The Story Behind the B-29 Bomber in Lake Mead

This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.

High Flying Science: The Story Behind the Bomber in the Lake

Presenters: Susan R. Edwards and Jeffrey R. Wedding


Submerged for the last 70 years after ditching into the waters of Nevada’s Hoover Dam reservoir, the tale of the Lake Mead B-29 grows more interesting with each passing decade. Although constructed in 1945 to join the war in the Pacific, this Superfortress never flew a single hostile mission. Instead, the aircraft spent its brief (1946-1948) working career as a Cold War flying laboratory in search of cosmic rays and other high altitude phenomenon.

Tasked with preparing a National Historic Landmark nomination for the aircraft, the authors sought fresh insight into the plane’s history by consulting some previously overlooked material including mid-century professional journals and conference proceedings, popular literature and newspapers, and family genealogies. This multi-pronged methodology relied heavily on the Internet to scrutinize often neglected source material that can be extremely labor–intensive or expensive to obtain through traditional means. It reflects our version of a state-of-the-art approach to documenting, preserving, and expanding our understanding of WWII and Cold War resources like the Lake Mead B-29.

Profile view of white woman wearing a blue- green paisley shirt holding a piece of paper.
Susan R. Edwards, Associate Research Archaeologist and Historian with the Desert Research Institute


Susan Edwards: Everybody. Jeff and I are delighted to be here. I wore heels. Anyway. We have a tale about a plane to tell you this morning. It's a plane with two stories. The first one revolves around the 2001 rediscovery of the World War II era B-29 Superfortress after it had spent more than 50 years sitting at the bottom of Nevada's Lake Mead. The other story is the surprising account of the aircraft's key role in a brief, but noteworthy Cold War research program called Project Apollo. It would bring together former Manhattan Project scientists with World War II aircrews and three Superfortress aircraft to conduct cutting edge experiments at 30,000 feet.

The first story is really the purview of the National Park Services’ Submerged Resources Center. Chronicling the account of the search, the rediscovery, and the physical remains of the aircraft is in their capable hands. SRC staff employ their technical diving skills along with state of the art side-scan sonar, remotely operated underwater vehicles and LIDAR to document and monitor the B-29 several times each year.

Chief Dave Conlon leads the division's talented group of underwater archeologists in their study of invasive quagga mussels, lowering lake levels and limited commercial dive tours, and what that's having on this unique resource. The NPS is using the data to manage the physical remains of the submerged aircraft and determine how best to protect and preserve the B-29 for the enjoyment of future generations.

So it's preservation that leads us to the second story of the Lake Mead B-29. An important component of the preservation process is the need to periodically re-examine the historic interpretation of a resource. The Park Services’ recent decision to nominate the B-29 as a National Historic Landmark provided a perfect opportunity to take a deeper dive into the history of Project Apollo and expand our understanding of the research program's scientific contributions and identify the individuals involved in the experiments.

Black and white image of B-29 airplanes in different stages of production.
B-29 Superfortress production line at the Boeing Wichita Plant

U.S. Air Force

In the past, the toolkit for conducting historic research for archeological resources was fairly straightforward. You seek out libraries and archives. You comb through card catalogs, at least they were card catalogs when I started. Scour primary and secondary resources for snippets of information, and then you use that to write your historic context. You were limited, of course, by your ability to get to those archives on a project's timeline.

Today the process is the same except for one little thing. The advent of the Internet. The digitization of vast numbers of historical documents and their online accessibility has been both a blessing and a curse. We can now conduct much of our background research from the comfort and convenience of our offices, bathed in the glow of a computer screen while searching the worldwide web for electronic records.

For those of us working on World War II and Cold War period sites, the sheer volume of the material to sift through can be overwhelming. So, in an effort to work smarter and not harder, we employ a data mining approach that plays off the six degrees of separation theory by focusing on the connections between the different aspects of the archeological resource.

We have used this approach on everything from historic mining sites and 1970s brothels to World War II training targets and the Atomic Energy Commission's Plowshare and Nuclear Excavation Program. In every instance we have found that it makes for a comprehensive and infinitely more interesting and relatable story, because the human element tends to rise to the top.

