William F. Milliken Jr., renowned aeronautical engineer and pilot, dies at 101

William F. Milliken Jr., a renowned aeronautical engineer, pilot and road racer who helped dream up a car-flying James Bond movie stunt, died July 28 at his home in Williamsville, N.Y. He was 101. He had complications from an enlarged prostate, said his son Doug Milliken.

As an engineer for Boeing during World War II, Mr. Milliken conducted perilous high-altitude flight tests aboard the B-17 bomber and also helped develop the B-29, later used to drop the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, he became one of the world’s foremost researchers on vehicle dynamics, the study of improving how a car handles on the road by using advanced mathematical calculations.

He wrote a book on vehicle dynamics that is considered the “bible” of Formula 1 race car design, and he was a consulting engineer to General Motors, Rolls-Royce, Ford, Bridgestone and Goodyear.

His work as an engineer was taken all the more seriously by clients because of his extensive experience as a race-car driver and pilot.

That Mr. Milliken lived past 100 was remarkable considering the number of plane and car crashes he had survived in the name of science and his own thirst for adrenaline.


William F. Milliken Jr., a renowned aeronautical engineer, pilot and road racer who helped dream up a car-flying James Bond movie stunt, died July 28 at his home in Williamville, N.Y. He was 101. (Courtesy of Bentley Publishers)

As a teenager, he designed and built out of canoe wood an airplane powered by a 27-horsepower motorcycle engine. During flight testing, he crashed the unstable plane on a beach in Maine, flipping the aircraft on its back in the sand.

Despite the accident, Mr. Milliken said he was compelled to pursue a career in the dynamics of flight as an aeronautical engineer.

Although he was an accomplished race-car driver, Mr. Milliken’s best-known feat behind the wheel of his Bugatti Type 35 was rolling the vehicle in a 1948 road race in Watkins Glen, N.Y.

He was speeding at 100 mph when he saw a supercharged MG in front of him. Mr. Milliken decided to overtake the other driver around a turn known as “thrill corner.”

“I managed to pass him, but it was so close to that corner and the brakes on the Bug are not the world’s greatest,” Mr. Milliken told the Elmira, N.Y., Star-Gazette in 2001. “I lost it on the corner and spun out and hit the hay.”

Mr. Milliken emerged from his flipped car unscathed. The turn has been known as “Milliken’s Corner” ever since.

One of Mr. Milliken’s successes in high-speed car driving was his role helping to design a stunt for the 1974 James Bond film starring Roger Moore, “The Man With the Golden Gun.”

For many years, Mr. Milliken worked as a senior engineer at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, a research facility in Buffalo, N.Y., associated with Cornell University.

In the late 1960s, some of the more imaginative scientists under Mr. Milliken’s purview began running computer experiments on how to flip a car in midair using ramps. The researchers, using complex mathematical calculations, proved it was possible and invited a test driver to try it out.

The resulting barrel-roll move was employed by Moore’s 007 secret agent during a car chase scene filmed in Thailand in a single take.

William Franklin Milliken Jr., was born April 18, 1911, in Old Town, Maine, once known as the canoe-manufacturing capital of the world.

In the early 1930s, he used canoe wood to build his plane. Today, the Milliken M-1 aircraft is in the collection of the Owls Head, Maine, Transportation Museum.

He was a 1934 mathematics graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After working at Boeing during World War II, Mr. Milliken joined what became the Cornell Aeronautical Lab. He retired in 1976 as chief of the transportation research division and started a consulting business. He worked up until his death.

In his spare time, Mr. Milliken participated in more than 100 car races. He placed sixth in the 1947 Pikes Peak hill climb in Colorado, and in 2002 and 2007 drove his own radically designed MX-1 race car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.

An early marriage ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Barbara Roesch Milliken, of Williamsville, N.Y., and two children from his second marriage, Doug Milliken of Clarence, N.Y., and Ann Milliken of Williamsville, N.Y. A son from his second marriage, Peter Milliken, died in 2001.

Mr. Milliken was frequently awarded for his engineering and racing achievements. In 2011, he was named a “legend” of the Watkins Glen International race track, sharing the honors that year with race-car drivers Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.