On a chilly Halloween afternoon, a group of about 70 people huddled outside an aluminum hangar at Crossville Memorial Airport, a tiny airstrip some 70 miles west of Knoxville. They had come to honor the life of a 75-year-old charter pilot named Hal Graham, and to make sense of his sudden and shocking end. They stuffed their cold hands into coat pockets and looked upward, away from earth.
As they watched, three airplanes took shape against the autumn sky. As the planes came closer, the people below made note of their flight pattern: a loose, triangular formation. It's the lead-up to the missing-man formation Air Force fighter jocks use to honor a fallen comrade, a sight that gives chills when performed by F-16s screaming across a field of blue.
This, by contrast, was three small twin-prop planes on a field of gray. Their motors were less a roar than a mournful drone.
The lead aircraft made a low pass over the runway and banked into an arcing 90-degree turn to the south. The other two lagged a quarter-mile behind on parallel headings and plodded west past the crowd. But Graham's fellow pilots didn't need jet engines to convey the weight of their mission. Down below, they could see Graham's own twin-prop plane, a honey: a fire-engine red '61 Piper Apache. It sat on the tarmac with its tires blocked, anchored to earth.
Fixed on its tail, though, was an iconic image of man's urge to conquer the skies: a helmeted warrior streaking skyward, propelled by the rocket strapped to his back.
The image of rocket jockeys soaring through space with rocket belts wrapped around their ribs went hand in hand with the space-race fervor of the 1960s. It had been lodged in the public consciousness ever since Buck Rogers blasted through the heavens in comic strips in the '20s. But the people huddled at the Crossville landing strip knew something the rest of the world had forgotten: a man had worn that belt and had felt the exaltation tasted by a relative handful of people in human history—the sensation of literally watching his feet lift from earth as the ground receded.
Buck Rogers was fake. Hal Graham was real.
Graham may have looked like just another aging small-town pilot. The people assembled in Crossville knew differently. Almost 50 years ago, Graham's face had graced the front page of The New York Times, when he had embodied the farthest-out hopes of American aeronautics. He had been the original test pilot for a propulsion system—a rocket belt—that permitted man short bursts of free flight. He thrilled high-ranking Pentagon officials with his deft handling, promising the kind of troop mobility they could only dream of.
Next to the aluminum trays of barbecue at the post-memorial gathering, there were pictures of Graham lifting off, landing before President John F. Kennedy and saluting him in a Life magazine spread. The fly-by marked an era when JFK challenged the nation to claim outer space as America's next frontier. With Graham as its symbol, American ingenuity would make the flight of Icarus more than a myth—only this Icarus wouldn't fall. He couldn't fall. He was a rocket man! Even today, rocket-belt enthusiasts around the world reverently refer to Graham as "His Eminence."
But the dream of this type of free flight eventually evaporated. Graham left the public eye for private life. Eventually he made a business out of flying and launched a single-pilot, single-plane operation. Shuttling passengers to remote airfields in his antique Piper, fellow pilots say, Graham was still a man transformed by flight—at once focused and free.
Some say age and illness had blunted his long-honed flying skills, forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to clip his wings. Others, such as a former employer, are more skeptical. They say Graham saw his livelihood savaged by a federal government that makes no allowances for aging airmen, no matter how stellar their safety record or their reputation. He was forced to surrender his airman certification to the FAA in October. And with it, friends say, went the cornerstone of his very identity.
On Oct. 22, Graham drove his '87 Dodge van from his home in Crab Orchard to the FAA Flight Standards District Office in Nashville near the airport. He arrived a little before 2 p.m. A cold front was on the way, but only a dimpled sheet of cloud filled the sky. He parked near the seven-story office building on Briley Parkway, the clouds and the trees mirrored in its copper-tinted windows, and strode into the lobby. The federal agency that had taken his pilot's license only two weeks earlier is located on the seventh floor.
He walked past a group of men sitting around a table, and past Suzie's Espresso, a wood-paneled coffee stand with its security gates down for the day. Inside, 20-year-old Emily Roy saw him pass out of the corner of her eye as she closed up shop. He was carrying a leather valise and wearing his familiar brown, brimmed hat. He stood in front of the elevators and pulled a pistol from the valise. With nothing left to say, he put the gun to his head.
