City man won 1983 air racing championship in Reno
No one saw him smile.
But from behind the controls of a P-51 Mustang, just a few hundred feet above the ground, the expression on John Dilley’s face changed.
The Fort Wayne pilot was in his first air race in Reno, Nevada, and he had never been to the arena before that day in 1978. He had started the race in fifth but within a few laps, had worked his way up and found himself flying just behind a well-known pilot.
Around the pylons on the oval-shaped course, they went. Dilley recalls hanging with the famous racer for three laps.
“All of a sudden, a big grin came across my face and I thought, ‘You just don’t ever win an air race if you follow someone,’” he says. “And that prompted me to be a little more aggressive. I ended up passing him and won my very first air race.
“It probably doesn’t happen very often.”
Now 78, Dilley participated in air races for 11 years in Nevada, winning the championship in 1983.
“Yes, that was a thrill,” Dilley says. “I guess it’s something I’ll never forget. It was just a lot of fun.”
Getting his start
The first time Dilley was in an airplane was as a teenager – 16 or 17, he says.
“The transmission guy at the Chevrolet dealer in Ashley, Indiana, had the airplane and offered to take me for a ride,” Dilley says.
Taking off from Angola, he rode in a little Aeronca “Champ” – a single-engine, two-seat plane that was manufactured to compete with the Piper Cub.
But Dilley, who says his love affair with planes and flying began as a young child in Ashley, didn’t know that day that he would become a pilot much less one who would race planes.
“To be quite honest, when I was in school, the best part of the school day was the 3:30 bell,” Dilley says.
He enlisted in the Air Force after high school, where he found his niche. Serving domestically as a mechanic, he made the honor roll in his tech classes. Later, after being discharged, when he wanted to get an airframe and powerplant rating so that he could work on planes as a civilian, he went to an aviation tech school in Fort Worth, Texas, and graduated with honors.
“So it was always available to me, I just didn’t use it a lot at first,” Dilley says. “Then from that point on, my career just accelerated.”
Need for speed
Imagine getting into your car, shifting it into low gear and pushing the pedal to the floor for 90 miles.
That’s how Dilley describes racing an airplane.
Flying around a course marked by pylons, he would fly wingtip-to-wingtip around the 9.2-mile shape just hoping the plane didn’t blow up, he says.
Air racing can be a dangerous and expensive hobby. In the heyday of his racing, when there would be three dozen pilots at the airfield, an airplane might cost $500,000 (now it could be $3.5 million). Still, Dilley isn’t surprised that he found it.
“I’ve always been a bit of a speed demon, I guess. I had a heavy foot,” he says. “… Right out of the Air Force, I bought a brand new Chevrolet Corvette.”
The P-51 Mustang, which Dilley used most to race, had a lot of torque and horsepower, making it fun to fly. The fighter-bomber, a number of which he has restored, was credited with turning around World War II.
“It looks like it is going 500 mph sitting still. And it’s, I think, fairly easy to fly. Lots of horsepower,” he says. “It’s just a very classy airplane.
“ … The sound of it. The big B-12 engine with straight exhaust pipes. You just can’t imagine the sound, and once you’ve heard one and once you’ve heard one fly over again, you’ll never forget what the sound is.”
But as much as he loved the P-51, Dilley wanted an aircraft that would give him an edge in the Reno air races.
So his team got to work building an ultimate air racer in the hopes of winning the gold race.
“I think I’ve been blessed with a vision,” Dilley says. “Like I see this pile of parts or whatever lying there.
“ … I say, ‘I know what that’s going to look like when we’re finished, and I’m going to get to fly that airplane.’ ”
Dilley took a P-51 basic fuselage and parts from a Learjet, as well as parts from eight or nine other aircraft to build that plane.
It flew really nice, says Dilley, who used to practice for races in the airspace over Ohio farms. So the team took it out to Reno and was ready to put it to the test.
“Yours truly got a little too anxious before we got new spark plugs, and I blew the engine up trying to qualify.”
But it was a Saturday morning the following year when the air racer gave Dilley a scare.
Dilley, who also taught himself how to do aerobatic routines and had even performed in New Zealand, was en route to Flint, Michigan, for a show. As he neared Hamilton, the engine began to backfire.
“The next thing you know, it caught on fire. It actually had flames coming up out of the top of it,” he says. “I knew that I wasn’t going to make it up to any airport so I ended up landing in a field up there.”
The airplane was damaged pretty badly – the propeller had broken off and went under and tore the wing apart.
Dilley was not injured, though, and when he returned to the office, his receptionist told him that the air traffic controller who spoke with him during the landing wanted to talk to him.
“I thought, ‘Well, am I in trouble with air traffic control or what?’” he says. “She says, ‘John, we’ve listened to the tape at least five or six times, and we just can’t believe it. … You make it sound like you do this every day.’”
Of course, he says, afterwards is a different story.
Dilley last got behind the controls of an aircraft in 2006.
Having spent most of his career in the corporate air sector, the director of operations for J.D. Aviation Management LLC has owned and operated dozens of aircraft over the years.
“I did fly the helicopter that we had in our operation with another pilot until that was sold,” Dilley says, adding that his last fixed wing flight was in a T-38 Talon in 2004.
The same reason that he decided to stop racing in 1985, Dilley chose to take a step back from flying on his own terms. He had seen friends die in crashes, many of them unnecessary accidents.
He had also seen friends, many of whom he connected while restoring Warbird planes, be pushed out because of insurance reasons. “It had to be very tough on them.”
“This way, I was able to walk away, and I’ve been OK with it,” Dilley says.
Occasionally, a friend will ask Dilley if he wants to go fly but he always says no.
“Sure as the world, if I get up there, I will want to keep on doing it,” he says. “And I’m not ready to do that.”