Orville L. Abbott, an influential California water official and World War II aviator who survived a harrowing crash in the Pacific Ocean, died Jan. 23 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his family said. He was 91.
Mr. Abbott, who retired in 1992 after 42 years in the state Department of Water Resources, was instrumental in the development of statewide water projects. As executive officer and chief engineer for the California Water Commission, he traveled annually to Washington to assist with presentations to the congressional Appropriations Committee for federal dams, levees and other flood-control works. He also advised the commission on requests to use eminent domain to acquire private land for projects.
“He was extremely well-respected as a straight shooter,” said Bob Potter, a former chief deputy director for the Department of Water Resources.
Mr. Abbott advanced in his career with a reputation for integrity. He started as a junior civil engineer in 1950 and worked in the field as a “watermaster” responsible for implementing court decrees allocating supplies from local rivers and creeks to farmers and ranchers in northeastern California. Within six years, he was a senior engineer and was appointed supervisor of the watermaster program.
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“In the early days, they went out there and actually lifted the gates and directed the water here and there,” former department director Ronald Robie said. “It was a very hands-on job.”
Mr. Abbott flew combat missions over Japan as a B-29 copilot in World War II. After leaving Saipan island on a raid at 3 a.m. on June 1, 1945, two engines on the same side of the four-engine bomber malfunctioned and caught fire. As the plane lost altitude over the Pacific Ocean, he scrambled with his parachute behind the bombardier, who was reluctant to bail out 400 feet over the water in pitch darkness.
“So I took my foot and helped him make a decision, and away he went,” Mr. Abbott recalled in a 2010 interview with the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs. “I followed him by a matter of feet, if not inches.
“As soon as I cleared the airplane, I pulled the ripcord. The airplane blew up on impact when it hit the water. The parachute opened. I felt like someone hit me in the chest with a doubled-up fist. I was in the water and going down fast. I remember the water rushing by my head and up my back. I kept wondering when I would start coming up.”
After surfacing, Mr. Abbott found the parachute pulling him across the water like a wind surfer. He released himself, inflated his life preserver and floated on his back to conserve his energy.
He spotted a ship silhouetted under the moonlit sky and used a flashlight pinned to his flight suit to signal the vessel, a U.S. destroyer whose crew had seen the plane explode and sailed toward the impact site. He was rescued and later learned that two crew members had died in the crash.
One of eight children raised on a farm, Mr. Abbott was born Sept. 28, 1922, in Roswell, Idaho. He attended the University of Idaho before enlisting in the Army Air Forces, and he earned a degree in agricultural engineering at Oregon State University in 1948.
He flew 28 successful raids on Japan before his plane crashed and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with five clusters and the Purple Heart.
He is survived by his wife of 22 years, Arlene Dozet. He previously was married for 39 years to Sally Booth, until her death in 1986.
He also is survived by three children from his first marriage, Judy Bilardello, David and Terry; a brother, Raymond; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A memorial is set for 11 a.m. Feb. 22 at Carmichael Elks Lodge, 5631 Cypress Ave., Carmichael. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.