Emily Roy heard the concussive ring of the shot resound off the close walls, but it didn't register. She thought he had fallen and peeked over the stand to see. Graham lay crumpled on the tile floor.
Some who work in the building recall a procession of police walking in and out of the lobby that day. Outside was an array of television news vans. But friends of Hal Graham, still puzzling over his death, never saw a single story that reported his suicide, and only one fairly inaccurate local television news report on the Internet that disposed of his storied exploits in just over 100 words. If Graham hoped his last desperate act would capture the public eye once more, his final request went unheeded.
How did a man who once lifted a nation's hopes toward the sky end up sprawled on the cold floor of a Nashville office building? For the first time, the story of Hal Graham's rise and tragic fall can be told.
Hal Graham, then 26, awoke at 7 a.m. behind the wheel of his car at a stoplight. It was February of 1961, and he had just pulled a 12-hour shift at the headquarters of Bell Aerospace in Buffalo, N.Y. He wasn't the only one. For two years, thousands of engineers just like him had been working around the clock on Project Mercury, America's first manned space-flight program. Even though Graham had been with Bell little more than a year, he was already burned out. Fed up with the long hours and the toll on his social life, he resigned.
At the same time, the assistant chief engineer at Bell, Wendell Moore—an eccentric and brilliant man with thickly framed spectacles, a bow tie and a flat-top haircut—was pressing forward with a risky idea, one with game-changing implications at the height of the Cold War. Moore had developed reaction control thrusters for the North American X-15, a dart-shaped demon that still holds the world speed record for manned aircraft. Those thrusters, attached to the wingtips and tail, provided crucial control at high altitudes.
The thrusters were powered by intensely flammable hydrogen peroxide at super-high concentration. The peroxide you buy at Walgreen's—the stuff you put on paper cuts and rug burns—comes at about 3 percent concentration. The percentage needed for Moore's thrusters was 90. But the thrusters were small and light—so light, Moore reasoned, that they could easily be mounted on a man's back.
In December 1957. Moore himself tested a rudimentary version of a rocket belt. He was tethered the whole time to a cable strung across a Bell hangar in Buffalo, but the flight went well enough that the Army's Transport Research and Engineering Command (TRECOM) doled out some $150,000 for further development. The Pentagon basically envisioned Iron Man—soldiers who could soar over minefields and rivers, or leap atop unscalable mountains.
With each test flight, Moore troubleshot the tremendous handling difficulties the rocket belt presented. Every test seemed to get Bell closer to the goal of free flight—until the 20th flight.
Hanging from a tether inside Bell's hangar in Buffalo, Moore fired up the thrusters and prepared to accelerate. All at once, he lost control of the rocket belt and swung into a prone position. The red-hot thrusters seared the tether. His lifeline snapped. With the 125-pound rocket belt strapped to his back, filled with flammable hydrogen peroxide, Moore plummeted eight feet to the ground.
Moore probably got off lucky. The fall shattered his kneecap upon impact, but he escaped further injuries. Gone, though, were any hopes of testing the rocket pack himself. He needed a replacement—someone with no flying experience, who could prove to the Army that any grunt could master self-propelled flight.
There was a man who met Moore's criteria. Unfortunately, he'd just resigned from Bell. A rangy, bright Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute grad, Hal Graham was a mischievous former hockey player from Buffalo with an aquiline nose, a square jaw—and no experience piloting anything but his own car. Moore tracked him down and invited him to return to the Bell fold.
Once a mere cog in a massive aerospace engineering complex, Graham found himself cast as the space age's leading man—the Buck Rogers he'd only read about in comics.
"In the Mercury project there's, I don't know, 10,000 engineers putting pieces together, testing stuff," Graham said in an interview with Kathleen Lennon Clough, the daughter of Bell's chief photographer for the rocket belt project. "I was just doing test work on the components that made up the peroxide thrust engine. That's a very small part. But on the rocket belt...hey, you know? I'm it. I'm the focus."
