Bird’s legacy lives on at museum
By Dan Thompson
Photo by Rachel Schwam
“There’s just so many different people (who visit),” Moore said. “Fighter pilots (visit), medical people come to see the respirators. Just really interesting people that come in for a variety of reasons.”
Forrest Bird’s interests were equally diverse, so perhaps it is fitting that people come to visit the museum—its full name is the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center—for all sorts of reasons. They bring with them as many stories as Moore shares with them: stories of times they met Bird, stories about their own experiences in airplanes similar to those they see at the museum, or stories about how some of Bird’s medical inventions saved a loved one’s life.
“He lived a life you see in movies,” Moore said of Bird. “You think it’s a made-up movie story and he lived that kind of life.”
Bird died at 94 years old on August 2, 2015. Two months later, Dr. Pamela Riddle Bird, his wife, died in a plane crash. But their legacies live on through the museum, which is directed by Pamela Bird’s daughter, Rachel Riddle Schwam.
“It was their legacy, but it’s my honor and privilege to be able to continue it,” Schwam said. “I have a love and a passion for aviation and innovation, and with the technology in the world changing, I get to see little kids coming through who are thinkers, and volunteers full of great knowledge.”
Through much of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has been able to remain open while following social distancing guidelines, and the number of visitors has been steadily increasing. Education groups like to visit, Schwam said, and they have been doing so more and more. Admission is free; donations are encouraged. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, year-round, from 9am to 3pm.
The museum’s new space, which opened in 2019, is in a hangar at 2678 West Cessna Avenue at Pappy Boyington Field, a fitting location considering the various aircraft it has on display.
“I just love this kind of stuff. Love the museum,” said Larry Pearcy, a volunteer with an aviation background of his own. Though not a pilot himself, Pearcy said he loves airplanes in particular and has been able to ride along in some of the planes at the museum.
Pearcy, who helped build a Saturn rocket, orbitals and space shuttles for NASA, has since retired from that work. But he started volunteering at the museum about two years ago and said now “I work all the hours that (Schwam) wants to throw at me.”
He is drawn to the museum not just for the planes, either, but for the stories about Dr. Bird, who had a penchant for inventing out of necessity and opportunity. For example, Pearcy likes to tell people about how, during World War II, Bird tore apart a captured German airplane to figure out how to allow pilots to climb to higher altitudes.
“As soon as he got back, he tore the whole system out of that airplane and in his garage redesigned it and came up with the on-demand oxygen system,” Pearcy said. “That’s what we’re still using in our airplanes today.”
“I could go on and on about the guy,” Pearcy said. “He was quite the guy.”
The museum includes more of Bird’s inventions, many of which naturally followed from that Positive Pressure Inhalation Device that helped pilots fly up to 40,000 feet. Back on the ground, he developed the Bird Universal Medical Respirator that was much more effective than an iron lung.
Bird adapted that technology into what came to be known as the “Babybird” respirator that he introduced in 1970. It considerably reduced infant mortality due to respiratory problems—from 70 percent to less than 10 percent.
“From a life standpoint, (his legacy) is probably replacing the iron lung and the other thing is the Babybird,” Moore said. “And we get people in the museum all the time who said, ‘This saved me.’”
Bird was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Bird Museum celebrates the contributions of many other modern inventors. The museum is also a sponsor of the program Invent Idaho! that encourages young people to think outside the box and to be creative in solving problems that they are facing, Schwam said. Some young inventors’ products are displayed in the museum’s Invention Center, she said.
“What Mom and Doc (Bird) would say is to think outside the box, trial and error,” Schwam said. “Nothing’s gonna be perfect. Keep testing it.”
One of Moore’s favorite parts about volunteering at the museum is seeing the kids come through. Some, he said, couldn’t care less, but some others get really excited, especially about the airplanes.
If children show an interest, Moore asks them if they want to sit in the cockpit of one of the planes. Many pilots are aging out, he said, but the experience of sitting inside one of the older airplanes at the museum might just encourage them to pursue it.
Pearcy said he has had similar experiences with kids who were “awe-struck” by the airplanes. He told a story of a time when the mother of a recent museum visitor called him and said all her son talked about on the way home from the museum was sitting in the airplane.
“It makes me feel really good that I get to do that for the kids,” Pearcy said. “I love watching the kids come in here. I will hand walk them around.”
That curiosity about flight and about invention are two facets of Bird’s life that comprise his legacy, too, and the museum is a shrine to that idea, with its many airplanes and inventions, in addition to the various other exhibits about the history of flight and space exploration.
And the museum’s setting—right next to an airstrip—is an apt one, especially when the large hangar door can be opened up.
Even through the pandemic, Schwam said the museum has done great. The constant cleaning has given the place a steady scent of lavender, bleach and Pine Sol, she said, which “you learn to take as a compliment at this point.”
As she is on her hands and knees cleaning, seeing all the inventions up close, Schwam said that often her mother and Bird come to her mind.
“I’m just reminded of the care and compassion that both Mom and Doc had,” Schwam said. “This is their legacy they have left behind. Just being able to continue it is what they would want.”