Lake Mead's Drought Conditions Make Diving For B-29 Wreckage Easier
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you want to know how bad the drought has been in the American West, there are so many powerful symbols, like Lake Mead, a huge reservoir outside Las Vegas. Water levels there have plummeted, and here is the strange upside; those adventurous enough now have the chance to explore a World War II relic. Here's Will Stone from member station KJZZ.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: July 1948, a B-29 zips over the remote waters of Lake Mead near Las Vegas. It's on a classified mission to test an intercontinental missile tracking system, except the pilots misjudged the altitude. The massive bomber plunges into the lake. The crew survives, but the plane is lost. Almost 70 years later, another crew heads to the resting place of that failed flight, watching a much slower-moving disaster unfold.
JOEL SILVERSTEIN: That little island over there - five years ago, you never saw that. You didn't even know it existed.
STONE: Joel Silverstein is from Scuba Training and Technology, the only dive company allowed to tour the submerged remains. Lake Mead has been hitting record lows throughout the year. The upshot - the underwater wreckage of that B-29 is easier to explore.
SILVERSTEIN: On its crash, it sank in approximately 260 feet of water, and that's exceptionally deep for scuba diving.
STONE: Now it's less than 130 feet down, meaning more light and divers don't need as much technical training. Silverstein has gone wreck diving all over the world and says the B-29 stands out.
SILVERSTEIN: That plane has never seen air since 1948. Everything in there - every control that's inside of it - is in its original position.
STONE: Soon the divers are wriggling into insulated wetsuits, fastening straps and heaving on heavy air tanks.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is the National Park Services.
JOHN FULLER: Yes, we're just calling in to let you know that we're diving on the B-29 bomber.
STONE: That's John Fuller, the other scuba guide.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
STONE: Bobbing in the water, he prepares one of the divers for the dissent.
FULLER: Then we'll go around to the second place where an engine used to be...
FULLER: ...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?
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the B-29, the plane you've been waiting for. It's the biggest, fastest, mightiest heavy bomber in the world.
STONE: At the time of its inception, during World War II, the B-29 was a major leap forward for American military aviation. It could cruise at high and low altitudes, carry out bombing campaigns in the Pacific and eventually was entrusted with nuclear weapons.
Today, underwater video shows the propellers lodged into the muddy bottom, the cracked fuselage caked in mussels, aglow in murky green light. Eventually, the divers resurface, Adam Christopher among them.
ADAM CHRISTOPHER: I came upon the tail and then went around port side around the wing to the only remaining propeller, which is also quite large, but it's bent as if it hit the water.
STONE: The plane was only just discovered in 2002. Actually, this particular one was delivered days after Japan's surrender during World War II, and it was later converted into a reconnaissance plane. Diving guide Joel Silverstein says that's why it was flying over Lake Mead, gathering data for this secret missile navigation system known as the Sun Tracker.
SILVERSTEIN: And unfortunately, the tests that they were doing on this were required that the pilots do a rapid descent and then rapid ascent, so they were seeing what the range that this could work on was.
STONE: The wreck is a chance to go deep into a piece of history few have seen. Silverstein notices some new artifact every time he goes down, but the biggest surprise this dive was the maximum depth reading - just 102 feet. It's a frightening sign of how bad the drought is here. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone at Lake Mead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.