Unique: Orbis’ MD-10 Is Also A Flying Eye Hospital

Orbis is an NGO that focuses on promoting eye health in developing countries. What you may not know is that the NGO operates an MD-10 that is also used as an eye hospital.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital travels around the world teaching doctors in developing countries. Photo: Richard Jorgenson/Orbis

Orbis had intended to showcase its one of a kind aircraft at this year’s Farnborough Airshow. However, the event was unfortunately called off. To make up for this, Simple Flying decided to take a look at the former freighter.

The aircraft’s history

Orbis is currently using its third flying eye hospital. The aircraft is a McDonnell Douglas MD-10 currently registered as N330AU. The three-engined cargo aircraft is 47.2 years old. According to Planespotters, it was delivered to Trans International Airlines on the 19th of April, 1973.

In April 1984, FedEx acquired the aircraft and continued to operate it until it was withdrawn from use in January 2010. However, rather than scrapping the aircraft, FedEx donated the plane to Orbis, its current operator.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
FedEx donated the aircraft. Photo: Tomás Del Coro via Wikimedia

The aircraft’s cockpit was upgraded in 2001. This digitized the avionics to comply with FAA requirements. During the conversion, the flight engineer’s station was removed, and it became possible to operate the aircraft with just a pilot and a first officer.

The aircraft’s interior

The MD-10 has a unique interior comprised of several modular sections. At the front of the aircraft is a classroom. Here, 46 seats are configured as a passenger cabin. When the aircraft if flying, it accommodates those traveling with the aircraft. However, when on the ground, the cabin is transformed. Local doctors are invited to come on board the plane. As space in the operating room is limited, they can watch live surgeries and take part in workshops here.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
The front of the aircraft is used as a classroom. Photo: Getty Images

Just behind the classroom are two office type rooms. The first is used for administration, but the second houses the audiovisual room. The aircraft is equipped with 14 cameras throughout. The audiovisual room controls all of these cameras, feeding them through to the classroom. This allows the invited doctors to witness a patient’s entire journey from start to end.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
The aircraft has a modular design. Image: Orbis

The next room in the aircraft is the patient care and laser room. Here, staff have three treatment machines to perform laser eye surgery. Additionally, diagnostics, treatment, and surgical interventions are carried out here.

Between the laser room and the operating room is an observation room. This is another place where visitors to the aircraft can witness what is taking place in the adjacent rooms. Orbis has produced a 3D Video of the aircraft. By clicking and dragging, you can pan around each image:


The main attraction of the MD-10 is its state of the art operating room. Located behind the observation room, this is where sight restoration surgery takes place. Orbis has strategically located the operating room over the aircraft’s wing box. This gives it optimal stability. The NGO describes the room ‘technologically advanced’ and ‘cutting-edge,’ and this room is also used to train local doctors.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
The operating room is located above the wing box for optimal stability. Photo: Orbis

Behind the operating room is a sterilization room. Here, local nurses are taught how to sterilize equipment safely, use tools, prevent infections and scrub correctly.

Last but not least is the aircraft’s pre and post-operative care room. The room has two areas. In one part, patients are prepared for their surgery, while in the other part, patients recover following surgery.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
At the rear of the aircraft is the pre and post-operation room. Photo: Orbis

Outside the aircraft

The Flying Eye Hospital is almost self-sufficient while on the ground. Indeed, it carries many modules in its belly while flying. These include generators, air conditioning units, and other essential systems. These are mounted to standard-sized pallets, meaning they can travel with the aircraft.

In terms of power, the aircraft only requires a ground power unit for the three hours after arrival and before departure while its own GPU is being loaded or unloaded. A few other resources are needed at the destination airport, such as stairs, and equipment to load and unload the aircraft.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
Dr. Ian Fleming wheels in a patient on the Flying Eye Hospital. Photo: Orbis

The aircraft’s mission

The aircraft is now neither a cargo aircraft nor a passenger aircraft. Instead, the plane is flying around the world, taking doctors and necessary medical treatment to developing countries. As we saw, the aircraft has a unique interior. As such, it will spend up to three weeks in any one location when undertaking a project.

Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
The aircraft typically spends 2-3 weeks in any one location. Photo: Orbis

The NGO focuses its operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, because 90% of blind people live in developing countries. However, for Orbis, it isn’t as easy as just picking a country and flying there.

The organization first needs to be invited to a country. It can take up to two years between receiving an invitation, and a project going ahead. Finally, the aircraft operators need permission to enter a country and to park up at the destination airport for two to three weeks.

In 2019 the aircraft operated five projects. While the projects may only last two to three weeks, the aircraft may remain at a location for longer, as was the case in Hue. The 2019 projects were:

  • From the 25th of March to the 12th of April, a three-week project was carried out in Kingston, Jamaica;
  • From the 13th of May to the 24th of May, a two-week simulation project in Santiago, Chile;
  • From the 16th of August until the 6th of September, a three-week project was carried out in Hue, Vietnam;
  • From the 23rd of September to the 4th of October, a two-week project was carried out in Mandalay, Myanmar;
  • Finally, from the 11th to the 29th of November, a three-week project was carried out in Accra, Ghana.
Orbis, Flying Eye Hospital, MD-10
Staff and volunteers teach local doctors and nurses on board the aircraft. Photo: Orbis

The aircraft is currently in Fort Worth. As a result of the current situation, the aircraft is presently grounded until at least the end of June.

You can read more about Orbis’ work on their website at www.orbis.org.uk.

Have you seen the Flying Eye Hospital? What do you think of Orbis’ work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!