It's worth noting how dangerous flying the pack really was. Two bottles of hydrogen peroxide, shaped like scuba tanks, sit on either side of a bottle of nitrogen gas. The nitrogen is released into the hydrogen peroxide tanks, forcing the liquid at high pressures over a mesh screen made of silver and platinum. When hydrogen peroxide at that concentration comes in contact with these precious metals, it turns into superheated steam at 1,388 degrees Fahrenheit—hotter than molten lava.
The reaction creates a piercing, whistling hiss, generating some 800 to 1,000 horsepower. The steam is discharged through two downward-facing pipes at each shoulder, providing propulsion. Running beneath the wearer's armpits are two handgrips: a motorcycle-like throttle that controls thrust, and another that controls yaw, or direction, with "jetavators" that swing to and fro. The pilot can control roll simply by leaning with his shoulders, all of which is done in an upright position while in flight. Keeping this straight caused no small amount of stress. During his first pre-flight check up, Graham's heart rate registered at 140.
In March 1961 Graham began his first tethered flights in the Bell hangar. In grainy black-and-white film reels, he can be seen dangling from a harness, the downdraft of the thrusters on the concrete floor like fogged breath on glass. The shriek of the escaping steam was unbearable without earplugs in an enclosed space. It came in at 130 decibels—the threshold of pain, able to cause severe discomfort and hearing damage.
As he bared his teeth in concentration and throttled the rocket belt, Graham twisted and lurched and sagged beneath the slackening tether. Suspended from the cable, he resembled some antic marionette, yanked and jerked by an unseen puppeteer.
Eventually, though, Graham mastered maneuvers such as flying in a straight line and turning, writing the flight manual with his own body by trial and error. By his 36th test flight, Moore believed, Graham was ready to perform the first free rocket-belt flight in history.
On a cool spring morning, a date memorized by any self-respecting rocket-belt enthusiast—April 20, 1961—Graham strapped on his hockey pads and slipped into a black fireproof suit. He cinched his flight helmet while technicians fastened him into the snug fiberglass corset that held the rocket belt together. He let off a short burst to check the propulsion, then gripped the handles.
As the assembled project team watched, Graham's feet lifted from earth. He rose some 18 inches off the ground, enshrouded in a cloud as the superheated steam mingled with the cold morning air. Maybe he reached a speed of only about 10 miles per hour, but he managed to cover more than 100 feet—and in the process, he made history. "Old Dream of Flying with Birds Now True," proclaimed the Philadelphia Bulletin.
But Moore wasn't ready to make a full-fledged public demonstration just yet. Before he made his first public unveiling, the father of the rocket belt wanted it to become an extension of Graham's body. So they practiced at the Youngstown Country Club golf course in New York during the off-season. At Moore's signal, Graham would take off, bounding over streams, up steep hills, and slaloming between closely spaced poles, his jet-wake cut into the grass. By June, Moore knew Graham's time had come.
The first demonstration was held at Fort Eustis, Va., for TRECOM officials and members of the press. Shutters clicked and jaws slackened as the rocket belt screamed to life, kicking up a light scrim of dust. Graham gripped the handles, and up he went, floating over a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck and later over the massive twin rotors of an H-21 helicopter. A headline on the front page of The New York Times read, "Portable Army rocket propels man 150 feet in 11-second test flight."
With news of a real-life Buck Rogers spreading, Graham performed a second demonstration at the Pentagon a week later. Its offices emptied to see him fly. As his star rose, he made an appearance on the television show To Tell the Truth, sitting with three impostors while panelists Kitty Carlyle and Johnny Carson tried to identify the real rocket man.
In October 1961, Graham gave his biggest demonstration yet, memorialized in a four-photo Life magazine spread. At Fort Bragg, N.C., Graham stood atop a massive amphibious vehicle that rolled into nearby McKellar's Lake. The craft's bow pushed into the cold water surrounded by dark loblolly pine, oak and the furrowed bark of sweetgum. Once it positioned itself on a sandbar, some 200 feet from shore, Graham twisted the throttle. His boots rose from the deck of the amphibious craft.
