Hero pilot Hal Graham’s hard fall to earth
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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.
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