For one Chautauquan, it really is rocket science

Column by John Ford

John Dilley welcomed a visitor to the surprisingly capacious wrap-around porch on the house near the brick walk, where he spent summers as a young man and that for several recent seasons has served as his summer residence. He reflected on a long career in American missile defense research and development. He also discussed some of the shifts in national strategic policy, which affected his work. Chautauqua Institution has always been in his life, now perhaps more than ever. 

Tell me about your education and early experiences.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and started coming to Chautauqua when I was 3 years old. This house has been in my family since 1926. I would come up every summer for at least a week and later, it was for all summer. I went to Children’s School here, through Boys’ Club, was a counselor there for two summers. That was actually my first job. It didn’t pay much, but it was a job, and I paid Social Security taxes on my earnings.

My next job was also here, working on the boat dock for five summers. It may have been the best job I ever had, just because of the camaraderie and working with the customers. One of the things I learned there was to do the best job you can, and to be customer-focused. That was a lifelong lesson.

As I said, I grew up in Columbus. I went to Ohio State, but before that, I had thought about other possibilities. OSU was right down the street, and that’s where my parents sent me. When I was in seventh grade, after the Soviets launched Sputnik, a buddy of mine and I said, “Let’s become astronauts.” I guess I got a little closer than he did.

So I went into engineering, even though my high school aptitude test said I should be an administrator. I always liked math and science. The courses were not easy, but I studied hard and wound up in aero-astro engineering. I was fortunate to get into a combined program, which permitted you to get a B.A. and a master’s degree in six years.

I got a job after college with General Electric outside Philadelphia, in Valley Forge, in the early 1970s. I worked in Valley Forge for nearly 22 years, starting out in the thermodynamics group. Thermodynamics as it applied to us was basically calculating the heat transfer of a conical suborbital reentry vehicle traveling at mach-20 or mach-25 speeds. These were ballistic weapons the U.S. would put on top of Minuteman missiles. Without an effective heat shield, the missile would simply burn up, as a meteorite would.


So thermodynamics was your early professional focus. What came next?

Aerodynamics was next, basically looking at the stability of the vehicle and where it goes. These were strategic, three-stage intercontinental missiles. This was at the height of the Cold War, and the adversary was the Soviet Union. These missiles were designed to deter the Soviets from starting a nuclear war, and their purpose was therefore basically defensive.


Your work sounds so significant.

We did feel that way. But there were sometimes job security issues. We were contractors, basically to the U.S. government. If we were working in an area no longer deemed high priority, we could be laid off. Or if a division or even an individual wasn’t producing, they might be subject to a reduction in force. So I guess the work was significant, but it was not secure. In the aerospace industry, hardly anyone has an employment contract.

GE had a program whereby high performers would be taught different disciplines. As an aerospace engineer, I was exposed to principles of gas transfer and loading that determine where the vehicle goes or where the airplane flies. If you did well, you could go on for a Ph.D., and that is what I did — at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. It was a great deal: The company would pay your way and pay your salary, too. I actually lived on campus for two semesters to meet residency requirements.

At that point, I had moved to GE’s ocean sciences lab, and a couple of guys I worked with got a contract with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study heat going into and out of Lake Ontario. I was studying ice formation in the lake. My dissertation developed a heat transfer model that computed theoretically the ice formation on the lake; a colleague computed solar and wind influences and took photos of ice formation. I ran my model and it was pretty close to the actual conditions on the lake. This was 1978, and I was 34 when I got my Ph.D.


So you moved from thermodynamics to aerodynamics to ocean science. Was this the result of changing government priorities altering the contractor’s focus?

Yes. It kept us on our toes. There was a premium on learning new concepts and disciplines. There was not a feeling of doing the same thing repetitively.

In the late 1980s, Jack Welch, one of the best chief executives GE ever had, began to sell off divisions with relatively low profit margins. Welch had warned everyone that this was coming. At that time, GE’s credit division was doing 25-percent profit and the aerospace division was doing after tax profits of around 5 percent. So in 1993 Welch sold GE aerospace to Martin Marietta.

The only thing that changed was the name on the paycheck. My work stayed the same. In 1995, Lockheed bought Martin Marietta and formed Lockheed Martin.


Talk about how thinking about national strategic missile defense policy changed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

President Reagan started what was called the national missile defense policy in 1983, and it prevailed until President Clinton entered office in early 1993. While both presidents pursued essentially defensive missile strategies, Clinton switched to what was called theater missile defense. Reagan’s focus was on ICBM strength to deter a Soviet attack on the U.S. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the focus switched to a less global scale. Theater missile defense concentrated more on regional issues and a variety of international bad actors. That policy continues today, though national missile defense is also still around.


So national policy changed. How did your work change in response?

I worked in something called theater missile defense exerciser for eight years, until 2001. This was an effort to make testing and simulation more realistic and better predictors of missile performance. My employers changed a couple of more times, as my work moved from Lockheed to McDonnell Douglas and later to Boeing. I moved with my work, again often doing almost the same job for a new employer who either bought the old one or won a new contract.

Along the way I moved back to Columbus and commuted to my job in D.C. for a number of years. I reconnected with my high school sweetheart in Columbus, and we married. By 2001, I was working for another big government contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute, in Columbus, doing marketing to missile defense agencies and later, project management. It was challenging and I was always getting exposed to new ideas and projects.

How was marketing? This was new for you, wasn’t it?

It was. I had to put together information for prospective clients on services I thought they might be interested in. It was a lot different than working on a project. You encountered customers that had established relationships with other vendors. It took a while to get to know the customer. And I had to broaden my knowledge base for everything going on at Battell. That challenge kept me going.


You retired a couple of years ago. How is that going?

This is my fourth full summer here at Chautauqua, and it is becoming a true highlight of my year. These are my first full summers here since college. I have reconnected with some friends. Others can come visit me here. I have observed what I call ‘Chautauqua burnout’ with some of these visitors. They overdose on the volume and variety of cultural offerings here. They just hit a wall.

I am the vice president of the big CLSC Class of 2000, and I am an area rep and the Lighting Committee chair for the CPOA. So that keeps me busy, and we’re looking seriously at wiring everyone on the grounds with optical cable. Aren’t we all tired of getting ripped off by the cable company?

I also still have a boat here, and I use it frequently. In fact, I kept water skiing until four years ago. Way back in college days, three friends and I performed a four-man slalom starting on three skis and winding up on only one. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing that.