Nun and Pilot

Nun and Pilot

by Sr. Sheila Campbell  MMM         Ireland       07.03.2022

Nina plane resizedTomorrow is International Women’s Day. So today I want to tell you part of the story of Sr. Nina Underwood MMM. I say part of the story because recently I read her account of being kidnapped by guerrilla fighters during a bloody civil war. But we will let that part of the story sit for another day.

Sr. Nina is American, born in Boston, Massachusetts. She joined MMM after finishing school and thought she would be asked to do nursing. After all, we were Medical Missionaries of Mary, right? So after her First Profession of Vows she was asked to travel to Ireland to begin nurse training. This was back in the 1960s.

This is when the vision and insight of Mother Mary stepped in. She saw the need of the Sisters, struggling to work in the Turkana Desert in northern Kenya. The distances were huge. Our MMM communities were dotted over the 32,000 sq. miles of desert. There was a famine raging at the time and Mother Mary decided that the only way to get around was by plane. That was the vision. The insight was choosing Sr. Nina to train as a pilot. Nina is such an intrepid adventurer! Even to this day she will turn her hand to anything. There is no such thing as “man’s work” or “women’s work”. There is a job to be done, a problem to be solved and there is Nina taking up the challenge to fix it.

So, as young 24-year-old woman, off she goes every day to Dublin Airport to train as a pilot. She gained her pilot’s licence in 1967 and then headed off to East Africa. The plane she was flying was a gift by a donor in the U.S. Her training consisted of mechanics and servicing of the plane, i.e. oil changes, tyre repair etc. She flew in the desert for over twelve years. Taking to the sky on a daily basis was most often an emergency situation or visiting clinics, health centres, dispensaries and eventually the two hospitals which were established over the years.

Every day was an adventure and sometimes there were hair-raising moments.  Every three months she took the plane to Nairobi for a complete service. They did not have a hanger for the plane in the desert.

Such are the pioneering women of MMM. Nina recently told me:
“I can say with gratitude and fantastic memories of pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of- wheeled and soared and swung, high in the sunlit silence, hovering there…….put out my hand and touched the face of God!’”