Forrest Bird, The Birdman of Idaho

Morley Safer Meets an Extraordinary American Inventor

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Improved models quickly followed; his respirator for premature infants, the "Baby Bird," massively reduced the death rate for preemies.

Bird's neighbor, Donna Turnbull, got to experience the importance of the invention first-hand. "It's an amazing situation and a good happy ending," she recalls.

Donna and her husband Bob have good reason to thank him for his Baby Bird respirator. "It had been snowing. And there was a black sheet of black ice on the highway. And we hit it, and so did another pickup truck. And it ran right into us," she recalls.

Donna was in labor and Bob was driving her to the hospital that day in 1985. The accident nearly killed her. And doctors first thought the baby, Tim, was gone.

"They wouldn't look me in the eye. And I thought, 'Well, what's going on? What's wrong?'" Bob recalls.

"The doctors pronounced Tim dead. They said he was stillborn," Donna adds.

But when a faint pulse was discovered in the umbilical, baby Tim was hooked up to the Baby Bird. It made him breathe, and it pulled him through.

"I gather the Turnbulls owe a great deal to Forrest Bird," Safer remarks.

"Yeah. Great man," Donna agrees.

The great man, in his late 80s now, is still certified to fly. He lives and works at a breath-taking 300-acre compound on Lake Pend Oreille, just south of the Canadian border. Here, Forrest Bird has invented his own private Idaho.

"I've kind of recreated similar to what I had as a young lad growing up in New England," Bird says. "It's fun. We enjoy it."

Think of it as a combination home, business center, factory, museum and farm. Here, where the deer and the baby buffalo play, Bird routinely works a 12-hour day, conferring with doctors who come from around the world for his expertise, overseeing a staff of 40 who assemble the newest generation of Bird respirators, and writing, lecturing, flying, and still tinkering.

Where does he get the energy from?

Says Bird's second wife Pam, "He has to get it from heaven, because there's days where there's, if I was one day older I don't think I could keep up with him."

Pam met Bird through her work of bringing inventors and investors together. The first time he took her up in a plane, he did some aerial acrobatics. It was love at first flight.

"And he did the spins and the flips," she remembers. "Then when he landed he looked at me and he goes, 'Well, what do you think about that?' And I looked at him and I said, 'Is that all you can do?'"

Forrest Bird admits he was trying to impress Pam. "He was trying to see how much I could take," she says.

His late wife, Mary, had emphysema and was treated on many of Bird's respirators. "She was always my first patient," Bird remembers. "But ultimately, the lung was destroying itself. But we probably gave her a number of years of additional life. And probably it sparked me too in turn to push further and develop."

Bird, a legend in aviation and medicine, is something of a mystery to his Idaho neighbors, which is why he recently invited everyone over for the opening of a museum showcasing his inventions and toys.

There was an air show starring stunt pilot Patty Wagstaff. She did enough spins and flips to put Bird to shame. And she officially opened Bird's museum by cutting a ribbon flying upside down fifteen feet off the runway.

"Wow. You're the greatest. Thank you, Patty," Bird said.

And that's a major compliment coming from someone whose father taught him to fly 75 years ago, who has piloted almost every kind of aircraft there is. Forrest Bird's own private Idaho includes his own private air force.

How many planes does he have in his fleet?

"I think 21," Bird says, laughing. "Helicopters, we have three helicopters. And they're all flyable."

When Safer asked how one guy can use all those planes, Dr. Bird joked that he flies "one at a time."

He's a king size pack rat, collecting and restoring old planes, old cars, even old motorcycles. And they all come with stories. Admire his collection of old Fords, and he'll tell you about meeting the man, Henry Ford, himself in 1930.

Talk about his vintage biplanes, and he'll tell you about meeting, as a teenager, one-half of the Wright brothers, Orville. "And I thought he was God," Bird remembers.

Talk about float planes he has had over the years, and he'll tell you about flying them several times with the 20th century's most mysterious man, Howard Hughes, who, even in his last reclusive days could not resist taking a spin with Forrest Bird.

"He had a stocking cap on, and a beard and so on. And other than basically his voice, I didn't recognize him," Bird remembers. "He says, 'Let's go.' He was a magnificent pilot all the way. And he totally enjoyed it. And we came back and he said, 'Well, how much do I owe you?' I said, 'Mr. Hughes, you know I get great enjoyment out of it.'"