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article imageChile's first female fighter pilot, a WWII vet, dies at 97

By AFP     Feb 5, 2018 in World

Margot Duhalde, who flew Spitfires in World War II as Chile's first female fighter pilot, has died at the age of 97, the government said Monday.

Duhalde smashed gender tradition in Chile by learning to fly at age 16. Years later, she answered the call of French President Charles de Gaulle to fight the Nazis.

A country girl from southern Chile of French Basque ancestry, Duhalde became her country's first female pilot -- and the only woman aviator to join the Free French Forces of de Gaulle's government in exile.

"Ever since I can remember, I wanted to fly," she told AFP last year. "According to my mother, I started saying 'plane' before I could say 'mummy.'"

Duhalde convinced her parents to let her leave home in the town of Rio Bueno aged just 16 and go to Santiago to train as a pilot.

She lied about her age and enrolled in a flying school.

In 1940, she joined the French forces as a volunteer. She was recruited as a pilot, then just 20 years old, by the Free France consulate in Santiago.

Duhalde headed to Buenos Aires and from there by ship to brave the war in Europe.

She ended up being incorporated into Britain's Royal Air Force as it fended off the Nazi threat.

At first, Duhalde was made to look after the sick and help mechanics.

But eventually, she was recruited into the British force's Air Transport Auxiliary to help with the war effort.

Her mission was to fly Spitfires and other aircraft from one British airfield to another to prevent them from being destroyed on the ground by the Germans. She never flew an actual combat mission.

Apart from the English weather, she faced the barriers of language and sexism at a time when women pilots were rare.

"The men always said that women were never going to be able to fly airplanes," she said in the interview. "But they had to swallow their pride, because really we flew just as well as they did."

The Ministry of Women's Affairs said on Twitter: "We regret the death of Margot Duhalde, Chile's first female pilot."

The cause of death was not given.

For her service in the war, Duhalde was decorated by Britain, Chile and France, which inducted her into the Legion of Honor.

Duhalde last flew a plane in 2007.

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