Sound Barrier: Former Navy fighter pilot Ben Forrest now earns his living muting noise, not making it

Ben-Forrest-magThe Garvey Family Atrium in PACCAR Hall is an architectural marvel, a modern descendent of the vaulted cathedrals and majestic rail stations of yesteryear. But unlike those ancient echoing chambers of humanity, the tone and timbre inside the Foster School’s central hub is… pleasant. Intelligible.

You can have an intimate conversation, no matter the crowd.

For this, we have Ben Forrest (BA 1972) to thank. His company, Forrest Sound Products, installed the elegant acoustical walls and ceilings throughout PACCAR and Dempsey Halls—a state-of-the-art envelope of sound absorption backing pristine strips of Douglas fir.

This first major architectural project for Forrest was also a treasured return to his alma mater. “That was the old Business School,” he says. “Before you built these beautiful buildings.”

To fly

To Forrest the UW was, initially, a route to the Navy. The annual Seafair airshow had stirred in him profound aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot like the Blue Angels that rocketed over his childhood home in Bellevue.

“My dream was to fly the F-4 Phantom,” he says.

Forrest did just that, piloting combat missions at the end of the Vietnam War, and later instructing pilots in the F-14 Tomcat. During eight years of active duty, he flew from 13 different aircraft carriers, an exacting feat of pure adrenaline and extreme concentration.

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Forrest in his days as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot.

A long career as a commercial pilot followed, the last 16 years flying for Alaska Airlines. Forrest says he relished every minute of his 28,000 hours in the cockpit: “Flying the F-4 and F-14 was incredibly exhilarating. But I had the same satisfaction flying a 737 full of people to Maui or landing on a challenging airstrip up in Alaska.”

The entrepreneur awakens

Late in Forrest’s aviation career, a dormant entrepreneur awoke inside. While doing some work with a firm making acoustical products for aircraft engines, he decided to follow his brother, a consultant to paper mills and sewage treatment plants, to see if he could drum up some industrial noise and reverberation abatement contracts.

And so Forrest Sound was born. The founder learned the physics and the business on the fly. “I literally started in my living room with a pen and pad of paper,” he says.

His timing was impeccable. Government regulators were cracking down on exposure to the rattle and roar of heavy industry.

Business took off. Forrest and his growing company developed custom acoustic solutions for firms such as BP Oil, United Technologies and GlaxoSmithKline.

Architectural by design

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PACCAR and Dempsey Halls were the first in Forrest Sound’s architectural business.

And then came PACCAR Hall. “That was our first big, public, visible architectural project,” Forrest says. “We really hung it out there to win that contract. But our guys knocked it out of the park.”

The PACCAR grand slam launched a new architectural business, opening doors to clientele that ranges from Sea-Tac Airport to Seattle Children’s Theater, Boeing to The Bravern, Microsoft to the Magnolia Library.

Forrest and business partner Doug Bixel also have developed innovative acoustical materials. The latest is F-Sorb, an acoustical polyester that is safer, cheaper and more effective than fiberglass—and as smooth and paintable as drywall. Under a separate company, they are selling this patented material to acoustics companies around the world.

Hush now

F-Sorb is the secret in Forrest’s latest spinoff: Hush Curtain, a flexible and noninvasive solution to the cacophony of the busy emergency room. He transformed the standard hospital curtain into an articulated baffle. Each pocket is stashed with F-Sorb to significantly deaden the ER clamor. Hush is already a $3 million business. And it’s only getting started.

Word is out that Forrest & Co. can find a solution to any acoustical challenge. His secret? Creating an environment of safety—inspired by the life-or-death choreography on the carrier flight deck—and innovation. And listening, to customers and employees.

“We’re always thinking of a better and safer way to do things,” Forrest says. “When somebody has a good idea, we give them credit—and make sure that everyone hears about it.”

Sound acoustics, indeed.