Rocket Belt Hero Hal Graham Earns His Wings
Hal Graham, the charming original Bell rocketman who in 1961 flew the first free flight of the company’s precursor to a jetpack, the Rocket Belt, died on October 22. To remember and honor Hal, known in the greater rocketing community as “His Eminence,” I am dedicating this space this week to his memory and his incredible life. Below please find the section of my book in which Hal is the star. I didn’t know Hal terribly well but I knew him well enough to be very fond of him and to greatly admire him. I am far from alone.
Harold Graham was an energetic twenty-six-year old with the build of the ice hockey player he was. He’d been hired by Bell a couple of years earlier, taking on the undesirable graveyard shift in the rocket-testing department of the Mercury project. For a year and a half he punched the clock and worked for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Quickly burned out, he soon resigned and was casting about for something better when the phone rang one day. It was Bell Human Resources—there was a new opening. And it was a day job. “So I went for it,” Graham said in a telephone interview. “Turns out it was a lucky break for me.”
And how. Graham picked up where Moore had left off—with a few minor differences: when the company doctor checked him before his first tethered hangar flight, Graham’s blood pressure spiked at 140. But he soon got over his fears. Thirty-six tests later, the Rocket Belt team was ready to move outside.
On April 20, 1961, a date that for jetpack obsessives carries as much significance as July 20, 1969, does for space nuts, and fifteen days before Alan Shepard first climbed aboard the Mercury, the Bell crew gathered early in the morning on a stretch of turf at the edge of the Niagara Airport. Graham maneuvered into his 140-pound pack. He exhaled deeply, his breath billowing in the cold air. Cars jammed the nearby roadway, drivers straining to catch a glimpse of this comic-book page come to life.
Then Graham was suddenly in the air, toes flexed a foot and a half above the grass, which flattened under the exhaust’s force. The pilot nudged the jetovators. He flew forward. Three, four, maybe five miles per hour. The photographers ambled along in wool suits, clicking madly, keeping pace. In Bell’s film footage, Graham is initially obscured by the clouds of white steam generated by the hydrogen peroxide meeting the low temperature of the air. But as he floated now, the smoke cleared to reveal a determined, if not completely relaxed, pilot kicking gravity’s ass like it had never been kicked before. One hundred and twelve feet later—or eight less than the Wright brothers’ maiden voyage—Harold Graham’s boots reconnected with Earth. There would be many, many drinks that night on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
The team sobered up quickly. Only months remained on the army’s contract, and much work was to be done if Bell hoped to get an extension of two hundred thousand dollars. Which, of course, Wendell Moore badly wanted, if only to have time and resources to improve on the Rocket Belt’s twenty-one-second flight time, a cruel constraint of physics due primarily to the amount of fuel a pilot could comfortably hold on his back. No question, what Moore had come up with was impressive—a man could now come as close as he’d ever been to flying like a bird—but what was the average soldier going to be able to accomplish with a mere twenty-one seconds in the sky?
As it was, the nitrogen tank held two pounds of fuel, whereas forty-seven pounds of hydrogen peroxide was stored in the other compartments. So the Rocket Belt captain was already tinkering with possible alternate fuel sources and thinking about ways to lighten the pack to increase airtime.
Meanwhile, Graham could now launch himself up a thirty-foot hill, leap over a twelve-foot stream, and slalom between ski flags like a cross between Swiss ski legend Silvan Zurbriggen and a Hadada Ibis. He was, in other words, ready for his close-up.
The first public demonstration of the Rocket Belt occurred on June 8, 1961, at Fort Eustis in Virginia. Graham and Bell’s inner circle—Moore, Kreutinger, Ganczak, and Dr. F. Tyler Kelly—traveled down. The army’s point man, a civilian named Robert Graham (no relation to Harold), met the crew and marched them over to a patch of turf that was empty, save for a single parked army truck. Ringing the field were several hundred high-ranking officers and their guests. The plan was for Graham to lift off, elevate above the truck, fly over it, and land. Without breaking anything.
By this point Moore knew he had a reliable machine and a talented pilot. His nerves were not so jittery that a pack of Winstons couldn’t do the trick. He hung back in the crowd and waited for that now familiar shriek.
And then it came—Graham drifted high above the vehicle, the black dot of his helmet providing the point on an inverted exclamation mark of a man. When he floated softly back to Earth, the crowd met him with booming applause. Buck Rogers was finally among them. Graham grinned and threw an unrehearsed salute. “By the time we got back to the hotel,” Bob Roach says, his breath still catching all these years later, “the phone was ringing off the hook,” with calls from local newspapers and the Associated Press.
“Knapsack-Like Jet Enables Man to Fly,” the Hartford Times breathlessly but wrongly asserted. “Flying Belt Rockets into Reality,” exclaimed the Waukegan News-Sun. Many publications pushed the Buck Rogers connection: “Man Flies Like Buck Rogers Now,” “Buck Rogers’ Space Belt Becomes Reality,” and, most poignantly, “Buck Rogers Era Here.” Others turned to more organic analogies. “Old Dream of Flying with Birds Now True,” exclaimed the Philadelphia Bulletin; “Belt on Back Bolts Birdman,” the St. Petersburg Independent alliterated.
Invoking the flight of birds in this way effectively aligned Graham with myths like Icarus and men like da Vinci and Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont was the eccentric, well-tailored Brazilian who, in the early twentieth century, flew lighter-than-air balloons around the Eiffel Tower and was known to park his vessel on the roof of the restaurant at which he was lunching. Once, reminiscing about his childhood, he said, “I would lie in the shade of the verandah and gaze into the fair sky of Brazil. Where the birds fly so high and soar with such ease on their great outstretched wings, where the clouds mount so gaily in the pure light of day, and you have only to raise your eyes to fall in love with space and freedom.”
And just like Alberto Santos-Dumont, Hal Graham was suddenly a celebrity; the Belt, as it was known, was a hit. The Buffalo News arranged a photo shoot, wherein Graham played your average commuting husband, and Carolyn stood in as the doting housewife. The paper shot scenes at the Moores’ place of Graham leaving for work in the morning, kissing his wife good-bye, walking out onto his back porch, and strapping on his jetpack, as if it were tomorrow’s Packard.
Soon, the biggest names in the government were clamoring for a look. At a Pentagon demonstration Graham flew once in the morning and again in the afternoon in front of an estimated six thousand officers and assorted VIPs. For that launch, the young pilot leaped a parked military sedan, traveling about the length of a football field before touching down. The next day’s New York Times carried a report of Graham’s thirty-foot-high launch on its front page. A few months later, Moore and his crew were called to Fort Bragg for their biggest moment yet, a ship-to-shore operation for none other than President Kennedy. In grainy clips of that historic hop, Graham jumps from a small vessel, blitzing low across the water and whitecaps of McKeller’s Lake. And then he’s ashore, a spaceman on the beach, saluting JFK, who returns the gesture. Life magazine captured the exchange from the president’s point of view, the familiar silhouette looking upon American ingenuity at its most creative. The Buffalo Evening News wrote that “Mr. Kennedy was described by an Army Officer sitting near him as ‘wide eyed and open mouthed—just like a kid.’” “My favorite memory has got to be the JFK flight,” Graham told a PBS affiliate years later. “I mean, the president of the United States—where do you go from there?”
One answer: to a demo in Phoenix for then secretary of defense Robert McNamara. Another: nowhere fast—well, at 40 mph, anyway. Although the public and certain corners of the military were understandably smitten with Moore’s invention, there was one serious design flaw yet to be worked out—that frustratingly short twenty-one-second flight time.
Bell had been awarded a contract to demonstrate the concept of its flying machine, but until the company could improve on the Belt’s flight duration, the government wasn’t about to cough up any more dough.
Wendell went back to his Niagara Falls drawing board, his fifteen minutes of fame behind him. Harold Graham went on to careers in teaching, as an accountant, town justice, engineer, computer programmer, and, currently, charter-plane pilot. Now seventy-three years old, he lives with his girlfriend fifty miles west of Knoxville, Tennessee, in a town so small you can mail him a letter without including a street address and he’ll get it.
“The good part is that I did it for the first year and a half we went public—it’s nice being number one,” Graham told me. “If the Wright brothers were the first to fly, who was the fifth to fly?”
Reprinted with the permission of Da Capo Press.
Photo of Hal Graham saluting J.F.K courtesy of Life magazine.
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