On Wednesday 23 May, the Heritage Centre was honoured to be invited by the Prime Minister to send representatives to a reception held at 10 Downing Street to mark the 100th anniversary of the RAF. Also invited was ATA veteran Mary Ellis, aged 101, making one of her very last public appearances; she died on 24th July. The photo above shows Mary with our chairman Richard Poad and three student pilots from the University of London Air Squadron. Holly, on the left of the picture, told Mary that she had been her inspiration. The PM spent several minutes with Mary and mentioned ATA is the opening moments of her speech to the guests assembled in the garden of No.10. What a privilege to be in a place where so much history has been made!
We record with sadness the death on February 5th of ATA veteran Margot Duhalde, known to all as ‘Chile’ after her homeland. She served from 1 September 1941 until 30 November 1945, was qualified to fly all types up to Class 4 (twin-engined operational types) and ferried more than 1500 aircraft, according to a French source.
Margot Duhalde was born in 1920 in southern Chile and always wanted to fly. According to her mother, she started saying ‘plane’ before she could say ‘Mama’. At age 16 she went to Santiago, learned to fly and within two years was the first Chilean woman to gain a commercial licence. In April 1941 she left Chile to travel to Britain to join the Free French, speaking neither English and nor French. The Free French had no place for a woman pilot but by a lucky chance she learned about ATA and presented herself at White Waltham with a letter written for her by a French pilot.
She was flight tested in a Tiger Moth, with Margaret Ebbage giving hand signals as instructions from the front seat. But on her first cross country she got lost among the barrage balloons over London, almost ran out of fuel and made a messy forced landing in a field in Enfield (north of London). Unable to explain herself to the local police, she was promptly arrested. Pauline Gower was able to get her released and then threw her out of ATA – until Captain A R O Macmillan, the Chief Instructor, suggested that Chile should work in the hangars for 3 months to improve her English.
Chile was posted to the all-woman pool at Hamble, where she became firm friends with Maureen Dunlop who had been brought up in Argentina. Rapid-fire Spanish could often be heard in the crew room. In contrast she and Polish Anna Leska had a long-running feud and ended up in front of their C.O. Margot Gore. Alison King (Operations Officer) described Chile as ‘full of inexhaustible and frightening energy, with eyes like polished coals’. Diana Barnato-Walker remembered Chile as ‘an extremely pretty, dark girl, with tiny, beautiful hands’ and ‘an efficient and much-loved pilot who had an excellent record’, though in one interview Chile said she had about 10 accidents which nearly killed her!
Chile’s logbooks are believed to be in a museum in France. But in the logbook of Philip Rogers, an air cadet employed at Hamble as messenger-cum-dogsbody-cum-pilot’s assistant, we have found seven flights when he flew with Chile. The types include the Oxford, Hudson III, Ventura, Fairchild Argus (air taxi), Swordfish, Albermarle and Barracuda – which gives us an idea of the huge variety of aircraft flown by ATA pilots. Being based at Hamble, Chile would have flown many Spitfires, which she described in these words: ‘the sensitivity of the Spitfire was made for women’.
She returned to Chile in 1947 where she lived the rest of her life, marrying three times and working as a commercial pilot, instructor and finally as an air traffic controller, retiring at the age of 81. She was 86 when she made her last flight at the controls of an aircraft.
Margot Duhalde had a French Basque grandfather, and in 2006 was made a Knight of France’s Legion of Honour, later being given the honorary rank of colonel by the Chilean air force.