Gary Dyson, a volunteer pilot with ORBIS, recalls a memorable flight to Ulan Bator in Mongolia

Flying was never just a job, it was an adventure?whether I was just dreaming about it as a child while glued to the television during NASA’s glory days or now, at 57, flying the MD-11 for FedEx and the DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital for ORBIS international. Even after thirty years, I still whistle while packing for my next adventure (not recommended if the wife is within ear shot) and look forward to the aviation challenges of the day.

My thirty years of flying began with fifteen hours in a Cessna 150. It got a little more serious as I entered flight school courtesy of the US Air Force. We learned the basics of flying jets in the Cessna T-37, a noisy, underpowered, smelly, but otherwise very forgiving trainer that was a pleasure to fly. Then we advanced to the Northrop T-38, a real sports car of a jet that introduced me to supersonic flight. If you could survive the challenges of the traffic pattern, the T-38 was a real kick in the pants.

By graduation I was ready to travel the world in the C-141, when I learned what the term ‘the needs of the Air Force’ really meant. The Air Force needed more instructor pilots in the flight school I had just completed. I had to stay and train for another three years. The real sore spot was that I had to do it in the T-37. After some attitude adjustment I learned to enjoy the job and my reward after 1,500 plus training hours was a chance to fly the F-15 Eagle. This experience was by far the most exhilarating, most mentally and physically challenging flying to date. Strapping on a machine such as this makes your hair stand on end from engine start to shut down; has you grinning all the way to the debrief and thinking, “They pay me to do this!”

By then I had approached the ten-year decision point in my Air Force Career. It was a very difficult decision, but I left the Air Force in 1986 and signed on with an up-and-coming outfit called Federal Express in Memphis, Tennessee. I wasn’t sure that I’d made the right choice after flying as a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer (the entry position) for a few months, but 26 years later I have no doubt that I chose the best commercial flying job in the world.

I first heard about ORBIS when I joined Fedex flight management in 1999. The outgoing manager suggested I give them a call, as they had a DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital. I’d never heard of this organisation before but their purpose sounded intriguing so I called them right away. Unfortunately, ORBIS didn’t need any DC-10 pilot help at the time so I carried on the day job, not giving it much thought.

One year later ORBIS called me looking for some help because its previous source of aviation support was discontinuing its DC-10 operations and the volunteer pilots needed to have access to a DC-10 simulator. FedEx was the largest operator of the DC-10 at this time and had been supporting ORBIS with complimentary shipping since the early eighties. As DC-10 Chief Pilot I was happy to help?little did I know how hooked I’d get.

ORBIS has conducted programmes in over ninety countries, training thousands of doctors and nurses in areas where the need is great. It’s helped to restore the vision of over eighteen million patients through eye surgery and other treatments. The aeroplane doesn’t just show up, do a few surgeries and move on, ORBIS develops a relationship with the host country and its medical community in order to leave behind the skills, techniques, equipment, and supplies so that the sight saving work continues.

The founder of FedEx, Fred Smith, was on the ORBIS Board of Directors and I was excited to get the operational support and participation from FedEx started. Every department I contacted wanted to help. The simulator request was approved and all the ORBIS volunteer pilots were trained up in a matter of weeks. In spring 2001 I was among the first FedEx pilots to fly the ORBIS DC-10.

A few months later ORBIS had to temporarily ground its operations following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC. It wasn’t until the following year that I finally took my first trip out with the Flying Eye Hospital to China. The flying part was fun, but watching (and trying to help) the team transform the DC-10 from aeroplane to teaching and surgery hospital was amazing. All the equipment that is used in the operating room, recovery room, and the laser room has to be packed up and/or tied down for flight. After landing, taxi in, and parking we are usually treated to a short welcome ceremony by the host country and then this equipment must be unpacked, set up, sanitized, and disinfected prior to use.

While the medical staff and volunteers prepare the hospital, the ORBIS aircraft mechanics unload the ground support equipment carried in the bellies so the hospital can be powered, air conditioned, and provided with clean compressed air and water. All of the ground support equipment runs on jet fuel piped from the aircraft fuel tanks so the hospital is totally self-contained. It’s all hands on deck because this metamorphosis can take several hours and result in a twelve- to fifteen-hour day for all involved.

One aspect of flying the ORBIS DC-10 that is different from my commercial flying is that there is only one Flying Eye Hospital. My fellow volunteer pilots and I know every inch of this aeroplane and have grown to love it. We know its quirks and its gremlins, strengths and weaknesses, and share a loyalty to it along with the mechanics who keep it in tip top condition. Even though it was the second DC-10 ever produced it has fewer flight hours than any DC-10 still flying and many that are already in the bone yard. It served as a test bed aircraft for the manufacturer for several years and then was in passenger service for at least one airline (that did poorly) before being purchased by ORBIS in 1992, hence the low flight time.

