Humanitarian Aviation Reaching Communities in Need

Posted on Thu, October 26, 2017

When many people think about aviation, a few things come to mind: the military, commercial airline flights, or shipping cargo. What they don’t often think of is a literal surgery room with wings—one of the stories featured in the new Thomas W. Haas We All Fly exhibition as part of the reimagining of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The exhibition will explore the multiple ways our lives are impacted by flight, from recreational hang-gliding to business travel to humanitarian uses for aircraft. One of those stories is that of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital.

A photo of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, 2016.

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, 2016. Courtesey of Orbis International via Facebook.

The Flying Eye Hospital is just that: a cargo plane that is now a high-tech operating room and training facility bringing eye care teams to communities in need across the globe. It’s the only fully-accredited airborne hospital in the world. An Orbis teaching simulator, which helps doctors practice eye surgery techniques, will be on display in the exhibition.

Visitors will also explore a more personal side of philanthropic aviation in the story of Jerrie Cobb, who curator Dorothy Cochrane describes as “a one person humanitarian effort.” Cobb, an aviator who was part of what’s now nicknamed the “Mercury 13” program, spent decades piloting missionary trips to South America. She flew her aircraft to the upper Amazonian region to deliver supplies and medicine to indigenous tribes. At night, Cobb  slept in a hammock tied to the wing of her twin-engine airplane—a hammock that will be hung in the We All Fly exhibition.

Jerrie Cobb

Full length view of Jerrie Cobb posed standing beside a display model of a Mercury capsule; circa 1963.


The stories told in We All Fly will highlight the breadth of humanitarian aviation, from a modern, global effort to eradicate blindness, to single individuals, determined to reach those in need. It will cover everything from aircraft used in disaster relief to charities flying rescue animals to shelters, giving Museum visitors a deeper understanding of how aviation serves communities around the globe.

For more stories, updates, and sneak peeks at what’s changing at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, check out, or follow along on social media with #NASMnext.