On March 27th, 1973, McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30CF, MSN 46800/Line number 96 and registered N101TV of Trans International Airlines took to the sky for the first time. This would be the 96th DC-10 to roll off the Long Beach California production line and was manufactured in such a way that the aircraft could be converted back and forth from a passenger configuration to a cargo configuration hence the CF (Convertible Freighter) designation. These versions of the DC-10 were easily recognizable by the large 102”x140” cargo door on the side of the fuselage. The DC-10-30CF is powered by three General Electric CF6-50C2 Turbofan engines which each generate 51,000#’s of thrust and can carry up to 380 passengers or 23 positions of cargo with a range up to 5,750 miles. McDonnell Douglas would build a total of twenty-seven of the -30CF models, which were popular with supplemental carriers that would fly passengers to and from Europe in Summer, and cargo in the Winter.
N101TV would pass from Trans International to many different airlines including Transamerica (three times actually), Nigeria Airways and Air Florida before then-named Federal Express would take possession of the airframe on April 20th, 1984. Federal Express reregistered the airframe N301FE, and per FedEx tradition would name the aircraft “Tara Lynn” on July 1984. FedEx has always named their aircraft after the names of their employees’ children, a tradition which continues today. Federal Express would officially adopt FedEx as its brand name in 1994, with N301FE changing its titles accordingly. In September of 2001 N301FE also experienced its own set of changes when FedEx converted the aircraft to a Boeing MD-10-30F; the McDonnell Douglas name disappeared in August 1997 after a merger with Boeing. The resulting changes converted N301FE into a pure freighter, included the installation of an advanced cockpit (identical to the MD-11), and the elimination of the Flight engineer making the MD-10-30F a two-person crewed aircraft. FedEx would rename the aircraft “Brann” in 2006, and would operate the aircraft until retirement on January 17th, 2010. This MD-10-30F’s story would not end when FedEx formally retired the aircraft, however.
Orbis International, which was founded in 1973 as an international non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of avoidable blindness. Orbis’s programs focus on training eye care professionals low-and middle- income countries, so they can save sight in their communities. Orbis’s programs have enhanced the skills of hundreds of thousands of eye care professionals and provided treatments to millions of people worldwide. The organization is best known for its Flying Eye Hospital, a fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital which has provided training to eye care teams in more than 95 countries worldwide over the past 4 decades. In 1982, the first-generation Flying Eye Hospital, a Douglas DC-8-21, donated by United Airlines, officially took flight on its inaugural project to the country of Panama. The DC-8 was converted from a passenger airliner to a teaching eye hospital through grants and funding through private donors. This DC-8, registered N220RB during its time with Orbis was the 4th DC-8 off the Long Beach California production line and first took flight on January 2nd, 1959. The DC-8 would serve Orbis faithfully for many years, but it was becoming harder to find spare parts and maintain a 30-year-old aircraft; a replacement would soon be needed.
DC-8 Photo courtesy of Orbis.
In November of 1991, this replacement came in the form of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 then registered G-GCAL and flown by Novair International. The purchase and conversion of this aircraft, which took two years, was funded by generous donors. Orbis would reregister this aircraft as N220AU which would fly to its first project into Beijing, China in 1994; at that time N220RB would be retired to the Datangshan Air Museum in Beijing China. The DC-10-10 is a widebody aircraft and allowed Orbis greater flexibility, doubled the working space to perform more complex operations, and could fly further to more countries with it’s much greater range over the DC-8. N220AU would soldier on for many years when, like the DC-8 before it, the on-board equipment was becoming too old and costly to operate, also the avionics were outdated and lacked modern day sophistication. The search for a replacement was in the works.
On April 7th, 2008 Orbis announced that a successor to N220AU had been secured with the support of FedEx. This would bring the MD-10-30F to Orbis, with the aircraft being donated to Orbis by FedEx. In April of 2011 it was announced that N301FE would become the organization’s third-generation Flying Eye Hospital; this acquisition would further the reach of the Orbis mission. The conversion itself would take almost four years to complete; Orbis revealed the now registered N330AU to the public in June of 2016. At that time N220AU would be retired and is now on display at the Pima Air Museum, located at Pima Arizona. In addition to FedEx donating the aircraft to Orbis, they also provide funds to complete the maintenance and encourage their flight crews to volunteer as well. The flight crews are a mixture of active-duty FedEx pilots, as well as a few retired FedEx pilots, who volunteer their time flying with Orbis. This particular aircraft was built to be operated as a freighter and is certified as such; the entire hospital was built as a series of modules and can be removed as needed.