The DC-10 has a very well designed integrated autopilot and flight director system in spite of its late ’60s/early ’70s technology. With the avionics upgrades over the years we now enjoy GPS navigation with INS backup, TCAS, and Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning with Terrain Mapping. These systems are so important to the safety of the ORBIS operation due to the unusual places we travel to and the non-precision approaches, since we often have to fly in mountainous terrain. I don’t take any of these systems for granted any more!

An unforgettable journey

My travels with the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital have taken me to places I’ve never heard of. One of the most recent surgery and teaching program trips I took was to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and is a great example of the unusual challenges we ORBIS volunteer pilots are faced with.

The aircraft was scheduled to depart Dubai, UAE, fly about 3.5 hours to Calcutta, India for a 1.5 hour fuel stop and then another 3.5 hours to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. I was the captain of this particular adventure and it was full of extra excitement. Our mechanics had awakened the aeroplane out of short term storage in Dubai to find a problem with the number three engine; it was idling below the normal idle RPM. A turbine inlet temperature sensor was thought to be the culprit and although the sensor will fit in the palm of your hand, its location on the engine requires hours of wrench turning in very tight quarters to remove and replace.

To make the job that much more difficult, the outside air temperature was hovering around 120 degrees F with very little breeze. This was great footage for Discovery Channel Canada, who just happened to be along to film the entire adventure. I arrived just after the engine had been tested and signed off as airworthy. My trusty co-pilot, flight engineer, and I went about our normal preflight duties of updating the on-board flight publications, checking all aircraft systems, and reviewing/loading the proposed flight plan into the GPS. We do all this at least one day prior to the planned departure date to hopefully prevent any surprises on fly day.

An extra distraction on this flight would be the three digital video cameras that had been mounted in the cockpit…with audio. Everything we said or did on the entire flight to Mongolia would be recorded and possibly shown on TV for all to see. The film crew also had a shoulder-mounted camera that was a little intimidating when the lens was just a few inches from my face while I tried to carry on a conversation, but we all adjusted to it all. Film crews always love drama and we would soon realise that the engine repair I mentioned earlier wasn’t the only juicy morsel.

Departure day started out normal enough. Universal Flight Services, our flight plan provider, had sent the flight plan, weather reports, and NOTAMS to our hotel so I used the travel time to the airport to review it all. The first red flag was the current and forecast temperatures at our departure airport, Dubai. The ORBIS DC-10 has a very high zero fuel weight due to the permanently installed medical equipment, as well as the generators, air conditioning unit, and other items carried in the bellies.

This coupled with the extremely high temperatures at Dubai results in a performance limited take off gross weight that can reduce the allowable fuel load to the point where you can’t make the destination. Once at the aeroplane we ran the numbers on the performance computer and found that we could make it to Calcutta. The next issue was the destination weather forecast ? very heavy rain with embedded thunderstorms ? which would make the arrival sporty, but even worse, the temperature in Calcutta would also limit our take off performance…again. Everything else looked acceptable so once at the airport we got busy with the preflight as quickly as possible, since just a fifteen-minute late start would mean another degree of temperature, which would further reduce take off performance. The preparation, start up, taxi, and take off went well and we were off to Calcutta.

I had assigned pilot flying duties on this leg of the flight to my co-pilot Carl, so within a few minutes after take off I was trying to raise Mumbai Radio on the HF, which can be an exercise in futility, but was able to establish contact and we were cleared into Indian airspace. We prepared for the arrival by loading the RNAV STAR into the GPS. It was when we were at fifteen mile final ? in much heavy rain and turbulence ? that we heard the bang. It was muffled and followed by vibrations. The number one engine RPM, was decreasing and the EGT was increasing approaching 900 degrees C.

The heavy rain and turbulence with constant maneuvering must have interrupted the airflow into the engine just enough to cause a compressor stall. I instructed Carl to keep flying the ILS and informed him that I was taking control of the number one throttle. Reducing the throttle to idle caused the vibration to cease and the EGT decreased to a reasonable value. I asked Sam, the Flight Engineer, to grab the checklist and informed him and Carl that we would fly the remainder of the approach as if we had lost an engine.

Stranded in Calcutta

I attempted to push the throttle up, but the vibrations began again so back to idle it went. We were about eight miles out on final at this point with two good engines and the third one at idle. Nothing was burning, but we didn’t have much extra fuel to play with so I really wanted to get the aeroplane on the ground as soon as possible. As we started down the glide slope and received our landing clearance I advanced the throttle once again and this time no vibration and no EGT spike. The stall appeared to have cleared, so we kept the engine running throughout the approach and landing.

The next dilemma for me was deciding if I could support continuing on to Mongolia after the engine issue or declare the aeroplane unfit for flight. I had already made up my mind, but I wanted to hear what Carl and Sam had to say before announcing my decision. They both agreed the safest course of action was to delay our departure until the engine could be inspected for damage and adjusted or repaired if necessary. About that time the ORBIS Director of Operations and Maintenance, Bruce Johnson, opened the cockpit door and said, “I guess we are done for today!” We had three licensed mechanics on board and none was qualified to borescope a GE CF6 jet engine, but that didn’t really matter because we didn’t have the equipment anyway.