A corona of mist enveloped him as the wash from the rocket belt roiled the lake. He charged a few feet above the water toward the shore, covering the distance in seconds. He made a seamless walking landing and strode up the sand embankment, cut a sharp turn to the right and marched some 20 feet. He then made an about-face, snapped his heels together and saluted the man sitting nearby—President John F. Kennedy. The Buffalo Evening News quoted an Army officer who said that as Graham touched down, the eyes of the commander-in-chief were as wide and wonder-struck as a child's.
The entourage of emergency personnel and engineers who accompanied Graham to each demonstration—some 20 in all—were flying enthusiasts, many holding a pilot's license. Graham flew with some of them and was hooked. He earned his license in 1962 and bought the Piper soon after, thus igniting a lifelong love affair with the sky. There was nothing more exhilarating than prepping the engines of the Piper, filing a flight plan or bringing her in for a landing. Who would have dreamed a young engineer from Buffalo could lead such a life?
"People applaud," Graham told Clough, recalling this heady time. "After every flight people are applauding. The reporters are there. The photographers. And I'm thinking, Oh, they're looking at me."
But the bright lights focused on the rocket belt were already beginning to dim. The Army money dried up as it became clear it'd be impossible to significantly increase the 21-second flight duration of the rocket belt, dooming the device to footnote status in the annals of flight invention. (The technology would, however, find later use as the propulsion system for the Tomahawk cruise missile.)
While the eyes of the world followed Project Mercury into space, Bell Aerospace did the next best thing it could with Hal Graham. It took him on the road.
The days of grandiose performances before the world's most powerful men were over. Instead, Graham found himself a traveling spectacle for small-town fairs. His entourage of engineers and medics shrank to a skeleton crew. The romantic whirlwind of newspaper interviews and magazine stories and presidential salutes that had become Graham's life dissipated.
Only two years after it had begun, his rocketman career ended violently. During a demonstration at Cape Canaveral, Fla., a malfunction sent Graham plummeting 22 feet to the ground. He fell to earth head-first, so hard the impact cracked his flight helmet. It took 30 minutes for him to regain consciousness. After that, Graham walked away from Bell and its rocket belt forever.
Graham embarked on a safer path after nearly breaking his neck. He raised two sons with his wife Marjorie. He earned degrees in science and business administration and opened his own CPA firm. He organized hayrides for neighbors' children every Thanksgiving, pulling them behind a tractor around his 110-acre farm near Skaneateles Lake, N.Y. He started a software company and was at one point a justice of the peace in Auburn, N.Y. With his name no longer on the lips of an awestruck public, life quieted down.
At the beginning of the '90s, however, some 30 years since he left the spotlight, a fluke brought him back into the public eye. Disney announced it was releasing a big-budget comic-book adaptation called The Rocketeer. The film was a retro salute to the Buck Rogers era set in the '30s, replete with Nazis, gangsters and even Howard Hughes. But the hero was a good-hearted, romantic adventurer who fought fascism with an improbably stylized contraption that allowed him to fly. He wore a rocket belt.
Not long after the movie's release in 1991, Graham got a letter from a Columbia University screenwriting student named Nelson Olivo. The student wanted to write an article about Graham for his sociology class.
"He wrote back, 'Hey, I thought people had forgotten about me.' It had been 30 years since he'd heard from anyone," Olivo says.
The article was published in the now-defunct space-exploration magazine Final Frontier in 1992. Two years later, author Derwin Beushausen contacted Graham to put his photo on the cover of a rocket-belt history and manual called Airwalker: A Date with Destiny. Graham reveled in the attention. By 1993, his sons were out of the house. He and his wife had divorced, and the bitter upstate winters were hard on his bones. So he pulled up stakes and migrated south to Tennessee in search of a fresh start. He landed in Crab Orchard, a tiny enclave near Crossville, and bought a 27-acre plantation estate with a small brown house.
