Born 12 December 1920, Margot Duhalde is a Chilean pilot who served with the Air Transport Auxiliary of the Royal Air force in World War II (WW2).
At 96, she still vividly remembers of the things she did 70 years ago, one of them was flying fighter planes without a radar over England during the war.
Duhalde became the first female pilot in her country, and she was also the only woman aviator to join the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle’s government in exile.
Currently staying in a military retirement home in Santiago, the dangers she faced while playing her role in the battle against the Nazis are still haunting her until today.
However, she did not hesitate at that moment as she was still young and brave.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to fly. According to my mother, I started saying ‘plane’ before I could say ‘mummy’,” she said in an interview with AFP.
SHE VOLUNTEERED TO JOIN THE WAR
At the age of 16, Duhalde convinced her parents to give her the permission to leave her country home in Rio Bueno to train as a pilot in Santiago.
With the support of veteran French pilot, Cesar Copetta, she successfully enrolled in the Santiago flying school, but had to lie of her real age.
In 1940, she answered the call of former French President, Charles de Gaulle, to join the French forces as a volunteer, and at the age of 20, she was finally recruited as a pilot by the Free France consulate in Santiago.
During those days, the existence of female pilots were extremely rare’, and Duhalde had to face sexism and language barriers as male pilots stereotyped that women could never fly airplanes.
“The men always said that women were never going to be able to fly airplanes… but they had to swallow their pride, because really we flew just as well as they did,” she said.
Despite the stereotypes and sexism, Duhalde was eventually absorbed into Britain’s Royal Air Force and fought against the Nazis.
One of the deadliest missions assigned to her was to fly Spitfires and other aircraft from one British airfield to another in order to prevent them from being bombed on the ground by the Germans.
“Our mission was to clear the factories as soon as possible so the Germans would’t bomb them. So in one day we would fly five separate flights,” she said.
To make it more ‘challenging’, Duhalde and her fellow “ferry pilots” were not given enough time for flight practice, so they ‘trained themselves’ to fly the different types of aircraft by reading the manuals and a bit of theoretical training.
“I believe we ran a risk every day, because we were flying planes that we were not familiar with,” she added.
According to France’s Armed Forces Historical Review, Duhalde piloted more than 1,500 British or American Aircraft of every type, ranging from fighters, bombers, transports and training aircraft.
CHEATED DEATH – 10 TIMES
During her service in the war, Duhalde got into 10 plane accidents that almost took her life and the horrifying events are making it difficult for her to sleep at this age.
“Nowadays it makes me afraid to think of it. When I am trying to sleep, I’ll think of one of the accidents I had and get scared.”
Given her immense contributions, she was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honour), the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits, established by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802, and also decorations in Britain and Chile.
She also became the first woman air traffic controller in Chile and worked as an airline pilot after the war ended.
She last piloted a plane 10 years ago, at the age of 86.