“Women have always had to fight twice as much. They’ve always had to carry two loads, one of which is private and the other public. Women are the back bone of society.” Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Female aviators from the past are a recurring theme in our #Herstories column. That’s because their achievements were at least twice as difficult. For many centuries, women have had to break down the barriers of gender prejudice to prove that their skills are just as good, if not better, than those of men.
Born in Chile, Margot Duhalde Sotomayor’s dream to learn to fly started to become true in 1936 at the Chile Air Club in Santiago, when she was just 16 years old. A few years later, with the outset of the Second World War, the young pilot decided to enrol as a volunteer with a French-Chilean group, leaving for France to join the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (Free French Air Forces, known as FAFL).
Her trip was interrupted by her arrest in Liverpool on suspicion of espionage, which may have been caused by a mistaken identity. On her release, exhausted after days unfairly spent in prison in London, Margot had another unpleasant surprise: FAFL were not accepting female pilots, but only volunteers who could be in charge of housekeeping, cooking and nursing.
Margot could pilot an aeroplane; she was talented and she didn’t want to waste her talent doing something else. Undiscouraged and without knowing a word of English, Duhalde applied to enrol in the United Kingdom’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), in support of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Her application was accepted.
Over the course of the next four years, the tireless Duhalde piloted more than 900 aircrafts of 70 different models, taking off from English bases and landing in combat zones in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Returning to Chile in 1947, she spent the rest of her life in her beloved Santiago. She worked as a civil pilot, going on to work as an instructor and air traffic controller until the age of 81.
Margot Duhalde was the first female pilot and air traffic controller from Chile and a great women’s rights activist.
Her nomination as Knight of the Legion of Honour for her contribution to France and her achievement of the honorary rank as Colonel of the Chilean Air Force are accolades of which all female pilots around the world should be proud.