Sunday, January 01, 2006

Bomber wreckage beckons divers


By Henry Brean
October 10, 2005

National Park Service tries to protect B-29 from plundering, damage while still allowing access
After two years of litigation, the National Park Service has won its custody fight for a B-29 bomber that crashed and sank to the bottom of Lake Mead's Overton Arm in 1948.

Now the man who discovered the wreckage is calling on the agency's officials to do more to protect the aircraft before it is carted off or destroyed by unscrupulous divers.

Already, parts have been plundered and damage done to the B-29, said Gregg Mikolasek, the one-time Henderson dive instructor who led the team that found the wreckage in 2001.

"It's very discouraging," said Mikolasek, who returned to the aircraft during a dive permitted by the agency in May. "This wreck was pristine when we left it in 2002."

The service has launched an investigation into the damage and who might have caused it, said Roxanne Dey, spokeswoman for Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

"We will aggressively prosecute the people who are responsible. It's a priority for us," she said.

In the meantime, Dey said, park officials are working with "the local dive community" to brainstorm ways to better protect the sunken bomber.

The remote site poses a challenge for the agency, which lacks the resources to post someone there all of the time.

Dey said park officials rely on help from boaters, divers and other visitors to report any suspicious activity in the area.

To make that work, however, the park has marked a wide zone around the wreckage with buoys so visitors know where to look.

Some argue the buoys needlessly draw attention to the B-29.

Others argue that those who are plundering the wreck already know where it is, and the only way to stop them is to catch them in the act.

"I feel we're doing as much as humanly possible," Dey said. "We can't be there every minute of every day, and unfortunately there is a segment of the population that will engage in this kind of activity."

The agency currently prohibits diving and the use of anchors in a 14-square-mile area around the bomber without permission from the chief ranger for the park. That could change now that the court battle over the B-29 has ended.

In 2003, U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson blocked California-based Historical Aircraft Recovery Corp. from salvaging the bomber. Dawson ruled that the Park Service had not abandoned the wreckage.

Dawson's decision left the door open for the company to seek a "salvage award" from the federal government as compensation for finding the aircraft and "contributing to its rescue."

No financial reimbursement was ever sought by the company, and in May the judge granted a government motion to close the case. That move became official in mid-August when the deadline for appeal came and went.

"I don't have any intention of pursuing it any further," said Mikolasek, who transferred his rights to the wreckage to Historical Aircraft Recovery Corp. and had no direct involvement in the custody fight.

"I just hope the management will improve to actually preserve the site ... and allow for future exploration by responsible divers," Mikolasek said.

Recreation Area Superintendant William K. Dickinson promised as much in a statement released by the park a week ago.

"Now that the court case is over, we will continue to meet with members of the local dive community to work collaboratively on a management plan that will allow the public to experience the site while protecting it for future generations as part of a comprehensive site stewardship plan," Dickinson said in the statement.

"We are moving forward to open the site to permitted diving as soon as possible."

On July 21, 1948, the B-29 Superfortress crashed while on a high-altitude, atmospheric research mission.

Three of the four engines tore off when the 99-foot aircraft hit the water and skipped like a stone for more than a quarter of a mile.

The plane's pilot, Capt. Robert Madison, scientist John Simeroth and three others escaped through cockpit hatches as the B-29 submerged in 12 minutes.

The aircraft was lost in the cold, dark water of the lake until a team of local divers found it again in 2001.

Barring an enormous drop in the water level at Lake Mead, the B-29 should remain out of reach of recreational divers.

It currently rests in about 170 feet of open water.

"It's still an advanced dive," Mikolasek said. "It can best be described as cold, dark, deep and scary."

Dey said that is exactly why permits will be required once the service opens the wreck to diving: to make sure those allowed to explore the wreck are qualified to do so.

Dey said there also has been talk of building a floating dive platform above the aircraft.

Now the plan calls for the installation of moorings at the site, however, so boats have something to tie onto during dive operations.

Park officials could not say when the moorings might be built or the first permits issued to divers wanting to explore the wreckage.

Dey hopes it happens soon.

"We get several requests a week from people who want to dive the B-29," she said.

"The park service doesn't like to keep people away from resources. But we want to make sure we have a plan in place for stewardship of the B-29 first."



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