by John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
Miracles happen all the time. Just ask Capt. Gary Dyson (FedEx Express), who voluntarily flies and serves as chief pilot for Orbis International, a global humanitarian organization dedicated to the treatment and prevention of blindness. On Dyson’s very first trip 18 years ago, he met a blind child on a Monday who by Wednesday could see.
“While this kind of experience may be routine for the doctors and nurses, it’s been life-changing not only for the patients but also for me,” acknowledged Dyson.
Pilots are a vital component of Orbis, which operates a single Boeing MD-10 donated by FedEx Express, known as the “Flying Eye Hospital.” The charity runs five to 10 Flying Eye Hospital missions a year in addition to about 60 projects on the ground, concentrating most of its efforts in developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where access to quality eyecare can be limited. Loss of vision in these countries makes it difficult to receive an education and find employment, increasing the likelihood of poverty.
Orbis estimates that 253 million people worldwide are blind or visually impaired, noting that many of the conditions causing blindness, such as cataracts and trachoma, can easily be treated.
However, Orbis does more than just operate on patients. For each mission, the aid organization partners with an area hospital, teaching the latest techniques and procedures using the tools and resources available to the local medical staff.
“In addition to operating facilities, the Flying Eye Hospital provides a theatre or teaching area in the front of the aircraft,” noted Dyson, adding that Orbis staff also spends time at the partnering hospital. Over the past five years, Orbis has improved the skills of eye-care professionals by carrying out more than 174,000 training sessions and has provided more than 15.7 million eye screenings, more than 386,000 surgeries and laser treatments, and more than 28.6 million medical or optical treatments to prevent blindness or improve sight.
“Flying has never been just a job for me; it’s an adventure,” said the MD-11 captain and line check airman who learned to fly a Cessna 150 before becoming a U.S. Air Force pilot. Dyson left the service in 1986, opting instead to fly for FedEx Express. While working in management, he learned about Orbis from a coworker in 1999 and, a year later, arranged with the aid organization to provide volunteer pilots access to one of the carrier’s simulators. Shortly afterward, Dyson flew his first Flying Eye Hospital mission.
The adventure of flying for Orbis particularly appeals to Dyson, who asserted, “None of these trips are routine. The most interesting thing about this flying is that it’s off the beaten path.” The captain observed that on numerous occasions, he’s flown to sites he’d never previously heard of.
“It’s Part 91 flying, and we work with a Houston outfit—Universal Weather and Aviation—that handles flight planning and flight following.” Universal also arranges for refueling. Dyson noted that in some smaller countries a paper flight plan, complete with carbon copies, may occasionally need to be filed. “Otherwise, you don’t get a clearance,” he said.
A mission typically begins when a host country’s minister of health invites Orbis for a visit. After extensive preparations, the Flying Eye Hospital flies to the designated location where it will spend two to four weeks. The pilots who fly the inbound trip assist at the site for a day or two before deadheading home. At the end of the stay, another crew deadheads to the location to fly the MD-10 to its next destination.
Trips are staffed by volunteer FedEx Express pilots who bid their schedules and use vacation to make these journeys possible. A network of 400 dedicated volunteer doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical technicians are the backbone of the operation.
The MD-10 is the third iteration of the Flying Eye Hospital. Orbis began in 1982 when United Airlines donated a DC-8 and United pilots volunteered for missions. The organization transitioned to a DC-10 in 1992, and the MD-10 became the charity’s latest transport in 2016. When United ceased DC-10 operations, the pilots used a FedEx Express DC-10 simulator to stay current, gradually tendering flying responsibilities to the FedEx Express pilots who’ve crewed Orbis trips ever since.
It should come as no surprise that in his 18 years and 37 trips, Dyson has had some truly colorful encounters, like the time he flew to Kaduna, Nigeria. The country was experiencing civil unrest, and Dyson and his crew were asked to stay in the town for an extra week in case hostilities arose and the airplane needed to be moved. Likewise, the outbound crew arrived a week early in Kaduna as a precautionary measure. Dyson recalled that the brick wall surrounding the layover hotel compound was adorned with razor wire and that the pilots were accompanied by armed guards everywhere they went.
Airport facilities can present their own set of challenges. “Sometimes the strength of taxiways, the condition of the concrete, and everything on the ramp where you park isn’t exactly as advertised,” he said.
On his most memorable journey, Dyson and the crew traveled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where they were scheduled to fly the Flying Eye Hospital to Calcutta, India, for a one-and-a-half-hour fuel stop before continuing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Along for the ride, a film crew from Discovery Channel Canada documented the trip. Multiple cameras were mounted around the cockpit to capture the experience.
Dyson recalled the temperature in Dubai was a balmy 120 degrees Fahrenheit and that the plane had a high zero fuel weight, providing some takeoff challenges. On approach into Calcutta amid thunderstorms and heavy turbulence, the aircraft’s number one engine experienced a compressor stall. Landing safely, the crew agreed that the most prudent course of action would be to delay departure until the engine could be properly inspected. With no previous arrangements and Orbis staff members who didn’t have Indian visas, the aircraft spent three days in Calcutta.
Ulaanbaatar provided the next challenge. “The airport’s runway is on a slope that’s at the operational maximum,” said Dyson, noting that aircraft land uphill and take off downhill. In addition, the airport is surrounded by rocky terrain. Fortunately, the flight there was uneventful.
After arriving at a mission destination, Orbis doctors and nurses spend time screening patients to select the best training cases for surgery and advise treatment options. Screening day, as it’s called, is usually chaotic because many of the patients are children, accompanied by concerned family members. And, of course, there’s the language barrier.
To ease tension and make it easier for the Orbis staff to complete its tasks, Dyson plays an acoustic guitar he brings along. He joked that “I Can See Clearly Now,” the 1972 hit by Johnny Nash, would be an appropriate selection given the circumstances. But his most popular numbers are covers of the Peter, Paul, and Mary classic, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”
Listening to Dyson’s guitar seems to temporarily transport the patients to a more peaceful place until their vision problems can be addressed and they can finally begin to see clearly. What’s also clear is that in flying around the globe to offer their services, Dyson and the entire Orbis International organization are providing millions of individuals with a brighter future.