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Widow of Forrest Bird dies in plane crash

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 9, 2015

Tookie Hensley, left, and Pamela Bird (Courtesy)
Tookie Hensley, left, and Pamela Bird (Courtesy)

A small-plane crash Thursday morning near Hope, Idaho, killed three friends and pilots, including the widow of Dr. Forrest Bird, whose research in breathing apparatuses led to the development of the modern respirator.

Sagle resident Pamela Riddle Bird, 58, whose husband died just two months ago at the age of 94, died in the crash along with Tookie and Don Hensley of Mohave Valley, Arizona, friends confirmed Friday.

They were aboard a Cessna 182 fixed-wing aircraft that went down in the Cabinet Mountains near Lake Pend Oreille on Thursday morning. Searchers found the crash site on the south side of Round Top Mountain on Thursday afternoon after a search with multiple helicopters from around the area. The plane was on fire and continued to smoke for hours.

Officials believe Bird was flying from the left front seat of the plane, said the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office in a press release. Tookie Hensley, 80, was sitting in the right front seat and her husband Don Hensley, 84, was in the back seat.

Don Hensley’s body has not been recovered and may be underneath the wreckage, officials said.

“It’s devastating to lose someone as energetic (as Bird) and such an angel as she is,” said Tonya Rutan, a friend and Coeur d’Alene seaplane pilot.

“They were all very good pilots,” said Rutan, who had flown with Pamela Bird and Tookie Hensley in the women’s cross-country Air Race Classic in 2014. “Their love for flying was unmatched by anyone I know. They lived for flying. All of them very special characters.

“We had so much fun on that cross-country race. It was really a special time, especially being all women.”

Jim Healy, the founder of Sandpoint-based biomedical technology company Lead-Lok Inc., was a close friend of Pamela Bird.

Healy said Bird always had a big smile and a warm hug – “just the most sensitive, caring woman I’ve ever known.”

He dined with Bird and the Hensleys on Tuesday night.

“She was so anxious to go on her trip with her best friends,” he said.

Bird started and served as president of the Inventors Association of Idaho, and Healy is vice president of the group.

“It’s a real loss to everybody, because everyone in Sandpoint knows of her and her charity and what a kind person she was,” he said. “I will certainly miss her.”

Clark Fork Fire and Rescue responded to the crash site. Fire Marshal Lois John said the flight originated from the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center in Sagle and was headed to Boise.

The trio was on a cross country trip and the flight plan listed stops in North Dakota, Maine and Florida, according to the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office.

The museum, founded in 2007 by Forrest and Pamela Bird, has its own private airstrip. Billed as the world’s only aeromedical museum, it showcases the work of inventors and displays unique aircraft and rare vintage cars.

The museum was Pamela Bird’s passion, Rutan said.

“When people visit there you can see the love in every part of the grounds.”

The museum includes over 100 medical inventions by Forrest Bird, including the medical respirator, the anti-g suit pressure regulator and the first mass-produced worldwide respirator for babies.

After her husband died on Aug. 2, Pamela Bird said, “He was a great man and humanitarian. He saved millions of lives, one at a time.”

Pamela Bird was founder and CEO of Innovative Product Technologies, Inc., a product and technology-based market commercialization corporation with a branch office in Sandpoint. She worked as a liaison between inventor organizations, venture capital organizations, entrepreneurial networks and research park facilities.

She also was founder of Inventors Educational Foundation, a nonprofit public charity to assist in the educational and commercialization needs of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Tookie Hensley was an instrument flight instructor, ground instructor and pilot. She and her husband Don were owners of Tookie’s Flying Service in Bullhead City, Arizona.

Rutan, whose husband Burt is a well-known aerospace engineer who designed the first manned civilian spacecraft, said Tookie Hensley was one of her flying instructors.

“Tookie was a live wire,” Rutan said. “Tookie was very competitive. She was an avid pilot. .. She and her husband learned to fly together when they were really young, but she is the one in the family who wore the aviator’s cap. She was a true aviator through and through.”

Staff reporter Nina Culver contributed to this report.

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