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MAN REMEMBERS LAUNCHING CAREER WITH ROCKET BELT GUESTS CELEBRATE '61 FLIGHT

Of all the highs that came with being the world's first real live rocket man -- he made 112 flights in all -- Harold M. Graham best remembers his performance for President Kennedy at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Oct. 12, 1961.

Suited up in an Army uniform and crash helmet, twin rockets strapped to his back, the young test engineer for Bell Aerosystems Co. soared 20 feet into the air from an amphibious vehicle in the middle of a lake and then flew horizontally for some 200 feet before landing in front of the startled president.

"With that red hair, he stood out in the crowd. As I flew toward him he looked to me like Howdy Doody," Graham recalled. "He had an amazed expression on his face."

It took a moment after the 23-second flight for both men to regain their composure.

An Army officer sitting near Kennedy described the president as "wide-eyed and open-mouthed, just like a kid."

Graham, in his excitement, forgot to do the first thing a Bell rocket belt man was supposed to do after landing -- vent his tanks.

"I was probably only 10 feet away from the president, and the adrenaline was still flowing," he recounted.

Eventually, Graham located his military bearing and saluted. Kennedy saluted back. The event was captured for posterity in a Life magazine pictorial.

The undisputed lowlight of Graham's brief rocket-belting career came a few months later during a demonstration at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Bell, striving mightily to win add-on funding for the experimental program, wanted to show space officials how the rocket belt might be used to fix problems at the launch site.

Theoretically, all a worker had to do was strap on the device and fly from the launch tower to the problem spot on one those mammoth space rockets. A high-lift with a platform extending 22 feet into the air was brought in to simulate the tower.

Problem was, all of Bell's rocket belt test flights had been conducted from the ground. Graham had never launched himself in midair.

"The long and short of it was that, instead of making a nice flight, I tumbled off the back of the platform and landed on my head on the high-lift," Graham said.

He came to 30 minutes later, "thinking that maybe farming or teaching might be a better avocation. I got back on the horse, but made only a few flights after that."

Graham kept his helmet, which split open on impact, as a souvenir.

The command performance at Fort Bragg, the miserable flop at Cape Canaveral and other stories from those pioneering days wowed listeners Saturday in Adam's Rib restaurant in Snyder as a small group gathered to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Graham's -- and man's -- first free flight in a rocket belt on April 20, 1961.

The guests included a New York City author who is writing a book about self-propelled flight and a rocket belt fancier who traveled all the way from Holland -- by conventional means.

What happened that day 30 years ago, as you might guess, is in itself a whale of a tale. Graham, then a 27-year-old Kenmore native, had planned to leave Bell, where he had worked on developing an attitude control rocket for the Project Mercury space capsule, before he was coaxed to join the experimental program by the inventor of the rocket belt, Wendell F. Moore.

Graham made 33 brief indoor flights secured by a safety line -- Moore had broken a kneecap doing the same thing -- before the decision was made to risk an outdoor free flight.

A procession of more than 20 people, including Bell executives and engineers, a doctor and a nurse -- accompanied by an ambulance and a fire truck -- followed him onto a taxiway at Niagara Falls International Airport next to Bell's Wheatfield plant early that day.

Because the rocket belt program was still secret, no reporters or other outsiders were present for the liftoff.

As it turned out, however, there was one uninvited witness -- a motorist who was passing by on Niagara Falls Boulevard, on his way to work, when Graham shot into the air trailing rocket exhaust.

Shaken by the sight of "this strange thing rising into the mist," as he recollected for a reporter, the fellow lost control of his car and veered into a ditch.

Fortunately, neither he nor Graham, who traveled 100 feet on the maiden flight -- 20 feet less than the Wright brothers had flown by airplane at Kitty Hawk -- was injured.

When Graham first demonstrated the rocket belt publicly two months later at Fort Eustis, Va., the event attracted wide attention. The headline over The Buffalo Evening News story said: "Like Learning to Ride Bike," Rocket Belt Tester Says; Kenmore Engineer Describes Flights as "Quite a Delightful Experience."

Of the group that was present for the first flight at Niagara Falls, only the nurse, Millie George, attended Saturday's reunion, said the organizer, Graham's sister, Irene "Cracker" Hart of Snyder. None of the others could be located.

Graham said Moore, who died a few years later, had a flair for showmanship that got a lot of mileage out of the rocket belt program in those days.

"He kept the whole thing under wraps, not so much for military reasons as for publicity reasons," he said. "When the story finally came out, it was a whopper."

After Graham left the program -- and Bell -- following his Cape Canaveral tumble, the job of rocket belt flier passed to a series of Bell rocket men who went on to perform at National Football League games, at the Olympics, in a James Bond movie and in at least two television series.

Although funds were scraped up to continue research and the range and motion of the device literally improved by leaps and bounds, the rocket belt never captured the military's imagination or the hoped-for slice of the Pentagon budget.

The technology is distantly related to the tiny thrusters used by modern astronauts to maneuver in outer space, but the rocket belt has remained primarily an entertainment vehicle.

Bell eventually sold the rights to a California company.

"It's still a big crowd pleaser, still a heckuva show," Graham said. "Everybody likes to see some idiot risk his life by doing crazy things."

After leaving Bell, Graham, now 57, worked for Joy Manufacturing and later for Buffalo Forge Co. before tiring of engineering.

A graduate of Nichols School and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Graham eventually left the area for the University of Illinois, where he earned a master's degree in accounting. He also earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo while at Bell.

Graham taught at LeMoyne College, became a certified public public accountant and started his own CPA firm in Syracuse, where he also tried farming part time.

When personal computers reached the market in the mid-1980s, Graham switched careers yet again. He's now an independent software developer, working out of his home in Auburn. He is married, with two sons.

He recalls his pioneering days as a rocket man "a wonderful experience," adding, "I wouldn't have traded it for the world."

But at this point in life, he prefers working with his feet firmly on the ground.

"It's a different kind of lifestyle, but it's fun. I'm happy with what I'm doing."

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