Flying Eye Hospital pilot and FedEx volunteer Captain Gary Dyson

The view from the cockpit: 10 questions with Captain Gary Dyson

July 2019

Orbis’s Chief Pilot, Gary Dyson, quite literally leads our fight against avoidable blindness – landing our plane safely in communities around the world. We took a moment with Gary to reflect on his lifetime dedicated to giving back and changing lives.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A PILOT?

I’ve been a pilot since 1976, so that’s about 43 years. I grew up in the ‘60s when images of space were everywhere and everyone wanted to do that. And of course to become an astronaut you had to become a pilot first. It was always my dream, so after college I joined the U.S. Air Force.


AND WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT BEING A PILOT?

You never have to grow up. It’s a great skill to learn and every day is different. You may be going to a city you’ve been to before but every takeoff is different and every landing is different. It’s a challenge, and it never gets old.

Flying Eye Hospital volunteer Captain Gary Dyson inspecting the plane

Captain Dyson undertaking his pre-flight checks

HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH ORBIS?

Well, I was in the US Air Force for about 10 years, then I joined FedEx. I’d been a pilot there for quite a few years before Orbis called and asked for help with training. I just happened to be the guy who answered the phone. I was the chief pilot of the FedEx DC-10 pilots, and that’s the aircraft Orbis flew at the time.

I helped organise the support they needed, and then as time went on we started volunteering for Orbis, too. Today the Flying Eye Hospital is an MD-10 and all of Orbis’s pilots are volunteers from FedEx.

Gary Dyson talks to Orbis back in 2012

WHERE WAS YOUR FIRST TRIP WITH ORBIS?

Oh wow, that’s going back quite a while! My first trip was to Fuzhou, China. I’d never been to China before and I’d never flown the Flying Eye Hospital. And I wasn’t really familiar with Orbis’s work at that point. But I stayed for screening day, and saw how local patients were screened and operations were organised.

And I remember getting to watch a live surgery, standing right by the surgeon in the operating theatre. And that’s when I became hooked!

WHY HAVE YOU BEEN A VOLUNTEER FOR SO LONG?

Well the work that I’ve made possible is, personally, very rewarding. Not only do I get to fly a one-of-a-kind airplane, I also get to see people regain their sight. It’s the most exhilarating thing you can imagine. It grabs you by the heart and you want to see it over and over again.

Especially when you see a child regain their sight – they take the bandage off their eye and they have a huge smile on their face. They want to keep reading the eye chart over and over again. And you realise that now they have their sight back they can learn, they can play and when they grow up they can support their own family.


WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE THING ABOUT YOUR TIME WITH ORBIS?

It’s such a team effort. We all work together – the pilots, doctors, nurses, engineers and staff – the volunteer spirit is very special. I get to travel with these people to places I never thought I’d go, places I never knew existed, and help people.


IS THERE A TRIP OR A PERSON YOU'VE MET, THAT YOU'LL NEVER FORGET?

Yes, absolutely. I met a mother in Nigeria, who had brought her daughter to the Flying Eye Hospital for an operation. The surgeon restored her sight and her mother was so overwhelmed, and so thankful, that was wanted to give me her family’s cow.

Now I know how important that cow would have been to her family, and for her to want to give it to me because she was so grateful for her daughter to have her sight back was very humbling for me.

Flying Eye Hospital pilot Captain Gary Dyson enjoys seeing patient's vision restored

Gary Dyson will never forget the people he’s met

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM VOLUNTEERING WITH ORBIS?

No matter where you go, people are people. You may not understand their government, or some of the things that are happening in their country, but all people are the same. They want food, clothes and shelter. They want safety for their family and everyone is always very welcoming to us.

Flying Eye Hospital pilot Captain Gary Dyson calms children awaiting surgery with his impressive guitar skills

Gary plays his guitar to help relax children on screening day

AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PLAYING YOUR GUITAR ON BOARD?

I bought my first guitar back in 2002 in the Philippines, and I take it on trips with me to entertain the children. Screening day can be a little bit tense for children. We’ll screen up to 70 patients and because they suffer from sight loss they’ll all have someone with them, too. And each patient has to go through several stages of screening.

I play my guitar for the children and, even when they don’t understand the language, they enjoy it. I let the children play the guitar too – anything to keep them busy and happy while they wait to be seen.

GARY DYSON WINS ENDEAVOR AWARD

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HOW DID YOU FEEL TO RECENTLY RECEIVE AN ENDEAVOR AWARD?

It was a great honour for me, to have them recognise my work with Orbis and everything we’re doing to fight avoidable blindness. And of course the other nominees are just amazing, so it was an honour to be included with them.

I was just surprised to be in the running. And then when I was told that I was going to receive the award I felt so humbled. I couldn’t believe it at first, and when I found out Orbis would be given a generous donation too I felt very proud.

AND FINALLY, DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR ORBIS SUPPORTERS?

Yes! I’d just like to say that I hope people continue to support Orbis. They make such a huge impact, in treating avoidable blindness around the world, that I hope Orbis’s work never stops. And I hope that with supporters like you, the next generation will be able to continue Orbis’s work, continue our programs, and fight avoidable blindness wherever it may be.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to Gary for his years of commitment – and all the sight-saving work he makes possible. We couldn’t do it without you, Gary!

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