Wednesday, October 26, 2005


This special team combines diving with archaeology


Courier Post
October 25, 2005

On a barge in Lake Mead, Nev., under a scorching sun, Dave Conlin pulled on long underwear, wool socks and a fleece jacket and pants. He donned an insulated drysuit over all that, strapped two scuba tanks to his back and slung another under one arm. It was so much gear -- almost 200 pounds -- he needed help standing up.

His boyish face compressed in a thick neoprene dive hood, Conlin duck-walked to the edge of the barge and stepped into the water.

Plunging in after Conlin, who is an underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center, were fellow archaeologist Matt Russell and photographer Brett Seymour, both with the SRC, and Jeff Bozanic, a technical diver under contract to the National Park Service.

One hundred seventy feet below lay the wreckage of a B-29 bomber. It crashed in 1948 while on a secret mission to test components for a missile guidance system. After World War II, this B-29 had been stripped of its armaments and fitted with a Sun Tracker, an experimental sensor unit that, when perfected, would allow missiles to navigate by the sun. The cold war was heating and the U.S. military wanted missiles that could not be jammed from the ground, as the radar- and radio-guided missiles of the time could be. The Sun Tracker was a precursor to the systems that guide today's cruise missiles.

In 2001, a private dive team searching for the B-29 using sidescan sonar found the wreck in the northern arm of Lake Mead. Because the bomber lies inside a National Recreation Area, responsibility for the site fell to the National Park Service. The SRC has been surveying the site and preparing it for amateur divers willing to brave the frigid depths for a glimpse of a cold war relic.

As Conlin later described it, a quick descent took them to the plane, which rests right side up, its nose cowling crushed and its back broken, but otherwise in remarkably good condition.

The research team set to work, with Seymour shooting video of Russell to use in an orientation film for visiting divers. They will take readings every foot to measure how much the bomber's surface is corroding in the water.

From one of the bomber's engine enclosures hangs another probe, installed on an earlier dive, that collects data every five minutes, including temperature, salinity and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

"This all tells us something about the corrosive environment," Russell tells Smithsonian magazine. The team also is documenting the plane's current condition. "We're establishing a base line so we can come back in two, five or 10 years and see what the visitor impact has been."
The Lake Mead bomber is believed to be the only submerged B-29 in the continental United States. The park service predicts it'll become a popular dive site.

With a wingspan of 141 feet and a tail 29 feet high, the B-29 was the heaviest, most advanced bomber of its time. The Lake Mead plane, with its guns and armor removed, closely resembled a more famous pair of bombers stripped down for speed, the Enola Gay and the Bockscar, which dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

Fewer than a dozen B-29s are on display at museums and air parks around the country, including the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport and the Bockscar at the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Although diving on a WWII bomber is a far cry from dusting off 1,000-year-old clay pots, it's still archaeology. Few scholars combine technical diving skills with the archaeological experience of the SRC.

Based in Santa Fe, N.M., the squad's five experts dive on locations around the world. If an artifact is under water and in a national park, the SRC usually gets the call.

They've had a hand in raising a sunken Civil War submarine and now, says squad chief Larry Murphy, the group is surveying the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor and a sunken ferry off New York's Ellis Island. "The first question is what's there. The second question is what's happening to it."


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