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An RB-29 On a Secret Cold War Mission. What Could Go Wrong?

The History of This Aircraft is Amazing But Visitor Access May Be a Challenge

B-29 via US Air Force

3,970 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses were built by Boeing at Renton in Washington and Wichita, by Bell at Marietta, and by Martin in Omaha. The effort to design, develop, and produce these advanced aircraft was a massive undertaking. B-29s were adapted for everything from weather research to flying television transmitters. Many B-29 airframes were modified to create long range high altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft. Designated first as F-13 and later as RB-29, these recon Superfort variants flew reconnaissance, research, and test missions all over the world during the 1940s and 1950s. This story is about one of them.

Early B-29 via US Air Force

B-29-100-BW Superfortress Air Force serial number 45-21847 entered service with the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) on September 13th 1945. Not long thereafter the bomber was modified to F-13 specifications at the Oklahoma City Air Depot at Tinker Army Air Field (AAF). 45-21847 served the remainder of 1945 based out of Chino AAF and then Victorville AAF. From there, 45-21847 went to Warner Robins Air Depot at Robins AAF in Georgia to be modified for cold weather operations and was redesignated B-29F during April of 1946.

B-29 via US Air Force

By June of 1946 the aircraft was assigned to Fairchild AAF in Washington. April of 1947 saw the aircraft assigned to Muroc Flight Test Base (later Edwards Air Force Base [AFB]) in California. From there the Superfort went to the Sacramento Air Depot at McClellan AAF in California for modification to RB-29 standards. Once the mods were complete, which included being stripped of all guns, 45-21847 was sent to the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) Inyokern (now China Lake).

B-29 via US Air Force

At Inyokern the RB-29 was fitted with a sensor system called Sun Tracker. The device was intended for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) guidance using navigation by the sun. The RB-29 was also used for upper air research in conjunction with rocket flights being fired from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The Sun Tracker mission profile required a climb to 35,000 feet or so and then a steep dive down to low-altitude- in this case as low above the surface of Lake Mead on the Arizona/Nevada border as possible. On July 21st 1948, pilot Captain Robert M. Madison and his crew of four were flying a Sun Tracker mission when the aircraft went too low and hit the surface of the lake going 250 miles per hour. Then the RB-29 did its best imitation of a skipping stone until coming to rest and taking on water. Fast.

By Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs (B-29 Superfortress Submerged in Lake Mead) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The impact with the surface of the lake had torn three of the four Wright R-3350-23 Duplex-Cyclone turbo-supercharged radial engines from the Superfort’s wings leaving only engine #1. When the aircraft finally came to a stop the crew was able to take to life rafts before the RB-29 sank beneath the surface of Lake Mead. The crew was rescued from the lake after six hours in their rafts. They were admonished about disclosure of any details regarding the flight, their mission, or the loss of the aircraft. Details were not made available until 50 years after 45-21847 sank thanks to the classification of the Sun Tracker program.

By Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs (B-29 Superfortress Submerged in Lake Mead) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A private dive team using side-scan sonar found the wreck of the RB-29 in the Overton Arm of Lake Mead in 2001. Its location dictates that custody of the wreck belongs to the National Park Service (NPS). The Lady, as the Superfort is now called, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dives on the RB-29 wreck have been an on-again off-again affair since it was discovered thanks in part to variations in lake water depths due to drought in the region. The NPS is (quite justifiably) concerned about conservation of the wreck, so dive ops to the site have been limited. But what 45-21847 did and how she got there is a much better story than the back and forth about diving the wreck.

By Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs (B-29 Superfortress Submerged in Lake Mead) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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