In the case of the Lake Mead B-29, our approach evolved dividing the resource into three categories. First the B-29 Superfortress. Second, the upper atmospheric research program, and third, the program personnel. Within each of the categories were subcategories. For example, in the personnel category, we included both the scientists and the military staff with a subset of family members below each, and you'll understand why we did that by the end of the talk.

Using traditional primary and secondary sources as a foundation for the context, we organized the information according to the categories on the screen there. We then added detailed data layers to this framework, incorporating frequently overlooked material from period appropriate scientific journals, conference proceedings, much like the ones we're all going to get from this, and then popular literature, newspapers. And we found that the scientific journals like the Physical Review, Engineering and Science, and the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society along with autobiographical retrospectives by some of the scientists, were our best sources of information rather than the government records.

The magazine articles and the newspaper accounts helped shed light on the day-to-day operations of the program and captured the names and faces of the project participants, which were often omitted from the government records. Finally, it was through compiling family genealogies that we would learn the individual backstories of the scientists and the flight crews.

The narrative that follows is based on reconnecting the components we separated at the beginning of our investigation and integrating the new information we gathered into an inclusive and nuanced account of a unique Cold War science program and its high-flying experts. So here comes the story.

A little less than three years before it ended up at the bottom of Lake Mead, which was in 1948, B-29, serial number 45-21847, and now it's going to be 847 because I can't keep saying that over and over again. It rolled off the line at Boeing's Wichita, Kansas plant. It was delivered to the Army Air Force at the Oklahoma Air Depot in September 1945; several weeks after World War II had ended.

Because the military has already recognized the war's end was fast approaching, many of the bombers completed in the summer of 1945 were delivered without their armaments, the turret opening sheeted and riveted like the rest of the aircraft. This was fortunate for without guns, this aircraft would be a convenient platform for its eventual use as a flying laboratory.

According to the individual aircraft record card, and I am not there. That's the one, B-29 847 crisscrossed the country in its first few months of existence, moving from Tinker Army Airfield in Oklahoma to California, and then across the country to Robins Army Air Field in Georgia where it was, like thousands of other craft, destined for storage and cocooning.

White male in gray suit and bow tie sitting at a desk with a bookshelf behind him.
Carl David Anderson in his California Institute of Technology office, ca. 1933 (World Wide Photos, Los Angeles Bureau).

Enter Doctor Carl Anderson, a particle physicist and a Nobel Laureate from the California Institute of Technology. Known for his cosmic ray research and the discovery of the subatomic particle known as the positron, so if you've ever had a PET scan, you can thank Doctor Carl Anderson. That's the P in PET scan, positron.

Doctor Anderson was the instigator for the Upper Atmospheric Research Program. During World War II, Anderson, along with many of his Caltech colleagues and other scientists from across the US, had assisted the military in the war effort while using their research engineering talents for development of new weapons and defensive systems.

Dry mouth.

Many had worked on the Manhattan Project. As a matter of fact, Doctor Arthur Compton from the University of Chicago had originally offered Anderson the job of heading up a special project with Robert Oppenheimer as his deputy. Anderson turned it down. Instead, Oppenheimer would go on to lead the Manhattan Project, while Doctor Anderson spent the war working closely with the Navy at the Naval Ordinance Test Station at Inyokern. California. Naval Ordinance Test Station will now be NOTS.

Once the war ended, scientists from across the country were intent on resuming their pre-war research. For Anderson, that meant a return to cosmic ray investigations. So in early 1946, he approached his contacts at the Pasadena Office of Naval Research about acquiring use of a large aircraft for experiments. The plane had to be capable of reaching altitudes of in excess of 30,000 feet and generating sufficient electrical power while carrying scientists and an array of scientific equipment.

Receptive to his approach, the Navy offered a PV-2 Submarine Patrol aircraft, but Anderson knew that only a B-29 Superfortress, with its pressurized cabins and its load capacity, would meet his research needs and accommodate the 5,000 pound magnetic cloud chamber he used for his cosmic ray experiments. And that is the beast of a cloud chamber.

