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”i Was A Dennis The Menace. I Drove People Crazy.”

FORREST BIRD WAS A TEENAGER WHEN HE ENCOUNTERED THE mystery that would engage him for his whole life. The son of a World War I flying ace, he began getting flying lessons years before learning to drive. As he contemplated the motion of air over an airplane’s wing, he marveled at the physics that governed all those invisible molecules, keeping the aircraft aloft. It led him to get degrees in engineering and then to go on to medical school when his interest in airflow turned his attention to the physics of breathing.

Bird invented the first practical medical respirator, which freed patients from the confines of iron lungs. But he is probably best known as the man who triggered a revolution in medicine when he created a version of his respirator for infants. The BABY bird, introduced in 1969, allowed doctors to save premature babies who had had no hope before, laying the foundation for what would be called neonatology. In the 1980s he triggered another, smaller revolution when he invented a therapy he calls Intrapulmonary Percussive Ventilation. By generating rapidly pulsing currents of air, his newest generation of respirators can literally massage the inside of a patient’s lungs, producing several therapeutic benefits.

This doesn’t mean Bird ever abandoned his interest in aviation. He maintains three large hangars full of fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters, and gliders; at last count he owned 38 working aircraft. These hangars are located at his compound on the shores of Pend Oreille Lake south of Sandpoint, in northern Idaho.

The compound is a reflection of his personality. At the heart of the facility is a large, comfortable house he shares with his wife, Pamela. It’s a short walk from the lakeside lodge that holds his laboratory, workshop, guest rooms, offices, and seminar facility. Nearby are buildings that contain manufacturing and distribution facilities for his company, Percussionaire.

 

Bird also maintains gardens, fishponds, and cattle-grazing facilities that produce most of the food consumed in the compound. In the event of a power failure, backup generators fueled by large underground tanks can supply enough electricity to keep all the facilities running for months.

Bird, 82, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995. This conversation took place in his lodge as snow fell on the mountain peaks in the background.

 

You’ve been involved with both engineering and aviation since you were a child, haven’t you?

I had some unique opportunities when I was a young lad. We had a 250-acre farm my family bought in 1929, if I remember right. There were wonderful shops there. My dad had a shop with state-of-the-art tooling: lathes and metal drill presses and milling machines and so on, which I learned to use when I was young.

My daddy was involved in manufacturing lasts, the forms shoes are made on, and he used to make a lot of the tooling in the shop himself, so I had a tremendous advantage. I had great freedom and access. I was a Dennis the Menace. I drove people crazy. I’d ask somebody a question, and if he didn’t give me a good answer, I would keep after him. I was a nasty kid from that point of view, but my daddy was very patient with me.

He was a World War I pilot, and, gosh, he taught me to fly. He soloed me when I was 14. That was in 1935.1 thought my daddy was the greatest man who ever lived. He gave me direction very young in life and showed me how I could utilize each learning experience I had to work toward what I wanted to do.

Did you always want to be an inventor?

To begin with, I wanted to fly airplanes. I thought that was romantic, was fantastic, because my daddy was one hell of a good pilot. Going from there, soon I wanted to be able to build that airplane. I wanted to know why it acted the way it did and what it did, all the way through it. I went from there.

If I hadn’t become an inventor, I’d have been a flyboy. Fd probably have been pushing airplanes around, or I’d have been an aeronautical engineer, working on what somebody else had done. But I would have been involved with aviation.

And aviation led you to respiration.

Yes. Before the war I was flying for Eastern Air Lines, and the year before World War II started, I got my license to fly military transports. I’d been a second lieutenant in ROTC, and when I was called up, I was made a first lieutenant.

An interesting thing happened during the war. I got to fly a captured Junkers 88 bomber from Germany. It was a bomber converted for high-altitude flight. The English had captured it and checked it out, and then I was ordered to deliver it to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. At the time, our pilots were flying with a high-altitude regulator that we called a “horse bag” because they looked like feed bags. That’s what we were using. We had an altitude restriction of 28,000 feet.