This All-Female Flight Crew Is Bringing the Gift of Sight to New Heights

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As we celebrate Amelia Earhart today on July 24, we're also looking at the unique ways aviation has helped so many around the world. In particular, one international nonprofit called Orbis is using flights to help bring medical eye care to people in developing nations around the world.  

Millions of people around the world suffer from avoidable blindness conditions, 75 percent of which can be prevented or treated. That’s where Orbis comes in — since 1973, this organization has worked with volunteer doctors, nurses, flight crews, engineers, and more, to create sustainable networks of eye care around the world. These volunteers provide technical and medical training to local community members, who are then equipped with the skills needed to treat patients. 

One of Orbis’s unique aspects is their Flying Eye Hospital, a special plane that’s used not only to transport volunteers, but to work as a fully-functioning medical station, as well. This way, the volunteers can travel to extremely rural communities in developing nations, where sometimes, getting to a doctor can take over a day’s worth of travel.

In April 2019, Orbis celebrated a milestone: their first-ever all-female flight crew. Captain Cyndhi Berwyn and Captain Cheryl Pitzer flew the Flying Eye Hospital from Kingston, Jamaica, to Memphis, Tennessee. Both women have extensive careers, including positions on the FedEx flight teams, and they assist in flight-training programs, as well.

After the trip, Orbis interviewed Berwyn and Pitzer to discuss their work as pilots and how this flight impacted them. “It’s all about what you’re exposed to,” Pitzer explained. “It wasn’t until I became a flight attendant that I thought that I could be a pilot!”

According to U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, out of 664,565 pilots, only 7.9 percent are women. This gender gap is extreme, and Berwyn and Pitzer know part of closing that gap is about visibility.

Berwyn noted one particular experience that made her proud. In the interview, she said, “I flew in an air show and my niece was there. Her mother flies large aircraft like me, and her father is a fighter pilot. She looked up to me and said ‘Aunt Cyndhi, why is it that when women grow up they fly big planes and when boys grow up they fly little planes?’ In her version of reality, all girls grow up to fly big airplanes!”

According to the Orbis website, “There are 139 million women and girls living with blindness — that's 25 million more women than men.” Oftentimes, in the developing areas Orbis travels to, limited sight prevents many women and girls from achieving unlimited potential. They are often kept at home, unable to attend school, play sports or engage in hobbies, or go to work. As a result, they become very dependent on other members of their family.

“It’s shocking to hear that 55 percent of people living with blindness are women,” Berwyn stated. “I’m sure having more women involved in the fight against blindness will help tackle this injustice."

With the training Orbis provides, and the medical procedures they perform, these women and girls have a chance to contribute to their communities in larger ways. Some have even become medical professionals themselves, using their experiences to ensure new generations are provided the healthcare they need to succeed.

Today, Berwyn and Pitzer are ready to volunteer for Orbis again, which has restructured its program as a result of COVID-19. As the skies start to reopen, they and other volunteers look forward to expanding the legacy of female aviators, while helping communities in need at the same time.

Tags: Social Justice, Volunteering, Giving

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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