American Charmer: Hal Graham
Not long ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Hal Graham telling me that he just read my jetpack book and that he liked it. This was great news for a couple of reasons. Hal was the first Bell Aerosystems pilot to test the company’s Rocket Belt during a free flight. (That’s him in the photo, saluting none other than JFK following a 1961 demonstration at Fort Bragg. He flew for many high-level muckety mucks in his day.) So hearing that Hal liked the book meant a lot to me. But his email was additionally meaningful because I’d heard through the Yahoo rocket belt group that he had been having health problems. I took his note as confirmation that Hal is back on his feet. Here’s hoping, anyway, because he is one of the greatest American characters you’ve probably never heard of.
When Hal was 26 years old he worked the graveyard shift in the rocket-testing department of Bell’s Mercury spacecraft project. Burnt out by the hours, he’d resigned from Bell when a call came in—the company was looking for a new jetpack pilot. Hal took the job. He tested the flying machine 36 times on an indoor tethered safety wire before heading outside to a patch of grass near the Niagara Airport for the first free flight. It was there on April 20, 1961 that Hal steered his rocket belt 112 feet. It’s a flight that, when it is noted at all, is invariably compared to the Wright Brothers’ maiden voyage of 120 feet. (I made the comparison myself.) Sadly, however, Hal’s heroic work has not led to the same breakthroughs in jetpackery that the Wright Brothers jump-started in the aviation industry. And so Hal and other Bell engineers and pilots—such as Wendell Moore and Bill Suitor, respectively—have not enjoyed the same level of public praise. And that’s a shame.
To travel from his tiny hometown fifty miles west of Knoxville to 1996’s First International Rocket Belt convention in Niagara, New York, Hal, then 72 years old, flew himself and his girlfriend in his charter plane. And then he not so quietly stole the show. Onstage with several of Bell’s former top engineers and pilots, Hal played the ukulele and sang along with an original composition about his fond memories of his flying days. He did it while wearing the tattered remnants of his test flight racing suit. One of my biggest professional regrets is that, as the convention was winding down that Sunday afternoon I heard about a gathering of old Bell hands at a nearby bar. I should have leapt at the opportunity to go listen in on what were surely well lubricated, fascinating tales—the Bell boys were famously hard working and also hard partying. But I didn’t go. I was tired and had a long drive back home to Brooklyn.
Later that same Sunday evening or maybe the next morning, Hal Graham also made for home. Only he did not get behind the wheel of a 1999 Subaru. No, he flew his Piper Apache, cruising with his girlfriend at 140 knots non-stop for three hours and six minutes to Crossville, a town so small that you can mail Hal a letter and you don’t even need to include a street name. I recommend that you do. And can almost guarantee you’ll get a reply.
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