A B-29 bomber is on a top-secret mission in the skies above Lake Mead in Nevada. But before the crew can succeed, something goes wrong and the plane plummets into the glittering water below. As it skims the surface, the impact tears off several engines – leaving a wreck that will never fly again. Then, half a century later a team of divers discover something remarkable lurking in the depths.
In 1947 – two years after the end of WWII – a B-29 was drafted into the sidelines of another conflict. Headed by a physicist from California called Dr. Carl Anderson, Project Apollo sought to refine ballistic missiles as America began to face off against the Soviet Union. Experts knew at this point that the technology was there. But how could they deliver it with deadly precision?
On July 21, 1948, one of the last B-29s ever built took off from southern California as part of Anderson’s ambitious project. Heavily classified, the mission would see the pilot perform a risky series of maneuvers over the waters of Lake Mead. But the operation was cut short when disaster struck – putting an end to the aircraft’s fascinating career.
For more than 50 years, little was known about what had happened to the B-29 that crashed into Lake Mead. But then, an illicit scavenging operation revealed something mysterious deep beneath the surface. Eventually, divers reached the location almost 300 feet down – and were amazed by what they found.
But how did one of the most iconic aircrafts of World War II end up on a top-secret mission in California in the first place? And what about the plane itself? Well, these bombers – also known as Superfortresses – were developed by the United States military during the early years of World War II. Previously, the Air Force had flown Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. But experts knew that an upgrade was needed.
The first B-29 would take to the skies nine months after the U.S. entered World War II. With its pressurized cabin, it was able to reach far greater heights than previous bombers. The plane could also travel much further. As a result, it became the perfect weapon in a conflict that was often waged across thousands of miles.
Equipped with cannons and machine guns, America’s B-29s came to play an important role particularly in the Pacific Theater of World War II. But today they are mostly remembered as the planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. In August 1945 two of the bombers – Enola Gay and Bockscar – would go down in history for their role in that world-changing event.
At the height of B-29 production, five separate American plants were put to work churning out the long-range bombers. And almost 4,000 of the planes had been built by the time the program came to an end in 1946, according to Enyclopedia Britannica. But despite the prolific manufacturing, less than 30 complete Superfortresses reportedly remain today.
With the war over, many B-29s were repurposed and transformed into little more than fuel tankers for other aircraft. Others, it seems, went on to form part of weather research projects or assist in intelligence gathering missions. But in the case of the Superfortress that crashed into Lake Mead, fate had something a little more unusual in store.
One of the last B-29s to be produced, the aircraft – known by the serial number 45-21847 – was delivered to the U.S. military on September 13, 1945. Eleven days earlier, Japan had surrendered and finally brought an end to World War II. For the brand new bomber, this meant that its career was over before it had begun.
Two years later, the B-29 was apparently stripped of its defensive equipment and shipped off to southern California. There, it was granted a new lease of life at Edwards Air Force Base – then known as Muroc Army Airfield. Located some 230 miles southwest of Lake Mead, it was the home of a top-secret project known as the Upper Atmosphere Research Project 288.
With the B-29, the American military had improved upon the range and capacity of the Flying Fortress bombers. And now, they were hard at work taking warfare to the next level. During WWII, a new threat had emerged: the long-range ballistic missile. Developed by the German scientist Wernher von Braun, these devastating weapons looked set to change the landscape of conflict for good.
Despite Germany’s early missiles, though, the Nazis still lost the war. And thanks to a shady deal known as Operation Paperclip, von Braun and his team were shipped across the Atlantic to the United States. There, they set about developing and refining this emerging technology into something that would strike fear into hearts around the world.
The problem with Germany’s V-2 rockets, it seems, was that they could not be relied upon to strike with any precision. According to the Desert Research Institute’s Susan Edwards, that was where Anderson and Project Apollo came in. By studying conditions in the upper atmosphere, it was believed, the United States might be able to develop a way of guiding the missiles.
As part of Anderson’s research, Edwards claimed, he reached out to the United States Navy and requested the use of a plane. But this couldn’t be just any old aircraft – it needed to be spacious enough to carry a vast array of equipment. Ultimately, he was offered 45-21847, and the decommissioned B-29 began a new life in California.
By the time that the plane arrived at Muroc Army Airfield in late 1947, the facility had become a testing center for aircraft of a more experimental nature. In other words, it was the perfect home for the highly classified Project Apollo. And even today, much of the work which took place there remains shrouded in secrecy.
What we do know, though, is that Anderson’s repurposed B-29 was tasked with testing out a top-secret piece of technology called a sun-tracker. The War is Boring website notes that on June 21, 1948, a crew of five men fitted the mysterious device to the plane’s fuselage. But rather than take its place in the annals of military history, the experiment was destined to come to a watery end.
Although written records are scarce, it’s believed that the tracker was a piece of experimental equipment which would, when operational, allow pilots to navigate using the sun. In order to test the device, the men took off from Muroc Army Airfield towards Las Vegas with the aim of putting it through its paces.
According to reports, this involved flying over Lake Mead – a large man-made reservoir that straddles the border between Nevada and California. Created back in 1935 when the Hoover Dam was built across the Colorado River, this vast body of water covers an area of almost 250 square miles. And in places, it is more than 530 feet deep.
In other words, Lake Mead is the sort of place that doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Which is why it took decades for the truth about what happened to Project Apollo’s B-29 to emerge. But at the time, authorities weren’t totally clueless as to what had occurred. After all, the mission that Captain Robert Madison and his crew had been tasked with had been fraught with danger from the beginning.
