July 8, 2007 in Idaho

Aviation museum takes off

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

Pilot Patty Wagstaff hugs inventor Forrest Bird after a show Saturday at Bird’s private airstrip. At right is Bird’s wife, Pam Biddle Bird. Wagstaff’s appearance was a surprise to Bird, who was holding the grand opening of his aviation museum.
(Full-size photo)

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An astronaut, the man who invented the modern-day respirator and the creator of the Cabbage Patch Doll all meet at a museum in rural Sagle.

Should you be waiting for a punch line, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

Several inventors were on hand Saturday for the grand opening of the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center. The inventor of the Internet, the creator of the digital thermometer and the man who perfected the microphone were present, to name a few.

Mild-mannered, the patent-holders mostly faded into a crowd of several thousand people marveling at a large assembly of airplanes and the edge-of-insanity aerobatics of pilot Patty Wagstaff.

Wagstaff, a three-time titleholder of the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship, buzzed in upside-down and, flying less than 20 feet off the ground, cut the ceremonial ribbon with her plane. She then followed her surprise entrance with a series of tumbles and engine cuts that didn’t seem to defy gravity so much as pull the chair out from under it.

“I had no idea she was coming,” said Forrest Bird, the museum’s founder. His wife, Pam Riddle Bird, simply told him a couple of local pilots had planned to put on a show using the Birds’ private airstrip.

What seemed to make the Birds’ day, though, was the sizable crowd that trekked to their home 10 miles south of Sandpoint for the opening of the museum, which was about two years in the making. The couple’s hope is that flight exhibits and invention displays at the museum will inspire children to study math and science and to create.

“What we have attempted to do is have an influence on children, to get them excited about the sciences,” Forrest Bird said. “They’re the future.”

Bird is recognized as the father of the modern-day respirator. He developed the first highly reliable, affordable respirator to be mass-produced for medical use. His second invention, the “Babybird” respirator, is credited with reducing the infant mortality rate from 70 percent among infants with breathing problems to less than 10 percent worldwide. Both inventions were spawned from research Bird did as a pilot in World War II developing breathing apparatuses to keep pilots functioning normally at high altitudes. Today, the bulk of the 86-year-old inventor’s work is done at his home in Sagle. Bird moved to the area with his first wife, a Sandpoint native, in the early 1960s. She is now deceased.

Included among the throng of photographers following Bird, as he posed Saturday with various luminaries and fans of his collection of nearly two dozen planes and helicopters, was a film crew from the CBS program “60 Minutes.”

He carefully drew the other inventors present into the spotlight. Frank Cepollina, the man credited with figuring how to do maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope without bringing it down from outer space, posed for pictures with Bird, his friend. The two men met in 2003 when Cepollina was entered into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and found he was sitting next to Bird at the induction banquet.

Cepollina brought astronaut John Mace Grunsfeld to the museum opening. Grunsfeld, a four-trip space veteran and formerly NASA’s chief scientist, sat in a crowded corner of the museum autographing portraits of himself in full space gear for bystanders.

“Something a lot of people don’t know is that all NASA astronaut appearances are voluntary,” Grunsfeld said. “We’re willing to go out to events to promote science.”

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