91-year-old pilot: ‘I’m gonna fly until I don’t feel like it’
Every couple of weeks, or whenever he damn well feels like it, Bill Rorden walks down the road from his house to the Nevada County Airport.
Once he’s through the gate it’s a short trip across the tarmac to his hangar, where the 91-year-old pilot easily slides open two enormous metal doors to reveal an old friend: his 1959 twin engine, four-seater Cessna 310, boasting a 35-foot wingspan.
Back when his wife Pat was alive, the couple, both pilots, would take to the skies together, exploring the far reaches of Alaska and British Columbia. Then there were the years when they took their two children, strapped safely in the back seat.
But these days, Rorden tends to stay closer to home, taking day lunch trips with other pilots to the likes of Napa, Red Bluff, Minden, Nevada, or his hometown of Petaluma. He said likes to have someone “aviation oriented” next to him in the cockpit nowadays, but those who know him would agree that his mind remains razor-sharp.
Nonetheless, Rorden is the first to joke about his age. In 1928, the year he was born, the life expectancy for an American male was 65, he said. Every year beyond that has been considered a gift.
“If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” he said with a laugh, quoting the words of Mickey Mantle. “Memory is the first to go and I can’t remember what’s next.”
One of 100 students to graduate from Petaluma High School in 1946, Rorden’s draft number came up just as the veterans were heading home from World War II. While he escaped combat, he was drafted to take on post-war duties overseas. But just as a busload of young men, he among them, pulled up to the induction center in San Francisco, it was announced that the draft had been canceled.
“So I was sent home with no plan,” he said. “I had to come up with something.”
However, things seemed to pan out for Rorden, who went on to enroll at Stanford, earning a degree in electrical engineering in 1951. After college he was hired by Stanford as a researcher, then went on to work in microwave electronics with Varian Associates, one of the first high-tech companies in Silicon Valley.
“Suddenly I had money and free time,” he said. “I got my private pilot’s license when I was 25. The next logical step was to buy a plane.”
LANDING IN NEVADA COUNTY
In 1953, Rorden’s first plane was a single engine two-seater Cessna 120, with no bells or whistles. The design was so austere, he said, that he had to turn the propeller to start the engine, not unlike the planes of World War I.
“It cost me $1,200, if I remember,” he said. “Friends and I would go on our spring breaks to Death Valley and the Tetons, where we would fish and camp.”
Once his brother got his pilot’s license, he and Rorden went in together on a four-seater Cessna 170, which was finally big enough to “bring your girlfriend and a lunch,” he said.
In 1960, Rorden got invited to interview with a company called the Grass Valley Group, which was making sound systems for theaters. He was charmed with the area and intrigued by the job. He was ready, he said, to leave a company that at the time seemed to be “creating solutions looking for a problem.”
He bought his brother out and moved the plane to the Nevada County Airport, where his was one of only two private planes based there. In 1967, Rorden married Pat, and the two spent many decades flying together.
Today, Rorden’s love of flying in his Cessna, “Harvey,” has not waned, although he never flies solo and undergoes regular medical evaluations and bi-annual flight reviews. His granddaughter, Ashley Evans, is now a licensed pilot and aeronautical engineer working for The Boeing Company in the United Kingdom.
“Flying gives you a different view of the world than land-based people — a global perspective,” he said. “I’m gonna fly until I don’t feel like it.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@Theunion.com.
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