Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Among the groups of people I most admire are self-employed professionals such as farmers, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs.  But that’s a subject for another blog.  This month I want to pay tribute to one of the most self-employed people I ever knew—Michael J. Dillon.

Mike departed the pattern early this month at the age of 81.  I was privileged to know him nearly 30 years, as our mutual interests cross-pollinated with aviation and firearms.  Mike was a standout innovator in both realms.  Moreover, he smiled more than anyone I ever knew.

Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Mike spent his youth up and down the East Coast while his father was a merchant marine officer.  Along the way Mike acquired a taste for machinery—fast, exotic machinery—starting with race cars and ending with a privately-owned jet.

The aviation bug bit Mike permanently—and hard.  In the early to mid 60s he was working his way through college, partly by flying spray planes in the south and southwest, and was within two credits of graduation when he dropped out to fly full time.  Eventually he cadged a right-seat assignment with TWA (“Try Walking Across”) and flew as a first officer for 13 years.  Then, possibly within months of upgrading to captain, again he struck out on his own.  That was Mike—the eternal optimist, a self-composed individual with enough confidence to fill a hangar full of exotic airplanes.  Which, incidentally, he did.

Along the way, Mike was blessed with Carol, his extraordinary wife who, in son Steve’s words, “inspired him to be more than he was.”  She continued her teaching career while raising a family.  Not surprisingly, their three children learned to fly, up to and including commercial tickets.

Mike Dillon was a dreamer who created his own reality.  On a trip through Texas he had spotted a badly neglected Curtiss P-40.  Long story short: he bought the WW II fighter and fetched it back to Phoenix.  Years of weekends and nights passed, but with some devoted friends, Mike finished the job and painted the Warhawk a warlike red.  He flew it enough to begin a partial career as a magazine writer, ably assisted by his photographer friend Nyle Leatham.  That was how I learned about Mike—reading his articles in Air Progress.

Eventually Mike sold the P-40 and bought a North American AT-6 trainer.  Many years later I asked him how many hours he had in each warbird but he just unzipped that patented Dillon grin.  “I didn’t keep a logbook,” he said, “because it could be used against you!”  Without being specific, he alluded to something called the statute of limitations…

Mike was a passionate maverick but he always followed his own moral compass.  When a friend killed himself and a passenger in the AT-6, Mike refused the widow’s offer of restitution.  He told her, “You didn’t wreck the plane so you’re not responsible.”  It was a case of good karma coming around because the lady insisted on giving Mike some of her husband’s automatic weapons, leading in directions we have noted above.

Nonetheless, the birds began accumulating in the barn.  Mike moved into a large, new building on Scottsdale Airport, and over the years he had two Beechcraft T-34 trainers (capable of bombing and strafing), a rare two-seat Vought Pinto jet trainer, and two helicopters.  He flew his UH-1B Huey to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, delivering supplies and relief crews to devastated areas.  He never asked for a dime of compensation—it was simply the right thing to do.  Restored to Vietnam configuration, the Huey became a test bed for Dillon Aero’s minigun.

And thereby hangs another tale.

After TWA Mike said he never worked another day in his life.  He was a born inventor, with that innate curiosity and imagination ever percolating inside.  Of inventiveness he confided, “It’s a curse because it never shuts off.”  But the challenge of perfecting equipment for loading ammunition was another time at bat, swinging for the bleachers.  And he connected.

“It’s outta here, folks!”

Mike got involved in hand-loading ammunition to feed his growing collection of firearms.  Starting with a Star single-stage press, the Dillon evolutionary process led to the rotating multi-stage concept so common today.  The numbers told the story: from the 300 to the 650 and beyond, each indicating the expected ammo production per hour.  Different tool heads allowed an owner to load a variety of calibers on the same machine—an elegant concept.

Eventually man and moment met.  In the late 80s Mike obtained one of a very few civilian General Electric M134 miniguns, a highspeed six-barrel gatling that spewed 3,000 rounds or more of 7.62 mm per minute.  But the design was unnecessarily complex—the reasons had to do with corporate security—and required considerable maintenance.  Mike began pondering improvements by the process he called “water cooler engineering.”  He and other Dillonites often congregated around casually to commiserate on things.  The upshot: a simpler, more easily produced and maintained minigun.  Ironically, Mike found that he had unknowingly reverse-engineered GE’s original design. 

The Dillon M134D was an immediate hit.  Mike logged a lot of travel time demonstrating the minigun to potential users in the U.S. and abroad.  In fact, the SUV-mounted gun, dubbed Raptor, was unavailable here owing to federal regulations but it found a market among sheiks and emirs the Middle East.  But the U.S. armed forces seized upon the newer, slicker minigun to mount it on vehicles, aircraft, and ships for in-port defense.  Dillon Aero received a commendation from Special Operations Task Force 160 in appreciation of the 134D.

Meanwhile, the Dillon Precision side of the house was going gangbusters.  At first, everybody did everything, from designing and assembling reloaders to shipping them and answering the phones.  But as the business grew, Mike discerned the advantage of more specialization to meet customer needs.  His staff features longevity, and today some of the original hires are still working. 

Mike’s ironclad warranty is famous in the industry.  The company will replace any part or major component, no questions asked.  Aside from the ethical aspects, Mike said that customer loyalty was enhanced by his policy, and in all those years he only suspected a couple of clients taking advantage of his offer.

That was Mike Dillon: dreamer, pragmatist, inventor, ethicist, friend.  And just the nicest man.