After earning his commercial airman certificate, Graham began flying car-seat parts to a Toyota plant in Kentucky for Andy Downs, who had a contract with the car company.
"He was excellent," Downs says. "He was always in constant communication, and he was always meticulous about the weight he was carrying to make sure it was safe."
Graham obtained an FAA Part 135 certificate in 1996 that allowed him to provide a charter service out of Crossville Memorial Airport. This status as a one-man operation made Graham a cheap ride, but it also required that the FAA keep its eyes on him. While most commercial pilots must participate in yearly check rides with the FAA—an FAA safety inspector rides along with the pilot to assess their competency at different skills—Graham was tested twice a year.
To this day, the only black mark against him in the FAA enforcement database didn't occur until 2007, and even then it was a warning notice. He'd installed a brand-new Garmin communication radio without reweighing his entire plane. According to federal regulation, if any component of an aircraft is changed, the pilot must have the plane emptied of all its fluids by a certified technician and weighed on a scale (despite the fact that the newer radio actually weighed less than the old one). Such a procedure can cost as much as $3,000.
"They don't find that kind of stuff unless they want to find something on you," Downs says. "It's not really a safety issue. It's not like he decided to put lead seats in the back of the airplane."
The FAA has no record of any incidents or accidents involving Graham. Sure, he had a reputation as an incorrigible prankster. He got a kick out of carting a blow-up doll with him in the passenger seat of his 1989 Dodge van. One evening he left the doll in the passenger seat of the Piper, prompting bewildered airport staff to wonder how long he'd leave his passenger waiting. But friends say he was all business in the air.
"I wouldn't hesitate to fly with him," says Kraig Hilbink, a friend and fellow pilot. "He's nothing like he was on the ground."
What he was on the ground was a stereotypical bachelor. His home was cluttered, his clothes were threadbare and almost always included a crumpled brown, brimmed hat. Yet people remember him as open and funny, with a devilish glint in his eye. Making friends came easily to him.
Among the closest was Millie Weaver, 72. They met in 2004 at the gym in the Cumberland Medical Center Wellness Complex in Crossville. She remembers the way he approached her, saying, "You haven't been here in a while."
"Yes I have," she replied. "I come here three times a week, but at different hours."
"How can I get to know you if you come at different hours?"
Despite his flirtatious nature and fondness for practical jokes, Weaver discovered Graham was a very complicated and private man. He had very libertarian leanings. When it came to religion, he considered himself agnostic, even though he seemed conflicted from time to time.
"You know," he once told Weaver, "there are a lot of men far more intelligent than me who believe in God. There must be something to it."
But Graham said a lot of things, and sometimes it was difficult to tell whether or not he was putting himself through some sort of philosophical exercise. He enjoyed discussing topics generally considered verboten in polite conversation, especially politics and religion.
In September 2006, Kathleen Lennon Clough co-organized the first Rocketbelt Convention, a place where history buffs, prospective rocket-belt builders and the men who comprised rocket-belt history could gather. Graham was named the guest of honor. For the ceremony, he flew Weaver and himself in his Piper to the Niagara Aerospace Museum in New York, and she remembers him practically floating as he delivered his keynote speech.
"After 46 years, if I get a postcard from somebody...you know?" Graham told Clough. "But now, all of the sudden, I'm...I'm not the focus of attention but I'm certainly a key part of it and get this adoration and applause and do my presentations and, uh, that's a kick to me.
"It hasn't happened in a long time."
By friends' accounts, his relationship with Weaver was blossoming. Clough remembers watching the couple walk arm in arm through the convention, canoodling and laughing at their own secret jokes. The rocketman had risen once more to bask in the glow of public adulation, albeit from a much more specialized fan base. But like Icarus, Graham's ascension would follow an inevitable arc. His days near the sun were coming to an end.
In July 2008, Graham felt an excruciating, immobilizing pain in his gut. Medical centers in Cookeville and Nashville ran tests, but doctors were stymied. They wrote out a handful of prescriptions, Weaver recalls, and sent him on his way. But his condition didn't improve. It was becoming apparent that he could no longer care for himself. He begged Weaver not to place him in a nursing home.