There was one small problem though. The Navy didn't own B-29s; it was the Army Air Force. And so Anderson's request required the approval of Washington DC. So up the chain of command it went and during the spring of 1946 the program, his request evolved into a joint Army Air Force Navy upper atmospheric research program. The initial operational plan for Project Apollo, the high-flying laboratory program, was codified in July 1946. They did it in only four months. That's amazing. Would never happen that quickly today. The conference where this was decided was attended by representatives from the military, government agencies and academic institutions.

When scientists from additional organizations started proposing an array of different experiments, the Office of Naval Research arranged to have not just one but three B-29s sent to Inyokern beginning in August of 1946. The Army Air Force agreed to provide the aircraft, the aircrews, and the program administration, while the Navy furnished all logistical support including facilities and housing and maintenance. The Navy even built a special cold room facility at NOTS Inyokern for the experimental equipment. And in this photograph you see the special refrigerated laboratory they built that was supposed to mimic the temperatures that would be reached in the bomb bays. Fortunately, they ended up not putting the equipment in the bomb bays.

Black and white photo jeep park at tail of B-29. Tail Number reads 521847.
The Lake Mead B-29 S/N 45-21847 on the tarmac at NOTS Inyokern in early 1947.

Naval Aviation News, US Navy

The three planes assigned to the program were our Lake Mead B-29 847 and then a tail number 21850 and tail number 21857. This is a photograph of our plane that's now at the bottom of Lake Mead sitting on the tarmac at Inyokern. This is actually in January of 1947.

That is in contrast to what had been originally reported in some of the research the Park Service did for the first National Register nomination. The aircraft, individual aircraft cards indicate that the plane didn't arrive until sometime late spring, early summer of 1947, yet we have photographs, magazine articles, and accounts in professional journals all talking about the 1946 experiments. So every now and then public documents are much better than the government documents for accuracy. And we always take multiple, we require multiple sources before we will say definitively that a government publication was perhaps incorrect.

The missions flown by the Inyokern B-29 ranged from the local area to cross country sorties to international treks from Alaska and Canada to Panama and Peru, with some trips requiring sustained flights along a specific latitude for extended periods of seven or eight hours. High Energy Particle Physics Research, the cosmic ray research, clearly dominated the flights, but a wide variety of other upper atmospheric research experiments were interspersed between the cosmic ray studies. They included investigations as diverse as terrestrial radiation, geomagnetic fields, solar spectroscopy, airglow and atmospheric conditions as well as astronomical and weather observations and a lot of other experiments that are so hard for me to pronounce. I put them in the article and not in the paper.

Anderson's group made its initial series of data gathering experiments between 1946 and December 1947, publishing the results in a number of professional journals. While most of the 35 flights in the first series of experiments were made at 30,000 feet, seven were made at higher altitudes of 41,000 feet. This was made possible because of modifications to the B-29 engines and propellers. Doctor Anderson noted that special generators had been attached to the engines. That we know about these modifications come not from available government records, but from the newspaper articles and the publications such as Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Life Magazine. Brief descriptions of the aircraft modifications also appear in the academic journals articles written by the scientist.

These are some of the, you can see that the rear pressurized chamber is quite full with instrumentation in the back of the plane, and I think that this particular flight, they had three different cloud chambers all crammed into that back compartment. This is from a Popular Science article in March of 1947. Depending on an experiment's requirements, equipment could be distributed throughout the aircraft. Usually instruments were configured in the rear cabin because it was the largest pressurized space. Initially, the bomb bays were considered, but appeared to have been eliminated for most experiments due to the temperature extremes and the need for researchers to monitor their equipment during flight.

With few exceptions, the data gathered during the B-29 experiments were really readily available to the international scientific community. The information acquired during the flying experiments was focused on basic research that contributed to the general knowledge of the upper atmosphere. But it could also be applied to pacified military purposes such as improvements in nuclear fission, and guided missile technology was a calculated bonus. The successful partnership between researchers in the military during the war years continued and expanded as Cold War politics and policies evolved. So the first two years of Project Apollo were very successful and government garnered a tremendous amount of data.

