and wires and all the stuff. You’re thinking, ‘man, who designed something like that?'”   

At the time of its inception during World War II, the B-29 was a major leap forward for American military aviation. It could carry out bombing campaigns in the Pacific and was eventually entrusted with nuclear weapons.

An old military training video from the time described it as, "The plane you’ve been waiting for and it was worth waiting for. It’s the biggest, fastest, mightiest heavy bomber in the world.”

Only one operational B-29 remains in the world today. From video below, you can make out the propellers lodged into the silty bottom, the cracked fuselage caked in mussels and the cockpit with the remains of a parachute, aglow in green murky light.

Eventually, the divers resurfaced, Adam Christopher among them.

“We came upon the tail and then went around the port side, around the wing to the only remaining propeller, which is also quite large, but it’s bent as though it hit the water,” explained Christopher, still out of breath from the ascent. 

Since the plane was discovered in the early 2000s, the National Park Service and only about 60 people have dived the bomber, said Silverstein. There aren’t plans to pull it out of the water anytime soon, either.  

Silverstein said he finds something new every time, but this dive the biggest surprise was not an artifact.

“We hit a maximum depth on it today of about 102 feet," he said. "Last time we were on it, we had a maximum depth of about 108 feet. So we’re seeing more water drying up here in Lake Mead than ever before."

A frightening development that Silverstein — and all the Southwest — hope will reverse course soon. Until then, this is a chance to dive deep into a history that few have seen from this vantage point.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Audio of B-29 training video courtesy of Military Arts Pictures www.zenoswarbirdvideo.com.

Updated 7/7/2015 at 9:30 a.m.

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