While studying meteorology at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s, Cyndhi Berwyn began flying gliders. In her senior year, the US Air Force decided to allow women to become pilots in the service. After she competed for a slot and was selected as one of the first women in that program, she became an Air Force instructor, flying T-37s and T-38s. Her career made a roaring start.
During her Air Force years, Berwyn continued to build general aviation experience by flying hot air balloons, seaplanes and helicopters, before joining the Air Force Reserve flying KC-10s once her active duty was over. At about the same time, she was hired as a pilot for FedEx, where she has been employed for the past 34 years. Through her career at FedEx, she’s been a flight engineer, first officer and/or captain on the Boeing 727, Douglas DC-10, Airbus A300, McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and Boeing 777, respectively.
Berwyn’s career has always been pegged at VY, and with a logbook now stuffed with more than 15,500 hours, you’d think she might contemplate slowing down—but that’s not how she’s wired. Instead, she spends her off-duty time as a captain on the Orbis International Flying Eye Hospital, a one-of-a-kind McDonnell Douglas MD-10-30 that travels around the globe bringing needed medical training to doctors so they can learn new ways to treat avoidable blindness or vision impairment in underserved countries. Destinations on her Orbis FEH flights have included Panama, the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, Ethiopia, Chile, Peru and Jamaica, as well as numerous static-display trips inside the US. This spring, she will be bringing the FEH to the Sun ’n Fun airshow in Lakeland, Florida.
Success in Berwyn’s career has come from having a full understanding of what it means to be a professional pilot, both mentally and physically. “Being a pilot is more than just a physical skill,” Berwyn says, “and so many of the things we learn while developing aviation skills apply to life in general. It is imperative to maintain situational awareness in the sky and in life, be self-confident while remaining humble, stay aware of the inherent risks involved in flying, and exercise good judgment when faced with tough decisions.”
The job of flying the Orbis FEH around the world has to be one of the most unique challenges any captain can have in professional aviation. It’s a full-on surgical hospital set up as much for training as for performing life-altering eye surgeries. Moving a hospital around the world takes a team effort, and Berwyn is proud to be an integral part of that group.
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The FEH is a 1973 DC-10 that was converted to an MD-10-30 in 2001 and donated to Orbis by FedEx in 2011. It took several years to convert the interior to the teaching hospital we see today, and because FAA certifies an MD-10 as being an MD-11 for pilot ratings, the FEH is flown under an MD-11 type rating.
Long before the wheels are up and the FEH is headed to another three-week medical program somewhere around the world, an intricate dance has to be performed to transition it from “hospital” mode to “flight” mode. After Orbis sets up the programs, the pilots get involved several weeks before departure with specific preflight planning. “We arrive at the airplane at least two days prior to a flight in order to preflight the airplane and check the loading of the equipment. In flight mode, everything has to be properly stowed, locked and strapped down,” Berwyn says.
Berwyn explains that the preflight process on the FEH is a very important element of each flight. “When it’s in hospital mode, there are operating rooms, equipment and medications that are out and available to doctors—nothing is strapped down. After the team transitions it back to flight mode, before we take off, the pilots must come through and put our hands on everything. We tap and touch, make sure doors are locked, straps are tied down and there’s nothing loose,” she says. “Plus, we have everything downstairs in the airplane—support equipment and spare parts—so we’re self-sustaining wherever we go.”
After Orbis volunteer pilots deliver the FEH to its destination, they are free to return home to their jobs. “Like many of our pilots, I arrange my work schedule so I can stay and help in any way I can,” Berwyn explains. “If someone needs a power cord, I’m on it. To me, the most rewarding part is working with the people who are so grateful for the opportunity to have their operation because they can see their child for the first time, or their child can see them. They look at you with so much love, and to me, that’s really cool—totally gratifying.” Two years ago, her first granddaughter was born with a very rare condition that resulted in blindness. “That has made the Orbis mission even more personal for me,” she adds.
With today’s emphasis throughout the industry on encouraging more young women and girls to seek careers in aviation, it can be hard to imagine that, decades ago, when Berwyn first began flying, gender bias was not only prevalent, it was generally accepted. So you might consider it exceptional that she was able to push through the mark of being a woman in a “man’s world.” But it’s important to understand that she achieved her goals not because she is a woman, but because she is a great professional pilot.
Berwyn’s opinion toward overcoming gender bias in aviation is an eloquent explanation of how any pilot can melt it away. “Credibility is extremely important, and I believe that comes from being honest and competent—but also [from] being accountable,” she says. “Once you become known for delivering a consistent, strong performance, the personal biases evaporate, and you become trusted. This is a career field where it is extremely evident that you did your work to prepare because you can’t fake it as a professional pilot.” This rings true regardless of what that bias might be.
When you ask Berwyn what the one desirable airplane she has not yet flown is, the instantaneous answer is “P-51 Mustang.” What her answer says is—regardless of what we fly, our gender, age or experience—we as pilots all share similar aviation DNA. Berwyn just happens to fly a hospital in her spare time, making a difference and helping to change the world.
That is noble work.
This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine