Sunday, March 05, 2006


Restrictions Eased on Historic B-29 Lake Mead Crash Site


March 02, 2006

It's an interesting piece of Southern Nevada History, but no one is allowed to see it. At least until now. But the National Park Service is getting ready to make this artifact available to at least some people.

The plane crashed into the Overton arm of Lake Mead in 1948, and wasn't rediscovered until 53 years later. Since then, it's been closed to the public. Of course, most of the public wouldn't be able to get to it anyhow. This plane is way down there...almost 200 feet.

Ghostly images on a TV screen are all most will ever see of this B-29 superfortess, which went down while doing cold war research.

Russ Green is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is controlling a VideoRay Remote Operational Vehicle (ROV).

"We're looking at an oxygen cylinder...there's several aboard and airplane...that the pilot and crew could breathe oxygen at higher elevations. This one just happened to fall out from the rear of the plane," narrates Green, glancing at the screen.

The crew escaped alive, but the plane has been there ever since. And the National Park Service doesn't want to see that change.

"Removing the plane from where it is now would dramatically effect its prospects for the future," explains NPS Archeologist Dave Conlin. "And it would radically increase its corrosion and decay rate. So we weren't convinced it was in the best interests of that particular resource to bring it up."

Even without NPS protection, this site is out of reach for amateur divers. The members of the NPS Submerged Cultural Resources Unit use advanced "rebreathers" instead of standard dive tanks. And have to have a recompression chamber on hand just in case--heaven forbid--someone was to get the bends.

"There's a kind of a gurney in there with handles and a pull rope." says NPS Photographer Brett Seymour. "You'd slide the person in. Put the two ends in. Get a seal and recompress."

From there, the chamber is airlifted to Las Vegas. Luckily, it's never been used. But clearly, visiting the B-29 isn't for everyone.

"The depth here is not that deep for a technical dive," according to Seymour. "But what we're looking at is the conditions. The darkness, the silt. You know, there's a lot of things going on here that make this a challenging dive."

For those who are part of the team, it's a special experience.

"Well you know the whole thing is the sense of history you get. Being able to see what's down there," smiles Diving Consultant Jeff Bozanic, as he emerges from the water.

The National Park Service is now planning to open the restricted waters to qualified divers. For others, it will be video feeds, informational packets and lectures, delivered to schools and the general public.

"We have a dual mandate," says Conlin. "One is to provide recreational opportunities for the American public, but also to preserve cultural and historical resources for future generations. And so striking a balance between that is a difficult thing."

NPS officials haven't yet set a firm date on when the plane will be reopened to technical divers. For now, there is a fine for diving in the area...or even docking your boat there.


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