“Equations of Motion” isn’t the catchiest title on the shelves, and seems to belie the fascination of the book. At first glance, the subtitle may seem more apt: “Adventure, Risk and Innovation.”
Far from being the engineering or physics treatise it might sound like, it is the autobiography of William F. Milliken, now 95 and going strong, who has led an extraordinary life in aeronautics and automobile racing, having played key roles in stability control in both fields.
Bill Milliken designed, built, flew and crashed the first homebuilt airplane in the state of Maine that actually flew, starting while he was still in high school. Later, as a Boeing engineer, he worked on such classics of the air as the Model 307Stratocruisers and the magnificent A314 flying boats, the great Pan American Airways Clippers that paved the way for scheduled transoceanic flight. During World War II he was on the original design and test flight teams for the B-17 and B-29, risking his life as a test pilot to push the B-17’s ceiling above the flak and to sort out serious difficulties with the B-29, ultimately making it flyable. He also helped to resolve the Vought F4U’s aerodynamic oddities and, later, was deeply involved in several Northrop Flying Wing projects.
Always interested in speed, Milliken became a founder of the Sports Car Club of America and a fixture at SCCA tracks such as Watkins Glen, where Milliken’s Corner is named for him. To find out why, read the book. It’s a good story. His second career, in automobile research and vehicle dynamics, eventually brought him full circle, back to airplanes — this time ultralights, at the age of 80.
“Adventure, risk and innovation,” indeed! Not only that, but Milliken is an entertaining writer, as anyone who has heard him speak might imagine, so his tales of adventure, risk and innovation are told with sharp wit, good humor and, occasionally, deep sadness. They are the stories of a man who could say that “Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight had a terrific impact on me, like a thunderclap, a hammer blow, a whip lashing. My reaction was visceral, not intellectual.”
Visceral response is hardly surprising, from a boy who built his first racing “push car” at the age of 8 or 9, was building powered racers and motorcycles while still in high school, and whose fascination with speed remains with him still. Among the last photographs in the book is one showing 91-year-old Milliken driving the MX-1 racing car he designed through a 1.3-G corner on England’s famous Goodwood course, in 2002.
Ever the engineer, Milliken’s fame and enviable reputation in automotive engineering resulted directly from his analysis of car design in aeronautical terms. General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, Rolls-Royce, Lotus and other automotive companies routinely consult with him to improve safety and controllability. His engineering is the foundation for modern automobile chassis design, not to mention his more adventurous work with major racing teams and suppliers.
Like Dan Gurney, who wrote the book’s foreword, this reviewer (and Gurney racing contemporary) hesitated to start reading “Equations of Motion” at first. Also like Gurney, however, it didn’t take much reading to understand the title. Bill Milliken is an engineer who has spent most of his long life in motion, whether in airplanes, racing cars or as an accomplished ballroom dancer. It turns out to be a wonderfully entertaining book.
If you or a son or daughter wonders whether a career in engineering could be satisfying, Milliken’s exciting life should put any doubts to rest as he recounts challenges and joys in the air and on the tracks.
Equations of Motion, by William F. Milliken; Bentley Publishers, Cambridge, Mass., 2006; 684 pages, 700 photographs, illustrations, index, appendices; $59.95.