While Bruce began burning up mobile phone minutes locating a borescope and some technicians to operate it, our handling agent in Calcutta and I began coordinating with the immigration authorities to allow the staff members who did not have an Indian visa to get off the DC-10 and go to a hotel. By the way, the camera crew was overstimulated with all the drama that was going on and definitely getting their money’s worth! After a few hours, Bruce had secured an agreement with Air India to provide the scope and two technicians to inspect the engine, but it would take a day or two to get it done. We finally obtained 72-hour temporary landing permits for everyone and began our trek through the airport and on to the hotel.

My overall plan for this trip had included an extra three days in Mongolia, which would have allowed me to lend a hand to the staff and explore the area as well. This was looking less likely now. The borescope inspection was completed the next day with no damage reported by the technicians. But the mystery remained? what caused the compressor stall? So after more trouble shooting, many telephone conference calls, and a long, tiring day for the ORBIS mechanics, some adjustments were made to the stator vanes and a high power engine run was accomplished. The engine was declared ready for flight and on day three in Calcutta we were once again headed for Mongolia. The ORBIS staff already on the ground in Ulan Bator had done some creative maneuvering to minimize the impact of a late Flying Eye Hospital.

Once again, we needed to get airborne before the temperature rose too high, in order to carry every ounce of fuel we could. The airport at Ulan Bator is very unusual in that large aircraft are restricted to land in only one direction due to the runway’s upslope and high terrain. If the wind happened to be above crosswind or tailwind limits upon arrival we would have little loiter time before having to proceed to our alternate airport, which was three hours away in Russia. As we proceeded to the airport, I was reviewing the weather reports and NOTAMS for Ulan Bator and Irkusk, Russia (our alternate airport).

One NOTAM for Irkusk had me shaking my head in disbelief, the airport was closed for four hours daily and, as luck would have it, right when we would arrive if we had to go there. I stewed on it for a few minutes and then had Sam, my flight engineer, look at it to confirm that I was doing the maths correctly. As soon as we arrived at the airport I broke the news to our Director of Operations that if we couldn’t find another suitable alternate airport we would have to delay our takeoff for three hours. This would mean sweating out the temperature for three hours as well as watching the rainstorms build, neither would make the takeoff any safer. After a quick call to our flight services provider we determined there was no other alternate airport available, we would have to wait; more drama for the film crew.

Arriving at Ulan Bator

We were more than ready to go at our revised departure time, I would be at the controls on this leg and I was really looking forward to getting airborne. The temperature had crept up above our limit, but a few rain showers had passed through the area and brought it back down by the time we were ready to takeoff. Other than some heavy rain on departure, the flight to Ulan Bator was uneventful.

The film crew spent quite a while in the cockpit with the full size camera, including the takeoff and landing (which went quite well, as evidenced by the applause from the staff). We touched down a few minutes before sundown and taxied to a rousing reception on the apron from a group of local dignitaries, doctors, and ORBIS staff members, who didn’t seem to care that we were three days late. After greeting all the smiling faces, we were ready to call it a day and drag our bags to the next hotel. Before we could get the Flying Eye Hospital put to bed for the night, a storm blew in, rendering the airport unusable for at least 45 minutes ?timing is everything!

I was very disappointed that I couldn’t stay and explore Mongolia due to the unexpected delay in Calcutta. I had tried to change my departure date, but there were no open airline seats out of Ulan Bator for over two weeks. I would also miss out on one of my favorite activities, playing the guitar for the children on screening day. Each week of an ORBIS surgery program begins with a screening day, during which the volunteer doctors and nurses screen a group of 60 to 75 patients to choose the best 25 to 30 teaching cases for the week.

The remaining patients will be treated by the local doctors that are trained by the visiting medical team. Each of the patients has at least one family member with them, so as you can imagine the crowd is large and gets anxious as the day wears on. I take the official ORBIS guitar that lives on the Flying Eye Hospital and play a few songs, try to get them to sing with me, and hopefully reduce the stress on their parents. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is a world wide favourite, no matter what the local language. I did manage to continue the tradition of getting signatures on the guitar from the Visiting Faculty and the Discovery Channel film crew. It’s always hard to leave the ORBIS program behind, but I do have to get back to home, family, and my job.

The ORBIS DC-10 will soon be retired from service, with its final resting place most likely in a museum in the U.S., but the program will continue. FedEx has donated an MD-10-30 to replace the DC-10 and this new ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital will begin service next year. The MD-10 is a DC-10 that has been modified with the MD-11 glass cockpit and automated systems controllers. The MD-10 should extend the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital program for at least another fifteen years. I’ll continue flying as a volunteer pilot. This time, however, I’ll be flying the same type aircraft at work and with ORBIS. I can’t wait for this new adventure to start. To find more information and support the charity visit

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