But then in the summer of 1948 things start to unravel with the crash of B-29 847. Here you see pilot Robert Madison and Lieutenant Paul M. Hassler, the part of the flight crew on that fateful day. This is actually the interior of a box car that you're seeing, because obviously I have no pictures of the B-29 at the bottom of the lake. This is the flight engineer for that flight, Staff Sergeant David Burns. They also have the scanner, Sergeant Frank Rico. He was sitting in the back of the fuselage. His job was to look out the windows and observe the engines and flight surfaces during takeoff and flight. B-29s were very prone to engine fires, so they needed somebody to keep an eye on them.

The scientist aboard that day was John Simeroth. This is July 21, 1948. He was sitting at the navigator station. We see the large hose near the top of the frame in this slide, and some insulation up there. That would not have been in the B-29 that they were using for the experiment that day. That insulation would have been gone. That would have been open to the Plexiglas astrodome, which was where the instrument was sitting.

So we have little direct information about particulars of the instrument that day except it was perhaps called the sun tracker. Whether that was an official name or not, we do not know. It was designed to measure the intensity of light at different altitudes. So it was looking at the sun. It also had a gyroscope, and the spectrometer that was attached to it had a special modulation so it focused on certain wavelengths. So it would rotate on that gyroscope and measure the intensity of the sun. And that's why they had to fly it at a certain altitude and at a certain rate of climb, because they were taking measurements all along the way and that was Simeroth's job to write that down.

Now from the beginning of the crash, everybody always said that this was a classified mission. Well those are Simeroth's orders and I think in the highlighted in yellow, you can see the word unclassified basis. It was not a secret mission. We have disabused that theory. So it was for, now you could use that data maybe for something secret, but the mission itself was not secret and the instrument was proprietary but not a secret instrument.

They took off just before 10:00 on July 21, flying out towards Lake Mead. They actually started their mission north of Lake Mead and east and flew out across the Arizona strip north of the Grand Canyon. Completing their run, they came back on a reciprocal course, turned south down the Overton arm of the lake. Now you know the story because I gave it away. They crashed. They actually flew to low. The pilot got too close to the surface of the lake. He misjudged his altitude. He caught an engine. As a matter of fact, he caught the second, third and fourth engines on the plane and ripped them all the way off. Only the outboard portside engine remained. He and Hassler, Madison and Hassler struggled and were able to get the plane back into the air for a couple hundred meters, but then skidded back onto the surface of the lake, ripping off the tail cone. They all made it out just fine. Rico broke an arm. They had to go back into the rear of the plane and pull him out. They exited through the emergency windows on the cockpit, climbed into rafts and within an hour or so, a passing a commercial plane spotted the dye markers they had thrown out. And five hours later, Park Service personnel came and rescued them in a boat and took them back to Boulder City. Yay Park Service!

So after spending the night in the hospital, Rico had his arm set and they all headed back. China Lake NOTS Inyokern sent a plane to pick them up the next day. So they returned. And after surviving the stress of an accident inquest, all four of the Air Force personnel would continue to work with the Project Apollo experiments. The scientist, however, he returned to his day job at the Bureau of Standards on the east coast. And a few months later, another experiment very similar to this one would actually be successful. It was reported in the Navy's All Hands magazine. They gave a lot of details about it, clearly not secret, in the January 1944 issue of that magazine.

But the Lake Mead crash was the beginning of a run of bad luck for the program, and less than two months later, in early September, a malfunctioning hydraulic switch on B-29 850 led to an inflight cross country fire during a cosmic ray research mission. The flight crew and the scientists in the back, the flight crew in the forward cabin, the pilot, copilot and the engineer, they stayed aboard to try to put out the fire. But the personnel in the back bailed out and one of the scientists, Howard Baldwin, his chute did not open and he was killed.

The aircraft, the fire was successfully put out. The aircraft landed. It was put quickly back into service and it returned to Inyokern. Everyone was shaken, but they all return to the job at hand. For the next year, everything went well. Then in November 1949, a fire on the tarmac, with no one on board luckily, would destroy the instruments and the other aircraft, 857, while it was parked at Inyokern. So by the end of '49, B-29 850 is at the bottom of Lake Mead, 847 ... is it 847? 857. No, that's the one that burned and was in the airfield fire and they couldn't salvage it. 850 was the only one that was still operational. So that now there's only one out of the three.

