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Posted on January 18, 2017 | 1:14 p.m.

Charles Robert Graffy of Santa Barbara, 1924-2016

Source: Erin Graffy

Charles Robert Graffy

Pilot Charles Robert Graffy of Santa Barbara took his final flight on Dec. 18, 2016, at the age of 92½.

A pilot’s pilot, he flew for more than 60 years, with over 30,000 hours on more than 100 different aircraft — from Piper Cubs to mach 2 F-14 Tomcats.

With an extraordinary career in aviation, Chuck Graffy was one of the last survivors from the great era of experimental test pilots, working on some of the greatest military planes ever designed.

Born in Chicago in 1924, the grandson of German immigrants, “Chuck” was the fourth of six children (a sister and five brothers).

His love of all things aeronautical started early. As a boy of 10, he began building flying-model airplanes, interestedly noting what affected flight, adjusting for weight, balance and wingspan, and hand-carving the propellers.

A distributor of Megow Airplane kits was so impressed by the youngster’s meticulous construction that he provided Chuck with free models to build, to use for displays in toy stores.

At 11 years old, Chuck would ride his bike four miles out to Midway Airport to watch the planes. He struck a friendship with a pilot and would wash his plane in exchange for plane rides.

He was hooked.

At 15 he began taking flying lessons (in a Welch), earning his pilot’s license a year later. He excelled at his high school drafting classes, and after graduation worked 60 hours a week as a junior engineer for the Studebaker Company, while starting college night classes (Illinois Institute of Technology), later earning his B.S. in aeronautical engineering.

During World War II , Chuck was a very young captain (21!) in the Army Air Corps, where he trained fighter pilots (including training Pacific ace Dick Bong in gunnery school) ) utilizing P-42s, P-47s, P-51s.

Post-war, he worked as draftsman for the short-lived Tucker Automobile Company in Chicago.

Chuck then was approved to stay on in the Army Air Corps Reserve, and was one of 10 men sent to Denver to train in jets.

When a Boeing executive learned that Chuck had more than 60 hours of  jet experience, he immediately recruited the young man to Boeing. Chuck became an engineering test pilot in Wichita to test the B-47, XB-47, YB-47, RB-47 the B-52 and its many variants.


Test pilot Chuck Graffy with a B-47 Stratojet

At this time, test pilots were in an extremely dangerous occupation — averaging a death a week. (Six of his Boeing comrades were killed in crashes.)

Test pilots had a base salary, and then would bid on the plane to be tested. Chuck was substantially younger than the other pilots, but his engineering background gave him a significant edge.

He studied the operation handbooks for the planes. “I was so steeped in the airplane, I knew it backwards and forwards.” He knew which planes to avoid, and which to test. He never lost a plane.

Sought by General Electric Flight Test to be their engineering test pilot in Schenectady, New York, Chuck flew diverse jet aircraft (B-45, B-57, B-58, F-106, F-100, F-104) under a classified security clearance.

In the early 1960s, Chuck was selected as West Coast manager to lead General Electric’s Pacific Missile Range programs and moved his family to sunny Santa Barbara.

GE was designing guidance systems and Chuck’s planes (twin engine Convair, DC6, A-26, B-57 and B-66) would simulate missiles.

When the program folded, he decided to stay where the weather was better, and for a short time bought and ran Decorator Marble company before returning to the skies.

He flew as private pilot for Fess Parker, corporate pilot for Bill Wilson and McMahon Company (Howard 500, Beechcraft 18), and for Daryl Tomlin Corporation (Jet Commander 1121 and Falcon 20).

In the mid-1970s Chuck  became owner and general manager of Golden State Airlines (DC-3, Convair 440 and Convair 580), with charter flight contracts with LA Times, Disney, and the U.S. Navy.

After selling the business, he joined Hughes Aircraft as senior engineering test pilot, working again with a classified security clearance.

He flew developmental tests on military hardware (including the FLIR infra-red systems Hughes developed in Goleta.) utilizing World War II Douglas A-26 , F-14 Tomcat and Citation Jet.  

There was virtually no plane Chuck Graffy would not or could not fly— for work or for fun. Chuck did cloud seeding for Sagandaga Reservoir  in New York, flew airmail to Santa Cruz Island, looped the Golden Gate Bridge in a P-47,  and flew through a hanger ....”just because.”

In New York, he would buzz the family home in an F-86 to let his sons know he was on his way home, and on Santa Barbara Street when kids saw a plane circle the neighborhood and dip its wings, they’d know that it was time for dinner as dad would be home in 20 minutes from the airport.

He had the opportunity to fly celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Jimmy Durante, Paul Anka. He picked up Ed McMahon after the Tonight Show and flew him to Las Vegas where he was performing.) 

He was asked to be an astronaut, but after watching the earliest launches at Cape Canaveral, Chuck demurred. “Things were blasted up, and then would fall backwards and go into fire.”

He wanted no part of it when he realized the pilot could not control the choices, decisions and environment.

“All I ever wanted to do was fly" he'd say. "Every day you wake up and think, ‘I can’t wait to get to work.’ I just loved to fly."

When he was down on the ground, he was a superb, natural athlete. He excelled as a ball player in his youth, was a top scoring (290s) league bowler, avid golfer, and in the last 20 years was a champ at lawn bowling tournaments, enjoying the great camaraderie of the lawn bowling aficionados downtown.

Besides his love of flying, it was his family that was the pride of his life. He met his wife, Jeanne, when she was a teenager, and wooed her with letters through the war. Together they raised a family of five, fueling them with his sense of drive, independence, and accomplishment: Kurt (Cathay Gunn), Neal, Erin (Dr. James Garcia), Colleen, Kerry (Fred Mariea). And they were equally devoted to their grandchildren: Colette, Colin, Kyle and Kirsten Gunn-Graffy, and Spencer Mariea.

He was preceded in death by all his siblings and his infant grandson Kieran Gunn-Graffy.

A Mass will be held Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Old Mission at 10 am, followed by a reception.


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