Orbis’s Flying Eye Hospital has taken in-person training to eye care teams around the world up until last year when flight operations were suspended due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, Orbis reimagined in-person Flying Eye Hospital trainings as virtual ones to ensure that eye care teams could still access training safely even during a pandemic. The virtual trainings are conducted via the organization’s telemedicine platform, Cybersight. During, this pause of in-person training, Orbis brought this amazing and one- of- a- kind aircraft to the Oshkosh AirVenture Airshow this year for static display. I was fortunate enough to be able to tour this unique aircraft while on display at AirVenture. Let’s take a closer look at this incredible aircraft. When you approach the aircraft, you will notice several pieces of equipment arranged on the First Officer’s side of the aircraft. These nine pieces of equipment include three generators, one aircraft air-conditioner, a special liquid cooling unit, hose reel unit, Hobart, switching unit, and a medical gas unit. The generators, which are powered by jet fuel, provide power, air conditioning, and medical gas to the aircraft. The aircraft also carrier’s special equipment that can be used to covert unclean water to hospital-grade water with an onboard filtration system. This equipment allows Orbis to operate from even the most remote and austere locations. The forward belly which once carried cargo has been converted into office space, so mechanics can carry tools and also monitor the aircrafts systems.
Upon entering the aircraft through the main entry door, we make our first stop at the flight deck. The flight deck is quite different from what is typically found on an aircraft built in 1973. When FedEx converted the aircraft from a DC-10-30CF to a MD-10-30F, the cockpit was modernized to an all- glass/digital cockpit similar to the MD-11. This allowed FedEx the flexibility to swap crews between multiple types of aircraft without the need for additional training. It is worth noting that you will find names on the seats backs and also the different sections of the aircraft. Individual donors or corporations have the opportunity to sponsor a seat on the aircraft in recognition of their gift to Orbis.
Heading into the cabin of the aircraft, after passing the forward galley, you will find the “Alcon” Classroom. Here you will find 46 seats that one would find in any typical commercial airliner. This is where the Orbis crew and medical professionals will sit while in flight. This area also doubles as a teaching classroom and is complete with a large flat screen T.V. mounted at the front of the cabin. All the procedures performed on the aircraft are used as a teaching opportunity which help local eye care professionals sharpen their skills and broaden their knowledge base. The operating area of the aircraft has a 3D camera installed to allow a microscopic view of all procedures from the classroom. The classroom is also equipped with two communication technology to allow interaction with the team performing the procedures.
As we walk down the captain’s side of the aircraft, we will come to the first of the many sections or “modular units” The hospital section of the aircraft was built in such a way to allow the removal of these sections. This allows Orbis the flexibility to transfer them to a different aircraft. The first section we come to is the “Ho Man Fat Foundation” Administration Room, which provides an office type of working environment and also a space for meetings. You can also access the lower-level areas of the aircraft from this location. The next location is the “Emperor Foundation” AV/IT room; this is where all communication internally and externally is controlled. Here you will find some of the most advanced IT equipment on any non-military aircraft today. The technology that Orbis has installed on the aircraft also allows the procedures they perform to be broadcast over the internet using their telemedicine platform, Cybersight.
The next set of areas on the aircraft are where the actual procedures are performed with the first being the “L’Occitane Patient Care & Laser Room. Here you will find some of the most advanced equipment found in a traditional eye care facility. This area allows extensive training in laser treatments and can also be broadcast to the classroom. Adjacent to the Patient Care and Laser Room is the “Grace Tsao” Observation Room; this allows visitors to observe operations taking place in the adjacent operating room. This is possible as area where laser treatments are performed does not need to be a sterile environment. This room also functions as a simulation training room. Just as pilots learn to fly aircraft through simulation training before taking off from the runway, Orbis’s simulation training allows eye care teams to build their skills and confidence safely before progressing to real-life surgeries.
The “Yuen Yee” Operating Room is next and is located directly over the center wing box section of the aircraft. This very advanced and sophisticated Operating Room is where all hands-on training is provided by Orbis staff and Volunteer Faculty (medical experts). There are multiple cameras and microphones set up in the Operating Room to allow all procedures to be broadcast to the classroom, this also allows interaction between the Classroom and the Operating Room. The procedures performed on the aircraft do take much longer than they normally would to allow each procedure to be used as a teaching opportunity. Located adjacent to the Operating Room is the Soiled Room. All instruments used in the Operating Room are cleaned in this room.
The “Yuen Yee Instrument Sterilization and Sub sterile Room is next. As the name implies this is where all the instruments used during a procedure are then sterilized. The Orbis team also uses this sterilization process as a teaching and training opportunity for local eye care professionals. This area also contains a clean room, where the instruments are taken after sterilization, and storerooms. The final area or module on the aircraft, which is also the first and last room anyone will see after a procedure, is the “FedEx” Pre-& Post-Operative Care Room. In this room patients are prepared for surgery and recover after their procedure. The Orbis team will also use this area to provide training opportunities for eye care professionals, including nurses and anesthesiologists to work on their patient care skills. The back of the aircraft contains more storage areas and lavatories.
Orbis is expected to operate N330AU for the next 10-15 years and is hopeful to be able to resume in-person Flying Eye Hospital projects as soon as possible. This MD-10-30F is truly like no other aircraft flying today with its onboard and state-of- the-art classroom, operating room, and recovery room. All of this would not be possible without the staff and volunteers that travel with the aircraft as well as the generous financial support that is provided from individuals and businesses. I would like to thank the Orbis staff for the time and hospitality in offering me- a- once- in a lifetime chance to get a behind- the- scenes look at this amazing aircraft.
Until next time, “Blue Skies to All!”