Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Idaho Airpark Living

SilverWing at Sandpoint is a gateway to mountain adventure

Bird Museum

If notable individuals are a measure of an area's character, Sandpoint, Idaho, has more than its share of it. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was born there, and several inventors—like Tinker Hatfield, who designed the famous Air Jordan sneaker for Nike, among others—call the area home. A number of former baseball and football greats live in Sandpoint, along with Olympians, noted authors and former Nixon speech writer and movie actor Ben Stein (the teacher in Ferris Beuller's Day Off who constantly monotones, "Bueller? Bueller?"). But easily, one of the most fascinating residents is aviator and inventor Forrest M. Bird.

Bird is a biomedical engineer who invented the ventilator used in hospitals around the world to help patients breathe. Born in 1921 in Massachusetts, Bird became enamored with aviation as a child after being encouraged by his father—himself a World War I aviator. At 14, Bird was soloing aircraft, going on to serve in World War II with the Army Air Corps as a pilot, and flying nearly every aircraft in the inventory. His love of aviating and inventing continued for decades, culminating in today's modern medical respirator—among a slew of related medical inventions—and an impressive collection of some of the most interesting aircraft ever manufactured.

In 2007, Bird decided to bring his collection to the public when he opened the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center just a few miles outside of Sandpoint. Bird lives on the 300-acre complex, which functions as an office, airport, museum, laboratory and farm. It has become a respected destination for both pilots and inventors, hosting Aviation Hall of Fame dinners and Inventor's Hall of Fame inductees.

For pilots, the Bird Museum (and its adjacent Bird Ranch Airport) is an excellent destination, just a 10-minute flight from Sandpoint Airport. It's a private strip open by invitation only, so you'll need special permission before you land there. The Ranch is a 1,900-foot paved runway with a good downhill slope to the south and a seven-degree eastward curve about mid-field. Pilots are advised to land to the north and takeoff to the south, and are directed to divert to Sandpoint Airport if the wind is unfavorable. Deer frequent the runway, and a ridgeline of 80-foot trees makes go-arounds challenging. In short, bring your "A game," or just rent a car in Sandpoint and make the gorgeous 30-minute drive over to the museum.

Once there, you'll be rewarded by some unique photo collections of Bird's adventures, along with some superb examples of interesting flying machines. Bird's private collection numbers some 20 aircraft, including a vintage Bell 47 "bubble-canopy" helicopter, a fully restored Piper J3 Cub on floats that spends winters in the museum and summers out on Lake Pend Oreille and a 1967 Alon A-2, among others. Most of these are flying, and Bird—who's in his 80s—still flies when he's not too busy inventing. The upstairs area of the museum includes a vast collection of Bird's medical inventions and an Inventor's Hall of Fame wall with notable people and the products they invented.

Far from a mothballed collection, the Bird Museum is a living, breathing tribute to innovators and aviators who took a chance. The surroundings are just as breathtaking. For more information, visit


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