Flying Eye Hospital landing in Peru

Meet the man behind the Flying Eye Hospital

September 2020

See how Bruce Johnson, a retired Air Force flight engineer turned FedEx flight instructor, oversees an ‘engineering masterpiece’ in the fight against preventable blindness — even during COVID-19.

There’s a lot of sky in Oklahoma: plenty of opportunity to lift your eyes and wonder. And if you are born and raised in the Sooner State, all of that sky may call to you. Especially if you’re a boy who looks up to his father, a man who gazes up to the heavens… and sometimes flies them.

Aviation is sort of in my blood,” says Bruce Johnson, Director of Aircraft Operations for Orbis International. Bruce began to fly with his father at age 14. He took his first solo flight on his 16th birthday.

Bruce says aviation is 'in his blood'.

After high school, he joined the Air Force. He served 27 years in active duty, first as an aircraft mechanic, then as a flight engineer. This was followed by a stint in the Reserves. He became an instructor: first at Boeing, then at FedEx.

It was there at FedEx, in 2001, that his employer took over the training and flying of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital — and Bruce fell in love.

What’s not to love?

The Flying Eye Hospital — powered by donors, volunteer FedEx pilots and over 400 volunteer eye care professionals from 29 countries — serves many critically important roles…

The Flying Eye Hospital has trained 10,000 doctors, conducted 12 million eye exams, and performed 350,000 eye surgeries to-date. It is an ambassador of goodwill and a beacon of hope.

And all at no cost to its beneficiaries.

In 2008, three years after first volunteering with the Flying Eye Hospital program, Bruce was promoted to his current position as Director of Aircraft Operations and Maintenance. He ensures the plane is always fit to fly and, most importantly, is a beloved member of the Orbis family.

I get choked up,” Bruce explains. “Watching the response from the individuals and the families of those being helped. Just the pure joy of being returned the gift of sight. A child seeing their mother for the first time. It is amazing.”

Bruce gets 'choked up' when seeing little girls like Marla get the help they need

For almost four decades, FedEx has played an indispensable role fighting avoidable blindness. FedEx donated the MD-10 aircraft that became the third-generation Flying Eye Hospital and, just as importantly, provides ongoing delivery and logistical support – helping us improve the quality of care available at our partner hospitals around the world.

Thanks to this incredible generosity, the Flying Eye Hospital is able to lift hopes and lives the world over: to make dreams fly.

The technical part

The current third-generation Flying Eye Hospital, launched in June of 2016, can fly twice as far as its predecessor, which was donated to the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

Formerly a cargo plane, the MD-10 (McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, retrofitted with the MD-10-30 upgrade) was donated by FedEx in 2012. It was then fitted with a modular suite, converted to an ophthalmic hospital and state-of-the-art teaching facility with a 46-seat classroom, operating theater, and sterilization and laser rooms.

The plane relies on a number of complex systems: power, backup generator, water treatment, ventilation, air filtration, air conditioning, liquid cooling, and early alert, for example.

Its A/V system allows live 3D filming and broadcast from the operating room for students to view in the adjacent classroom as well as in other classrooms outside of the aircraft. Simulations may also be conducted, and participants may pose questions via two-way video and audio.

The only thing we ask of our partners are stairs, patients who need our help, and doctors and nurses that want to work with us. Everything else: the airplane is completely self-sufficient,” Bruce notes.


Slideshow: Bruce & Phil, Aircraft Maintenance, running ops checks to keep the plane 'flight ready' in Texas last week

Of course, COVID-19 has changed everything. When it was declared a pandemic and the Flying Eye Hospital was grounded, the team opted not to put it in storage because resuming flight afterward would require a great deal of work and the duration of grounding remains unknown. Therefore, the plane is being kept in a constant state of flight readiness.

Many thanks to FedEx once again for making this possible by allowing the MD-10 to be parked at Alliance International Airport in Fort Worth, Texas.

But the aircraft is not sitting idly. The work required to maintain it is highly active. It includes pre-flights, engine runs, oxygen and tire pressure maintenance, taxiing for wheel movement, the changing of filters, the charging of batteries, and the monitoring and replacing of instruments.

Heroes can still fly even when grounded

With the plane temporarily grounded, the Flying Eye Hospital team has been working extra hard to move their crucial training program online thanks to our award winning telemedicine platform, Cybersight. This takes the “lemons” of a global pandemic and makes “lemonade” in the form of an investment in the future.

Bruce is ready regardless. He is a pilot at heart and longs to return to the skies. “I’m excited to get back in the field, get back on the Flying Eye Hospital, get back to patient care.”

And yet, like countless other volunteers and donors, Bruce Johnson wants whatever is best for everyone right now. If maintaining a grounded plane is what’s needed, that’s just what he will do. For as long as it takes. Because it’s his heart of gold that ever moves him.

As Orbis volunteer ophthalmologist Dr. Hunter Cherwek recently said to Bruce: “I know Seymour is the most famous teddy bear at Orbis, but you’re definitely the biggest.”

Truly, it’s the Bruce Johnsons of the world that reach for the skies in order to change lives.