"That would have killed him right there," Weaver says.
With no one else available to care for Graham, Weaver took him into her own home. She watched the man she loved rendered as helpless as a child. She fed him, washed his clothes and gave him his medicine, but he was wasting away before her eyes. Doctors prescribed cannabis tablets to stimulate his appetite, but anything they tried seemed only to speed his steady decline.
"I'm going to have to kill myself because the pain is so acute," Weaver remembers Graham saying.
When she had to hospitalize Graham again, she called his sons because she thought this time he would surely die. This time, though, a doctor solved the riddle: chronic pancreatitis. The smorgasbord of narcotics and prescriptions he was taking had only aggravated his condition. The doctor took him off of most of his prescriptions and ordered him to eat heartily to regain his strength. By July 2009, after nearly a year of debilitating illness, Graham was on the mend.
His brush with death had strained his body, however, and he found himself limited. Gone were the vigorous softball games and cheap-beer bull sessions he'd enjoyed with his pals. He had to take it easy now. His flying abilities, too, may have eroded. Fellow pilots say around that time Graham began having trouble passing his flight checks with the FAA. A spokesperson for the FAA declined to discuss why, but a Freedom of Information Act request is pending.
"When he would fail one he'd come to me and say the examiner was exactly right," says Charley Robbins, a pilot with a hangar next to Graham's. "He'd say, 'I got too low,' or, 'When I was coming in my needle was deflected full-scale.' When he flunked a flight test, he didn't blame the examiner."
Not only had his long illness affected his body, it strained his relationship with Weaver. Each year Graham eagerly awaited a family reunion in Parker Dam, Pa. This year it was held toward the end of July. Weaver had accompanied him to almost every one since they began dating. This year she didn't. Graham was crestfallen. Weaver declined to discuss her reasons.
"[Weaver] told him she wanted her own life," says Clough, who would occasionally discuss matters of the heart with Graham.
And who could blame her? For nearly a year she was on a saint's errand—nurse to a gravely ill man simply to keep him out of a nursing home. After the reunion, Weaver says Graham didn't call anymore, a snub that stung her.
"I was very angry with him because I felt like I'd given up my lifestyle for months and months," Weaver says. "I was doing his laundry and giving him his medicine, and he was getting sicker and sicker. I felt like he didn't appreciate me."
During her heart-to-hearts with Graham, Clough says, she suspected stubbornness was to blame—each waiting for the other to make that first call. But neither did.
"It was like he had a broken heart," Clough says.
But the heartbreak may not have been just romantic. Graham had failed four flight checks, each performed by a different FAA inspector, along with two re-examinations—tests often performed when some sort of incident has occurred and the FAA feels it has legitimate reason to assess a pilot's competency. This was the end of the line. The FAA asked him to voluntarily surrender his airman certificate, or it would be forcibly revoked.
If Graham surrendered his certificate, he could immediately take the tests necessary to earn his wings. If the FAA took his certificate by force, it would be a year before he could reapply. But Graham's situation wasn't that simple. If his Part 135 charter certificate went unused for 60 to 90 days, he'd lose it. And it would certainly take longer than that to earn back his airman certificate.
He told friends it would take three years to get it all back, assuming he even could. He'd be 78 years old by then, and his beloved Piper would require an overhaul costing an additional $50,000. This spelled the end of his primary source of income.
To some, it's bewildering that the FAA would take such drastic measures with a pilot known to his peers as competent. Graham's record was nearly flawless. Just as he was recovering from his illness, Andy Downs, his former employer, chartered a flight with Graham to Macon, Ga.
"He was the same old Hal," Downs says. "Nothing different about him at all. His spirits were good.
"The point is, the FAA treats people differently. There's no cookie-cutter process by which they handle or inspect everybody. They all have their pet peeves. They all have things they look for more than others. The regs are the same throughout the country, but they're implemented differently by each individual inspector."
FAA spokesperson Kathleen Bergen counters that the agency's standards have to be far more nuanced than a simple thumbs-up-or-down according to regulation.
