Rocketman Hal Graham

Hal Graham, the first man to officially fly a rocketbelt, has died. The following is an edited extract from The Rocketbelt Caper:

Harold ‘Hal’ Graham was a 27-year-old science graduate from Buffalo who had been working for the Bell Aircraft Company as a test engineer for just over a year when he was selected to be the first man to pilot the rocketbelt – the iconic flying jetpack created by engineer Wendell Moore.

It would be Graham’s first taste of flying. He was not a registered pilot, and the only machine he had previous experience of driving was a car. He was, however, a rocketbelt fan, having grown up with Buck Rogers comics and Commando Cody serials. When Bell began to ask around for a volunteer to fly the rocketbelt he had no hesitation in applying for the job.

Graham’s first tethered flight took place in March 1961. These flights took place in a large aircraft hangar. The rocketbelt was suspended from the ceiling, and small amounts of thrust were used to generate moderate lift. 36 tethered flights later, it was time for the safety ropes to come off.

The very first untethered rocketbelt flight took place at seven in the morning on 20 April 1961. A 20-man Bell crew gathered at an empty clearing near the Bell plant on Buffalo’s Niagara Falls Boulevard and opposite the Niagara Falls Municipal Airport, which had been specially closed for 30 minutes. The crew ran through a detailed checklist in preparation for the flight.

Then Graham, wearing a black rubber suit, white helmet, work boots, and goggles, released the throttle in a short burst to check the propulsion. All seemed fine. Again he released the throttle, this time successfully lifting the belt around 18 inches from the ground in a thick cloud of steam, and piloted it in a straight line at a speed of around ten miles per hour.

The noise was incredible – an explosive roar of gas as loud as a pneumatic drill. And visibility was poor – almost zero according to Graham – due to condensation created by the rocket exhaust.

On the first free rocketbelt flight Hal Graham flew for 13 seconds and covered a distance of 112 feet – eight feet less than the Wright Brothers had covered in their inaugural flight. It was nevertheless a thoroughly triumphant debut.

Following the success of the test flight, Bell executives were keen to unveil the remarkable device to the public. After 28 test flights, Wendell Moore was satisfied enough to agree to a public demonstration.

The first public rocketbelt flight took place at Fort Eustis, Virginia, on 8 June 1961 at a demonstration of new technologies. Light bulbs flashed and film reels rolled as Graham piloted the rocketbelt into the air, legs swinging below him. Against a backdrop of Air Force planes, Graham maneuvered the rocketbelt over a truck, and higher into the sky. He flew to around 15 feet, and then descended, bouncing slightly as he landed on his feet. Graham then offered a salute.

After removing his fire suit, Graham was mobbed by the press. Microphones were thrust into his face, and pencils jotted down every word he said. Bell officials handed out press releases which began, ‘Harold M Graham is believed to be the first man to fly with back-carried rocket equipment.’

The story made the front pages across the US. The New York Times headline read, ‘Portable army rocket propels man 150 feet in 11-second test flight.’ Life magazine said, ‘Graham was strapped to a hydrogen peroxide-fuelled rocket. The Army hopes it will someday make all foot soldiers look like Buck Rogers.’

One week later, Graham demonstrated the rocketbelt on the front lawn of the Pentagon in Washington DC in front of a huge crowd of military personnel.

Then, in October 1961, Graham, Moore and the Bell crew travelled to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to participate in another military demonstration, this time as part of a display of combat readiness. The demonstration was performed in front of a notable guest of honor – President John F Kennedy.

Graham, wearing a US Army uniform, took off from an amphibious landing vehicle, flew across a pond in a spray of water, and landed 14 seconds later on a sand embankment in front of JFK. Graham remembered to salute but forgot to depressurize the belt in the excitement of the moment, although he managed to remain on the ground. ‘Mr Kennedy was described by an Army Officer sitting near him as “wide eyed and open mouthed, just like a kid”,’ reported the Buffalo Evening News.

The public interest and publicity surrounding Graham and the rocketbelt generated much correspondence. Letters requesting public appearances began to flood the Bell offices. One man wrote to Bell requesting the use of the rocketbelt in order to claim a $1 million treasure trove that, he claimed, he could only reach with the use of the belt. Suspicious Bell executives turned the request down.

Although Hal Graham could now proficiently fly the rocketbelt, he was still not a registered airplane pilot. In November 1961 he decided to do something about that. He began to take flying lessons, and qualified for his pilot’s license in July 1962. That year also saw the debut of the B-Series rocketbelt. The new belt was engineered to reduce weight, and, as rocketbelt pilot, Graham was kitted out in a brand new bright yellow flight suit.

But Hal Graham’s short career as a rocketbelt pilot was coming to an end. During an ill-fated demonstration at Cape Canaveral, Graham fell 22 feet, landed on his head, and was knocked unconscious. He survived the crash, but decided to get out of the rocketbelt business. Graham made 83 untethered rocketbelt flights during his time at Bell, but he left the company in 1962 to pursue his new love of flying traditional aircraft. He set up his own one-man, one-plane charter flight company in Crossville, Tennessee.

Hal Graham died in Nashville on 22 October 2009, aged 75.

Watch Hal Graham fly the rocketbelt (YouTube)

Read The Rocketbelt Caper

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK