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Orbis International

ORBIS International
Founded 1982
Founder Albert Lee Ueltschi,
Betsy Trippe DeVecci,
Thomas Knight,
David Paton
Type non-governmental organization
Focus eliminating preventable blindness
Area served
Worldwide (92 countries as of December 2012)
Slogan It starts with Vision

Orbis International is an international blindness and the treatment of blinding eye diseases in developing countries. Since 1982, Orbis capacity-building programs have enhanced the skills of 325,000 eye care personnel and provided medical and optical treatment to more than 23.3 million people in 92 countries.[1]

Orbis is well known for its "Flying Eye Hospital," an ophthalmic hospital and teaching facility located on board a DC-10 jet aircraft, which is one of the only non-cargo examples in flight today. Orbis volunteer pilots fly the plane and its international medical team to developing countries around the world to teach urgently needed sight-saving skills. Local patients receive free treatment during this training.[2]

Orbis is headquartered in New York, with offices in Toronto, London, Dublin, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Taipei and Cape Town.

In addition to the Flying Eye Hospital, Orbis operates hospital-based programs in several countries and works with local medical research and health-care organizations on blindness prevention and eye disease treatment. An Orbis telemedicine program called Cybersight uses the Internet to connect eye care professionals for one-on-one collaboration and mentoring.[3]

Orbis is a founding partner, along with the VISION 2020: The Right to Sight, "a worldwide concerted effort designed to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020."

Orbis is a registered 501(c)(3) tax-deductible non-profit charity in the United States.[4]


  • History 1
  • The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital 2
  • Country Programs 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Orbis was founded in 1982 with a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a number of private donors. The first Flying Eye Hospital was a Douglas DC-8-21 (N220RB) donated by United Airlines. In its first two years of operation, the Orbis DC-8 visited 24 countries and held programs emphasizing the hands-on transfer of surgical skills.

By the late 1980s, as replacement parts for the aging DC-8 became more difficult and expensive to obtain, it became clear that a newer, larger aircraft was needed. Funded by private donations, Orbis purchased its current DC-10 in 1992. The DC-10 contained twice the interior space of the original DC-8. After two years of conversion and renovation, it was placed in service in 1994, and the DC-8 was retired and donated to Datangshan museum near Beijing. That summer, the new Flying Eye Hospital took off on its inaugural mission to Beijing, China.

In 1998, Orbis embarked on a new path based on the strategy to strengthen the capacity of local partners in the developing world to prevent and treat blindness through full-time, ongoing in-country programs. These programs were designed to respond to the needs of individual ophthalmic communities and local eye care providers. Orbis selected the first initial five countries to work in year round based on need (magnitude of blindness), opportunity (local infrastructure and resources), and safety & stability to operate in-country.

Orbis launched its first permanent country program in Ethiopia. Country programs in Bangladesh, China, India and Vietnam soon followed. In 2010 Orbis established a country program office in South Africa. Permanent Orbis offices in these countries, run by local staff, develop and implement an array of multi-year projects to improve the quality and accessibility of eye care to residents, particularly in rural area and impoverished urban communities. In addition to permanent country offices, Orbis also engages in long-term program work in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean as well is in countries including Nepal, Zambia, and Burkina Faso.

In 2012, Orbis Celebrated its 30th Anniversary of Saving Sight Worldwide.

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital

The Orbis DC-10 on the tarmac at Trujillo Peru, February 2009
Orbis DC-10 at Iloilo International Airport, Iloilo, the Philippines
Examination and laser treatment suite inside the Flying Eye Hospital
Operating room inside the Flying Eye Hospital

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is a DC-10-10 model, and was the second DC-10 aircraft built, in 1970. It was used as a test aircraft by McDonnell Douglas, and then was acquired for passenger service by Laker Airways. It then passed through several hands before its acquisition by ORBIS in 1992 for $14 million, which registered it as N220AU.

Conversion of the aircraft took 18 months and cost a further $15 million. The work was performed by Mobile Aerospace Engineering, Inc. in Mobile, Alabama. It was re-launched on May 7, 1994, and its first operational mission was to Beijing, China on July 23, 1994.

In addition to the flight deck, the aircraft contains (from forward to aft) a classroom, an audio-visual room, a laser treatment room, an operating room, a recovery room, and farthest aft, the communications center. The operating room was placed in the center of the aircraft in order to be the most stable location in case of bad weather at the location. The classroom accommodates 48 students, generally host-country ophthalmologists, who can watch surgery as it is performed in the operating room. The classroom is also used for lectures and discussions by Orbis teaching staff.[5]

Inside the audio-visual room are the controls for the 16 cameras, eight microphones and 54 television monitors. These permit viewing of surgery in the classroom and elsewhere on and off the aircraft. Surgical procedures are recorded, edited and duplicated on board so that a record of the procedures taught during each program can be donated to the host-country ophthalmic community.[6]

The laser treatment room contains laser-based diagnostic tools and laboratory stations for use with animal-eye surgical practice training.

The lower deck (belly) of the aircraft contains an equipment laboratory and technical center where Orbis biomedical engineers teach host-country technicians how to maintain and repair ophthalmological equipment.

On April 7, 2008, Orbis announced it would replace its current DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital with a DC-10 Series 30 freighter. United Airlines, with the support of FedEx, is donating the airplane to Orbis. The $2 million donation is based on the plane’s estimated value and is being funded equally by United and FedEx.

On August 8, 2011, FedEx announced that it would donate one of its DC-10-30s, retrofitted with the MD-10-30F upgrade, to Orbis to replace its DC-10-30F. The new MD-10 will feature a modular hospital suite, the first time these units will have been used on an aircraft.[7]

As of March 31, 2015, Orbis was still flying N220AU, the DC-10 manufactured in 1971.

Country Programs

In addition to the Flying Eye Hospital, Orbis operates permanent country offices with local partners in several countries. As of 2012, these included Philippines, Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Latin America, South Africa and Vietnam. Orbis coordinates multi-year projects focusing on the prevention and treatment of the regions’ most prevalent eye diseases.

In each country, Orbis works with its local partner institutions to increase their capacity to provide comprehensive, affordable and sustainable eye care services over the long term. The programs include developing specialized hospital facilities, eye banks, patient and health care worker training, and prevention and treatment programs.[8]

On June 2014, Orbis conducted their program in Davao City, Philippines, in coordination with the Southern Philippines Medical Center - Ophthalmology Department.


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  • Salewicz, Chris (9 February 2008). "Oliver Foot: President of Orbis International, the world's only flying eye hospital".  

External links

  • Official website
  • The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital was the subject of a short Aljazeera Documentary. Part 1, Part 2.
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