"It's not just a general assessment or an individual judgment of a pilot's ability to land, take off or make turns," Bergen says. "There are very specific test standards that are established for every type of a maneuver a pilot must demonstrate on a check ride. Safety inspectors are trained to evaluate the pilot in regards to those technical test standards."
Nevertheless, on Oct. 8, Graham surrendered his airman certification to the FAA at the Crossville airport. The same thing had happened to Clough's father years before.
"It was so devastating to him," she recalls. "For these men, that is so much a part of their identity and who they are. And to have the government take it away after so many years...it's horrific in their minds."
Like Hal Graham, Bill Suitor had tested the skies solo and the fame that went with it. He'd succeeded Graham in the program at Bell, and he received a measure of cinematic immortality when he stood in for Sean Connery's 007 in a jetpack scene in 1965's Thunderball. He and Graham had met at the Rocketbelt Convention and hit it off, and Suitor asked him to write the foreword for his upcoming book, The Rocketbelt Pilot's Handbook.
What he got, when he opened his inbox Oct. 18, wasn't what he'd had in mind. He found a short blurb better suited for the book jacket, followed by a cryptic line: "Right now I'm dealing with a mega-problem. Hopefully it will be short-lived. Regards, Hal."
Suitor wrote him back, asking for something a little more robust. On Oct. 21, Graham replied: "As luck would have it, I probably 'won't be around after tomorrow.' Catch it in the papers. Regards, Hal."
Suitor says he wasn't sure what to make of Graham's note. But in retrospect, a deadline of some kind was clearly looming in the rocketman's mind. He cleaned to a spit-shine his normally cluttered home. He left explanatory Post-It notes all over the house. He laid out his will and wrote a four-page letter to his sons. Finally, he signed a stack of photos of himself flying in the rocket belt. He dated them Oct. 22, 2009—nearly 48 years to the day since President John F. Kennedy had saluted him, when for a few brief seconds he had escaped the bonds of earth.
There was nothing left to do but pack his pistol and his valise in his Dodge van, and take a ride from which he'd never return.
Inside the hangar at Crossville Memorial Airport, friends, fellow pilots, family and at least a few fans munched barbecue and stared at photos of Graham playing softball, lobbing a baseball to a grandson, grinning in the Piper's cockpit.
They all shook hands with his sons, Mitch and Scott, down from Cincinnati and Connecticut, respectively. Millie Weaver embraced the two. Gray-haired men gathered in clusters, talking about the weather, the FAA—and of course, the elephant in the room.
But it wasn't just Graham's suicide. It was the preparation. The location. Details that didn't add up.
Graham's softball teammate, Bill Harris, says he had an inkling something was troubling his friend. After their last softball game, he recalls, his buddy was uncharacteristically quiet. Not until much later did his friends take note of another detail that was unusual for Graham.
"When he left," Harris says, "he said goodbye."
No less puzzled was fellow pilot Charley Robbins, a close friend who knew more than many of Graham's companions how painful the recent months had been for him. "I don't understand it," Robbins says. "I do know this: He planned his death a long way ahead of time. He had his papers laid out."
The day after Graham's death, a strange thought occurred to Millie Weaver: What if Hal had forgotten to feed his dog? She called up Robbins, who agreed to go out to Graham's place to check. "Neither of us wanted to go alone," Weaver says.
What they found, when they arrived, was the suicide note. Robbins started reading it until he saw it was addressed to Graham's two sons. He set the note down, and left.
From what he read, though, Robbins concludes that Graham felt "he had lived a good life. His time was coming short and he was getting hemmed up with age and health and his flying skills." In the note, Graham indicated that he would die just as he had lived—on his own terms.
And so roughly 70 people stood outside the hangar at the Crossville airport, watching three planes bear aloft a dead man's memory. As the one plane pulled away, it grew smaller and smaller in the October sky, leaving an empty expanse the color of ashes. It recalled a day almost 50 years ago when a man held a rocket by the handlebars and felt gravity lose its pull. The earth was below him, the stars beyond and beckoning.
The ride would not last. But for a few precious seconds, Hal Graham was flying.