Capt. Ray Arntz assisting John Walker (left) and Kendall Raine
before their first dive to the B-36 Peacemaker.
Photo by Pat Macha.
B-36 Dive Report
By Kendall Raine
The weather was perfect after two weeks of storms. A warm orange glow built from the east and the sea had a small rolling swell. We left Mission Bay aboard Sundiver II early for the run out to the site of the crash of the largest combat aircraft ever built. Nicknamed the Peacemaker, the Convair B-36 was the first strategic bomber in the American arsenal. In its day, no other aircraft of any nation could fly as far with as large a payload as the B-36. Conceived during World War II as a massive conventional bomber, it was well suited to its early cold war role as the ultimate deterrent against a Soviet nuclear threat.
Despite claims since 2004 that the aircraft had been located and dived by others, no evidence had ever been made public supporting such claims. Dive reports from others made us suspicious that what others were calling the B-36 was a rock pile with some scattered debris of something, but not a massive aluminum and magnesium bomber. Based upon our skepticism, we undertook a new search for the elusive plane.
Once our team reviewed drop camera images of one of our targets in October, we knew we had identified the wreck site and that previous descriptions of the wreck’s condition, it’s location and bottom features were erroneous. We believed we would be the first sport divers to visit her last resting place.
Aboard Sundiver was Captain Ray Arntz, aircraft archaeologist Pat Macha, John Walker and I. John and I were extremely excited about this dive. Having established the wreck’s location six weeks ago, we’d been chomping at the bit for a chance to visit the wreck.
Aircraft archaeologist G. Pat Macha.
We arrived on site and dropped a weighted line in what we believed was the center of the debris field. We knew the wreck was severely broken up. We also expected substantial portions of the fuselage and wings outer skin to have corroded away. While the aluminum skin would have survived, much of the B-36 covering was of magnesium. A revolutionary material in 1952 terms of strength to weight ratio, magnesium burned very easily and corroded very rapidly in salt water. At the depth of the wreck, our scouting range would be limited and swimming any distance at this depth would bring the added penalties of increased gas consumption and decompression stress. Our objective for this dive was to shoot video of as many clearly identifiable features of the B-36 as possible. First amongst those would be the massive tires and propellers of the B-36 who’s proportions were so beyond any other aircraft then or now as to make identity a certainty. As such, we expected to limit our swim to the area around the middle of the massive aircraft so as to maximize our chances of locating these features. We had drop camera images of both targets, but scale was needed to make identity definitive.
John and I descended the weighted line. We hoped for similar conditions to those of our previous trip, but the bottom was very dark. Visibility was no more than 15 feet and a slight current ran over the wreck. I tied in a reel to the up line and swam on a heading of 240 degrees toward what we believed would be the middle of the fuselage. John swam ten feet away to my left, the twin 35 watt HID lamps of his video throwing a large field of light over the wreck. From the beginning it was shocking how shattered the wreckage was. The fuselage was flattened and broken in so many pieces the largest section was perhaps fifteen feet long. Despite this, I quickly passed over a large circular opening in the top of the fuselage which was probably one of the sighting blisters.
A hole in the aircraft skin where a plexiglas sighting blister used to be installed.
Wiring ran the direction of our swim suggesting we were following the contour of the fuselage. Almost everywhere our lights illuminated vibrant purples, reds, oranges and green gorgonians.
Beautiful gorgonians are abundant on the wreck.
Bright colored rock and flag fish scattered as we intruded upon their home. After a five minute swim we came to a patch of sand with no visible wreckage beyond. I turned around and began to reel up the line. As I swam I noticed mounds of debris off to my left. A dome shaped object appeared in the darkness. It was semispherical except that a portion of the dome was caved in. Though encrusted, the dome looked to be made of plastic. Closer examination revealed an aluminum base with handles visible protruding from the bottom. This could only be one of the sighting blisters used as part of the plane’s defensive system and for observation/navigation-it fit in the hole in the fuselage seen earlier. The dimensions and characteristics of this object matched perfectly those of the B-36.
(Left) A plexiglas sighting blister from the last B-36 Peacemaker at the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, AZ. Photo by Gary Fabian. (Right) A damaged sighting blister from the wreck site of the B-36 Bomber. Photo by John Walker.
Continuing left, I came across more and more solid chunks of aircraft including what looked like massive wing spars. Large sections of rubber protruding from these spars suggested portions of the fuel cells. As there was no evident fire damage, I assumed I was over the left wing. My suspicions were soon confirmed as out of darkness loomed what was obviously one of the main landing gear struts. Its massive length and diameter matched photographs. I looked for the four massive tires which had to be nearby. The first pair of these soon came into view. Nearly five feet in diameter, these tires were the largest on any aircraft of its time and rival those of today’s largest commercial aircraft. They lay one on top of the other with part of the wheel axle protruding from the top tire. I immediately signaled John to shoot the image. As John and I swam forward a few more feet another tire came into view. With John”s light illuminating the scene I stretched my arms wide across the diameter of the tire. My guess at the time was that the diameter exceeded five feet. These could not belong to any other aircraft known to have crashed off Mission Beach.
Kendall Raine swims past a pair of landing gear tires. An axle can be seen protruding from the center of the tires. Photo by John Walker.
Kendall taking a measurement of another B-36 tire. Photo by John Walker.
I then began a search for one of the six turbo charged pusher mounted engines. What I really wanted was to get scale on a propeller. Our bottom time was almost up and we needed to turn for the up line. As we reached the up line I cut the guideline from my reel rather than wasting time reeling up. The penetration line was tied into the up line and Ray would pull the whole mess up as he retrieved the up line.
John and I started our long slow ascent back to light and warmth. As we settled into the familiar routine of decompression stops and gas switches, I shot a lift bag so as to allow Ray to retrieve the up line. We completed our deco drifting.
Ray and Pat eagerly welcomed us back. We quickly got back aboard and loaded the video into Ray’s monitor. Pat was fascinated with the video. Having spent much of his adult life searching for and identifying military airplane wrecks, Pat was able to offer possible identification to numerous pieces of wreckage evident on the video. His knowledge of the B-36 was nearly encyclopedic. When he saw the landing gear struts and the sighting blister the case was sealed. Seeing me draped over the tire was just icing on the cake.
There is no doubt this was the wreck of a Convair B-36. The only one to have crashed off Mission Beach and the plane so heroically piloted by Dave Franks in those final minutes as he bought with his life precious time for his crew to bail out.