Margot Duhalde was a trailblazer for women, becoming the first Chilean woman to earn a pilot’s licence and then defying the odds, and the male-dominated world in which she lived, to travel halfway around the world to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces in London, before becoming one of the pioneering female pilots with the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the Second World War. By the end of the conflict she was a veteran of three combat zones, having flown more than 100 types of aircraft.
Born in the small provincial town of Rio Bueno in southern Chile in 1920, Margot Duhalde was the child of French-Basque émigrés, one of 12 children in a very religious and conservative family; her father was a farmer and her mother tended the home; this was to be her future.
Growing up, she was captivated by flying. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to fly,” she recollected in an interview last year. “According to my mother, I started saying ‘plane’ before I could say ‘mummy’.”
As a child she would regularly climb onto the roof of their home with binoculars in order to get a better look and enjoy the sound of the engines as the mail planes passed regularly overhead on their way to Patagonia. After the crash landing of a plane nearby, she was able to see it at close quarters and was determined thereafter to become a pilot. Her family thought she was “crazy” but eventually her father agreed to his only daughter’s wishes.
Aged 16, she went to Santiago, the Chilean capital, to train as a pilot, but this initially proved difficult because the available instructors, who were few and usually from the Air Force, were reluctant to teach a young girl from a background such as hers. Eventually, having lied about her age, she enrolled and became the protegee of the chief engineer at the country’s top military flying school, Aero-Club de Chile.
By the time war broke out in 1939, Duhalde was a civilian pilot and she volunteered without hesitation at the French Consulate in Santiago for the Free French Forces in London following de Gaulle’s call to arms.
Seen still as a minor, Duhalde lied to her parents and told them she was going to Canada as an instructor. However, she crossed the Andes in a car with two male recruits. She then travelled by rail to Buenos Aires and, with 13 others, boarded a Norwegian freighter on the hazardous Atlantic crossing to Liverpool. Upon arrival in May 1941, she recalled: “Scotland Yard was waiting for us.” PM Winston Churchill had been sceptical about the volunteers arriving in Britain under the umbrella of the Free French following the capture and detention of a number of Nazi agents.
Duhalde and her travelling companions were duly detained for five days in London before being handed over to the Free French authorities. Shortly afterwards, realising that “M. Duhalde” was in fact a woman, they were told unequivocally that the French forces did not require female pilots, so she was assigned to domestic work for injured pilots.
Her war might have ended at this point but, following the intervention of a chaplain who had heard her story, she was put in contact with a French pilot who introduced her to the British ATA, who had been taking on female pilots as a matter of urgency due to high RAF casualty rates. Duhalde applied and was accepted on 1 September 1941, despite her limited knowledge of the English language. With 50 solo hours already in her logbook, she passed a ferry pilot’s flight test in a Tiger Moth.
Quickly nicknamed “Chili”, she was posted to a women’s pilot pool in Hatfield, Herts, where her navigation skills were called into question on her first solo cross-country flight, when she made a forced landing after getting lost among barrage balloons. “The field had seemed clean from 2,000 feet,” she remembered, “but I wasn’t wearing my glasses and it was snowy.”
The field turned out to be full of wooden posts and the low wall over which she came in took the wheels off her Tiger Moth. She was left conscious though bleeding from the head, and those who got to her first were surprised enough to find she was a woman, but upon discovering that she spoke no English and had no papers, they called the police and she was arrested.
Subsequently, she was grounded for a few months and sent to learn English and work with the maintenance engineers; a lot of her initial language learning was of swear words, but her knowledge improved to the point where she was able to pass the pilot’s technical course.
Reassigned, Duhalde flew from the women’s pilot pool at Hamble in Hampshire and remained with the ATA until the end of November 1945, by which time she was a First Officer. As a class 4 pilot, she delivered more than 1,000 aircraft all over England and flew almost 100 types of aircraft, delivering Spitfires and Typhoons in addition to twin-engine aircraft such as the Wellington Bomber, Bristol Beaufighter and de Havilland Mosquito. Towards the end of the war, she delivered aircraft to RAF squadrons in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In 1946 she realised her dream and served in the French Air Force as a transport pilot, flying from Meknes in Morocco and becoming France’s first female combat pilot. Duhalde later completed a tour of South America, demonstrating French aircraft. Before returning to Chile in 1947 she was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur; in 2006 she was advanced to Commander by President Chirac.
Back in Chile, male chauvinism dashed her hopes of flying for the airline LAN Chile and instead she worked as a private pilot for a rich businessman, then for a regional passenger airline, flying small twin-engine planes. Later she launched a flying school as an instructor in Punta Arenas, southern Chile, before becoming the first female air traffic controller serving with the Chilean Air Force.
Upon retiring from the service, Duhalde was appointed an honorary colonel and continued as a civilian controller, much of it at Punta Arenas, the Patagonian gateway to the Antarctic. She finally retired aged 81 and claimed to be flying her Piper Dakota into her late 80s.
In 1989 she received a medal marking the 50th anniversary of the ATA, and 20 years later Prime Minister Gordon Brown approved the award of an ATA Veteran’s Badge; she received a specially minted veterans’ badge at the British Embassy in 2009.
Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, described her as a pioneer who “demonstrated in a world of men that nothing is impossible for women”.
Duhalde wed three times but no marriage lasted more than three years. She is survived by son Fernando, who worked for the Chilean Air Force before becoming a farmer, and two grandchildren.