According to War is Boring, testing the tracker involved pulling off a series of risky maneuvers in the skies above Lake Mead. First, the crew were required to climb to a height of around 35,000 feet – the very upper limit of the B-29’s range. Then, the pilot had to bring the plane swiftly back down to Earth and practically skim the water with just 100 feet to spare.
That alone, of course, was enough of a challenge. But unfortunately, the odds were stacked against Madison and his crew that fateful day. Reports claim that the planes altimeter – a device which measures altitude – had not been set correctly. And, even worse, the surface of the lake was so calm that it looked like a sheet of glass.
In these conditions, the sun reflected off the water – causing Madison to become disorientated and crash into the lake. At 230 miles-per-hour the plane careened into the surface and lost three of its four engines in the crash. Eventually, it came to a halt – pausing briefly before sinking down into the depths below.
Miraculously, all five crew members on board the B-29 managed to escape with their lives. But as they waited in life boats for help to arrive, the plane disappeared without a trace. So what happened to this lost relic of World War II? And would it ever resurface from the depths of Lake Mead?
For decades, the story of the lost B-29 remained little more than a legend that was passed down through the generations in local towns. But as time passed, these iconic planes grew rarer – making any remaining examples an appealing prospect to wreck hunters. And in 2001 one group finally struck lucky.
Today, Lake Mead is considered a National Historic Landmark and the B-29 wreck at Overton Arm is also protected. Why? Well, it comes under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS). But that didn’t stop a team of unauthorized divers from tracking down the location using sonar technology.
According to reports, the divers initially planned to retrieve the plane from the lake and sell it on for profit. Keen to protect a unique piece of history, the NPS mounted a legal challenge against the wreck hunters. Meanwhile, National Park Submerged Resources Center chief Dr. David Conlin launched his own mission to track down the lost B-29.
Because the divers would not share the location of the wreck, Conlin and his team used surveys taken by the Bureau of Reclamation to search beneath the lake. And eventually, they spotted something familiar – the outline of a B-29 resting on the bottom. Yet finding the plane was just the beginning.
Typically, recreational divers are able to reach depths of up to 130 feet. But the wreck of the Project Apollo B-29 was located almost 300 feet beneath the surface, according to War is Boring. As such, conducting a mission to explore the remains of the plane posed a whole host of logistical challenges for Conlin and his team.
In 2002 NPS contractors successfully reached the wreck with a remote-controlled submarine. And as well as evidence of the previous salvage operation, they also found clues that allowed them to work out exactly how the plane had sunk beneath the lake. Then, later that year, the first authorized divers arrived at the site.
The following year, Conlin himself made his first dive to the wreck site. Speaking to the Nevada local newspaper Boulder City Review in 2018, he admitted, “It was terrifying. It was very scary, very deep and very dark.” But ultimately, it seems, the experience was worth the discomfort.
As divers explored the sunken remains of the B-29, they realized that it had been exceptionally well-preserved. Conlin continued, “It was so very exciting to see [the plane] resting on the bottom in beautiful condition. It was better than I expected.” In fact, according to the Boulder City Review, he was so thrilled by the find that he attempted to call out to his companions.
But diving at these depths requires a special gas formula including helium, which had an interesting effect on Conlin’s voice. He explained, “I sounded like Donald Duck!” And that wasn’t the only surreal element to the experience. In the interview, he continued, “[The wreck] looked like a spaceship. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen underwater.”
As Conlin approached the wreck, he was even able to glimpse inside and see relics from the time of the crash. On a control panel in the cockpit he spotted a set of headphones – still sitting where they had been placed all those decades earlier. And alongside them was a parachute left behind when Madison and his crew had scrambled out of the sinking plane.
According to the Boulder City Review, Conlin has since returned to the wreck site 75 times – keen to help preserve it for future generations. He told the newspaper, “It does not belong to the Park Service; it belongs to the American people. It’s an incredible piece of history, Cold War history and World War II history.”
According to War is Boring, the NPS placed a temporary diving ban on the site in an effort to protect the wreck from looting. And when it finally reopened in 2007, fixed moorings and guidelines had been put in place in order to prevent any damage to the sunken plane. But only experienced divers could go deep enough to reach the B-29, and eventually the authorities stopped issuing permits.
The wreck site is located hundreds of feet beneath the surface, so it’s perhaps not the most accessible of tourist attractions! And it might have been forgotten about altogether had something unexpected not occurred. Much of the western U.S. was hit by a drought over the subsequent years – causing the water levels of Lake Mead to plummet to unprecedented levels.
War is Boring notes that by February 2015 the wreck was sitting at a depth of just 110 feet. As a result, it was now accessible to recreational divers for the first time. But while these new conditions meant that more people could visit the sunken plane, they also posed a threat to the future of this historic site. According to Conlin, more sunlight can now reach the bottom of the lake – causing more algae to bloom.
“The colder and darker the water, the better for preservation,” Conlin explained. “It’s still well-preserved, but it would be better with more water.” Though if the levels of the lake rise again, will the wreck become inaccessible once more? Well, thanks to a movie released in July 2018, we don’t need to don a wetsuit to explore the sunken B-29.
Aired as part of a program to mark the 70th anniversary of the crash, the movie showcases footage from dives to the site and explains the history behind the wreck. For those who grew up in the area, it was a chance to see a local legend brought to life. And with water levels rising once more, virtual explorations such as these might be the only way to explore this piece of history for years to come.