Career Path

Seeing the world in a different light

by Grace Chan

Bruce Johnson, ORBIS director of aircraft operations
Photo: Dickie Tam

As an adolescent growing up in a small US town close to the Canadian border, Bruce Johnson, who is currently ORBIS director of aircraft operations, got to satisfy his desire to take to the sky by flying in his father's private plane. Once he left school, his aspiration led him to become an aircraft mechanic for the US Air Force, where he spent 10 years maintaining, repairing and inspecting aircraft engines, parts and materials.

This was followed by another 18 years as part-time pilot in the US Air Force Reserve, a stand-by force for emergencies formed in 1948. This solid grounding equipped Mr Johnson with all-round aircraft mechanic maintenance and repair skills, as well as flying experience.

The next leg of his career journey took him to the business arena. The first opportunity was with the world's largest aircraft manufacturer Boeing, where he stayed for nine years before moving on to join cargo carrier FedEx Express.

In 2005, Mr Johnson was invited to become a volunteer pilot for humanitarian organisation ORBIS, which is dedicated to saving sight worldwide and treating eye disease in developing countries through its Flying Eye Hospital—a converted DC-10 aircraft containing an innovative ophthalmic surgical centre—and other programmes.

The job broadened Mr Johnson's horizons and, in 2009, he was offered his current position. He did not hesitate before taking on the job. "It gives me a sense of achievement to help others through my profession," he says.

Good cause

The Flying Eye Hospital relies on 24 volunteer pilots, including two retired United Airlines pilots, who fly the organisation's international medical team to developing countries to offer free treatment and impart much-needed sight-saving skills.

Working for ORBIS has given Mr Johnson the privilege to set foot in various secluded destinations—from remote villages in South Africa to picturesque Mongolia. "This is very different from a typical desk job and I couldn't have had such fascinating and worthwhile experiences anywhere else," he says. "Although there are lots of challenges, every trip is different."

He has spent most of his life around aeroplanes, loves to see different parts of the world and believes in helping those less fortunate than himself. He sees his career as a natural progression. "Often, a job opening arises from meeting the right person at the right time. But, in order to take it, you need to be well prepared," he says.

Aside from feeling enriched by his job, Mr Johnson is also proud of the work that ORBIS performs. He recalls one extraordinary trip to Syria, during which the Flying Eye Hospital performed corneal surgery on a young girl. "The patient reminded me of my sister and seeing the expression on her face after the surgery was an unforgettable experience."

In his current position, Mr Johnson oversees everything from management to operations, logistics, flight planning, training and coordination, as well as maintenance and repairs to the Flying Eye Hospital.

One of his greatest challenges is to keep the 36-year-old aircraft flying and properly serviced. "Normally it takes only 17 hours to fly from Hong Kong to New York. But with the DC-10, we have to stop in Russia and Alaska to take on fuel. We can't carry too much, because our hospital equipment is so heavy," he explains. "It's also the oldest DC-10 model in the world, but, despite this, we've never missed a medical programme," he adds.

Mr Johnson believes a career with a charitable organisation such as ORBIS brings global exposure and he advises young people to stick to a career goal and work towards pursuing their dreams.

"Whether you want to be a pilot or a doctor, follow your heart and then give back to society. In addition to any other essential qualities, a caring nature and a desire to help others is an asset in any professional field," he concludes.

Taken from Career Times 12 November 2010, B12

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