A young patient on our Flying Eye Hospital project in Accra, Ghana, 2019

The Power of Aviation in the Fight Against Avoidable Blindness

At the forefront of innovation in aviation for nearly four decades, the Flying Eye Hospital is a force for good worldwide. On National Aviation Day—and as our current Flying Eye Hospital turns five—we're looking back at how this unique aircraft has served as a beacon of hope in the global fight against blindness.

THE STORY BEHIND OUR THIRD-GENERATION FLYING EYE HOSPITAL

CELEBRATING FIVE YEARS OF FLIGHT

On June 16, 2016, Orbis partnered with FedEx to unveil the third-generation Flying Eye Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Thanks to Orbis’s generous supporters, the MD-10 aircraft—once a cargo plane—was custom-designed and outfitted with the world’s most advanced equipment.

Unlike any other aircraft, the Flying Eye Hospital is a fully accredited teaching hospital featuring state-of-the-art facilities, complete with rooms for training, sight-saving operations, and recovery. The Flying Eye Hospital was equipped with the latest technology so Orbis volunteers would be able to travel the globe to provide best-in-class training for eye care professionals and life-changing care for patients who need it most.

Timelapse: the making of our MD-10


FOUR DECADES OF INNOVATION IN AVIATION

Pictured here behind the Orbis team, the very first Flying Eye Hospital touched down in 1982. Twelve years later, the demand for mobile training and eye care operations had grown exponentially. Recognizing a need to bolster its services, Orbis introduced the second-generation Flying Eye Hospital in 1992. Twice the size of the original plane, this DC-10 aircraft made it possible for Orbis to expand services on board the one-of-a-kind Flying Eye Hospital.

Thanks to Orbis supporters, the Flying Eye Hospital has continued to elevate the eye care technology, training, and equipment available to communities around the world. The current Flying Eye Hospital, an MD-10, can fly nearly twice as far as its predecessor and requires only two pilots rather than three.

The very first DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital in 1982

The very first DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital


HOPE FOR HONG

The third-generation Flying Eye Hospital embarked on its first sight-saving trip to Shenyang, China on September 2, 2016. Thanks to Orbis supporters, the volunteers on board the Flying Eye Hospital were able to provide care to hundreds of people while there, including a young girl named Hong. Hong’s mother noticed that her eyes were misaligned at just three years old. Hong’s condition worsened as she got older, and her mother began to worry that opportunities in Hong’s future would be limited due to the appearance of her eyes.


Young patient Hong is screened by Volunteer Faculty in Shenyang, China, 2016

Hong’s surgery was selected as a teaching case by Dr. Douglas Fredrick

When the Flying Eye Hospital arrived in Shenyang, Hong was able to receive a screening. Diagnosed with strabismus, or misalignment of the eyes, Hong’s surgery was selected as a teaching case by Dr. Douglas Fredrick, a long-time Orbis volunteer and professor at Stanford University.

The first thing I noticed on the plane was the quality of technology. I was really nervous for Hong at first but the impressive technology gave me great confidence about the surgery. My daughter was very scared but the plane was full of kind people and this made us feel very safe.” — Hong’s mother


THE FLYING EYE HOSPITAL GOES VIRTUAL

Soon after the Flying Eye Hospital returned from China, Orbis launched a virtual tour of the aircraft in November 2016. Because the Flying Eye Hospital is truly one-of-a-kind, the tour allows anyone to explore the inside—getting a feel for the cutting edge technology and imagining just how extraordinary the experience is on board.

Take a full virtual reality tour of the plane


THE BBC COMES ON BOARD

In 2017, the Flying Eye Hospital made its way to London’s Stansted airport where the public was invited to climb on board and check out the state-of-the-art operating room, laser treatment room, simulation center, classroom and AV suite. The BBC captured the unique experience of walking through the aircraft for viewers at home.


1.3 MILLION VIRTUAL VISITORS

In 2019, Orbis welcomed world-renowned aviation blogger Sam Chui on the Flying Eye Hospital for a trip to Ghana. Sam opened up his first-hand experience to over 1.3 million viewers. Those who tuned in saw Orbis volunteers transform lives by training local doctors, providing sight-restoring surgeries to those in need, and preventing avoidable blindness.

Watch Sam Chui take a tour of the Flying Eye Hospital


FIRST ALL-FEMALE FLIGHT CREW

In 2019, Orbis celebrated the first-ever all-female flight crew on a flight between Kingston, Jamaica, and Memphis, Tennessee. Anchored by veteran pilots Cyndhi Berwyn and Cheryl Pitzer, the crew not only made it possible for Orbis volunteers to care for hundreds of people in Jamaica, but they also served as a symbol of women’s leadership in aviation. Berwyn and Pitzer say they hope their dedication to aviation inspires young women around the world to take to the skies someday.

Volunteer pilots Cyndhi and Cheryl in the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital flight deck

Captains Cyndhi Berwyn and Cheryl Pitzer flew the plane on the first all-female flight crew


ORBIS PILOTS PIVOT IN 2020

Due to the impact of COVID-19, Orbis reimagined its Flying Eye Hospital trainings as virtual ones to ensure that eye care teams could still access critical training—safely—even during a pandemic. Even when it is safe for the Flying Eye Hospital to resume in-person training, the new virtual training will be incorporated into the existing training model to create a robust, blended learning approach


OUR FLYING EYE HOSPITAL TODAY

In April 2021, Orbis launched its latest virtual Flying Eye Hospital project in Ghana. The project consisted of four courses for eye care professionals delivered through a combination of self-paced learning and live sessions with Volunteer Faculty and Flying Eye Hospital clinical staff. The next virtual Flying Eye Hospital project will take place in China with future projects planned for Chile, and regionally across Latin America.

In July 2021, Orbis partnered with Microsoft Flight Simulator to give people the opportunity to virtually explore the Flying Eye Hospital in full hospital mode and to learn more about Orbis’s mission to train and inspire local eye care teams.

Orbis has partnered with Microsoft Flight Simulator

The Flying Eye Hospital features on Microsoft Flight Simulator

The third-generation Flying Eye Hospital features 3D livestreams of surgeries from the plane's operating room into its classroom, the capability to broadcast live surgical demonstrations over Cybersight, and simulation equipment. Orbis uses simulation to teach and train eye care teams around the world using virtual reality, artificial eyes, and manikins—even more critical during a global pandemic as hands-on training opportunities have decreased.

Just as simulation has been teaching pilots how to fly for decades, it is now helping doctors, anesthesiologists and nurses to save sight and improve patient care across the globe.

Give a Gift today

In honor of National Aviation Day, your donation helps Orbis fight avoidable blindness around the globe.