The program continued flying for another six months, but the military never replaced the aircraft. So it ended after four years, the program. They flew 600,000 miles, 268 missions. They had dozens and dozens and dozens of publications, both popular and scientific journals. So to date we have found approximately 50 journal articles analyzing the results of the B-29 experiments. Then we only focused on a limited number of fields. So there's probably a lot more.

So why did the program end? Why didn't the military replace the planes? Well, technological advancements and politics provide at least three of the reasons. Data logging capabilities, telemetry component and platform reliability of missile based and balloon based upper atmospheric research had improved exponentially since 1946. So by 1950 they didn't need it. Second and probably the most important, there was a little thing called the Korean War and the military needed pilots. They could probably get some of those cocooned B-29s but what they really needed were the flight crews. And so all the pilots and flight crews were sent either to Korea or those that were smart, I guess, retired.

And finally, by the time the Korean war ended, advancements in particle accelerators design allowed upper atmosphere research conditions to be simulated on the ground. So there was no longer need for the high-flying laboratories of the B-29s.

But the plane continues to make contributions to this day. There's much more historical research to be done. It sounds like the end of the story, but it's really not. There's so much more information. Much of it in the article that's sitting will be published in the proceedings, but it really is quite a program that no one knows anything about. Did you guys ever, had you ever heard about the upper atmospheric research program? I didn't think so. Hopefully we'll get to tell more of that story the next time. Thank you.


Mary Striegel: Thank you. We have time for two questions. Who has the first question?

Speaker 1: Hi. I was wondering, after the plane crashed into Lake Mead, was there any effort by either the Army, the Navy, to recover any of the equipment that was on there and do we have that?

Susan Edwards: You asked the perfect question. So there was an attempt. The Air Force decided because it had crashed in approximately 280-foot deep water, they went, "I don't think so." And so they abdicated their ownership of the plane at that time. And an individual, a deep sea diver named John True, hooked up with copilot Hassler and flight engineer David Burns, who by the way were brothers-in-law. They'd married sisters. And they made a first attempt in February of 1949 to drag for the plane, see if they could catch it with a drag line out of the Overton arm. John True was a movie diver, movie stunt diver, and a deep sea salvage diver by profession. They were unsuccessful. But our six degrees of separation method revealed that John True would be involved in a murder in 1953. Long after. No reflection on the B-29, but it's one of those trivia facts you get.

It was a murder and a woman named Barbara Graham was the murderess, and John True turns state evidence, and she was convicted. And two of the other members of the gang that murdered Mable Monahan in California would go to the California gas chamber. An Academy Award winning film was made about it called I Want to Live, and it starred Susan Hayward. Now six degrees of separation. John True also used to dive on John Wayne movies. He was in Blood Alley as one of the diver roustabouts. Uncredited in that movie. John Wayne bailed him out during the film, bailed him out of jail for drunkenness during the filming on that. I'm actually connected to this because I once sold John Wayne sweaters when I lived in Newport beach, so you see, I am connected to the B-29.

Mary Striegel: One last question. Anybody have a question?

Speaker 2: A question on the final mission. What took them down so low to the lake? Was it a case of, was that on the flight profile or were they buzzing girls in boats?

Susan Edwards: Well. Officially, in the accident report and the stories, it was that the altimeter was incorrectly adjusted. They thought they were 400 feet higher. But later testimony and rumors from family members, they were hot-dogging. There you go.

Speaker Bios

Susan R. Edwards, M.A., R.P.A, is an Associate Research Archaeologist and Historian with the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. With 35 years of experience, Ms. Edwards has spent much of her career engaged in documenting and interpreting science-related resources of the Cold War period. She is currently working on several articles on the archaeology of nuclear testing and a book on the B-29 Superfortress submerged at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Jeffrey R. Wedding is an Assistant Research Scientist with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, NV. His historical archaeology work has documented World War II and Cold War era military facilities and training complexes, hard rock mining camps, and transportation resources (particularly aviation and railroading). He also serves on the staff of the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame, and as an Associate Researcher at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.

Last updated: November 3, 2022