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Smaranda Brăescu: The Girl with Her Head in the Clouds

Smaranda Brăescu: The Girl with Her Head in the Clouds

In the early 1900s, modern aviation was still in its infancy. It was an era when iconic inventions and discoveries in terms of flying machines were only starting to see the light of day. The first pilot licence obtained in Romania was issued in 1911, after the first Romanian aviation school was opened in the spring of the same year. Against this backdrop, a career in aviation was, in the 1900s, an uncharted road, especially in the case of women, for whom, at that time, it was globally uncommon to vote or to have a job… any type of job. Just to remind you that the first European country to introduce women’s suffrage has done so in 1907, while Romania gave women the right to vote only in 1938. Also in Romania, married women were allowed to manage their own income only starting 1926.

Yet the history proudly offers us, in aviation as well as in other fields, (female) role models that break stereotypes and change mind-sets for the sake of their passion. Smaranda Brăescu, the first parachutist and the third pilot woman from Romania, the first European woman to receive an American pilot licence, and an absolute world record-breaker in aviation counts towards this (short) list. She remained in the collective memory of the Romanian people for multiple reasons, including her aviation record achievements, her kind-hearted support to those in need during World War II, and nonetheless her anti-communist stand. But let’s start from the beginning…

Smaranda Brăescu, an ordinary 14-years old school girl born and raised in the countryside, sees a plane for the first time in 1912, during the execution of what is known as the fifth air raid in the history of Romanian aviation (conducted also across Bârlad, the town where she was studying). While she feels instantly attracted to this “unusual machinery”, the episode could have remained just a memory if, after finishing high school, her faith didn’t lead her to work as a teacher in a town that hosted a military aviation school. Surrounded by planes and pilots, Smaranda becomes more and more interested in flying, both as an experience and as a career path. And finally, after the intervention of her brother, who acted as an aviation observer, she is given the opportunity to fly for the first time in 1923 – a sort of “baptism of air” that determines her to apply for this aviation school in order to become a pilot. However, military and aviation regulations of that time did not allow her admission. Disappointed, she enrols in the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest (1924-1929).

At that point, we were witnessing the Golden Age of Aviation, with a shift from biplanes to streamlined motor monoplanes, record and round-the-world flights, the emergence of air mail and commercial airlines that allowed long-distance travelling – a context in which sky diving also gained more popularity (the official sky diving committee is founded as part of the International Aeronautical Federation around that times, leading to the international recognition of this sport). In this context, Smaranda starts to become interested in sky diving, as an alternative to piloting, which was denied to her. Seeking to pursue this new ambition of hers, she initiates a series of discussions with the German parachutist and engineer Otto Heinecke, who designed and built several parachutes, in order to buy a parachute and obtain a sky diver licence. With difficulty, she manages to lend the much needed money and finally buys a Schroeder parachute. After intensive training under the direct guidance of Otto Heinecke, she executes the first parachute jump in July 1928 in Germany, becoming, at the age of 31, the first parachutist woman in Romania.

Coming back home, Smaranda makes another request for admission into aviation school, but she is, again, knocking at a closed door. Aviation figures in charge of the selection tell her that “women are not allowed to enter aviation, as they do not have strong nerves and the country does not have planes to waste”. Yet shortly after this second rejection, she executes her first parachute jump inside the country, becoming an icon of sky diving in Romania. Encouraged by her victory, she asks the Romanian authorities to support her in breaking the world record by jumping from 6,500 meters, but receives another rejection on financial grounds. So she decides to raise the money herself and, for this, she attends multiple air shows where she executes demonstrative parachute jumps.

In August 1930, Smaranda suffers a painful accident that pulls her out from the aviation world for six months due to numerous fractures. For many, such an accident would have been enough to abandon their passion, but not for her: “I am not afraid of death, I may be hurt by an invalidity, but failure would torment me harder”, she states in an interview. Overcoming this moment, Smaranda starts training again and, one year later, in October 1931, she executes the jump that made her establish the first absolute national record and the first female world record in sky diving ever held by a Romanian (although, at the moment of lending, she is barely conscious, due to strong wind during descent).

Proving her worth, Smaranda is now publicly supported to reach the world absolute record for the highest parachute jump (at that point held by a US parachutist) and to obtain in the US the pilot certificate denied in Romania, including with the necessary financing thanks to a crowdfunding campaign initiated by a national newspaper. So, in December 1931 she leaves for US, which was at that time the best country for achieving such a bold objective, given that aviation there was significantly ahead of what Europe could offer.

Heading first to Miami, Florida, she is told that she would not be able to execute a record-breaking jump there, as on all the fields that were large enough to accommodate her landing lived venomous snakes and other animals that were very likely to hurt her. Disappointed, she finally finds a proper field in Sacramento, California, announcing, in the spring of 1932, that she is ready for the big jump. But, after two months and five failed attempts due to unfavourable weather or technical problems, she still does not manage to break the absolute world record: the first two times, the plane that was supposed to lift her to the desired altitude did not manage to raise beyond 6,000 m, the next two times, despite having a more performant plane, either she or the pilot ran out of oxygen after reaching the proper altitude, while the fifth time the pilot took her over a mountainous area above Sierra Nevada, as he was slightly drunk after enjoying a bottle of whiskey. As disappointment turned into desperation since she was running out of money, Smaranda tries for one last time, deciding that, whatever happens, she will jump anyway, but without a parachute if things do not go properly. As the plane reached 7,500 m, the pilot announces her that he is out of oxygen and faints shortly after, having pushed his limits to compensate for past mistakes. Smaranda is left with no other alternative, so she executes the 7,233 m jump that makes her break existing records and become an absolute world champion in skydiving in May 1932, while she was 35 years old.

Further on, Smaranda enrols in the aviation school located in Roosevelt Field, New York, where she obtains her Private Pilot Licence in October 1932, becoming the first woman in Europe that got a pilot licence in the US and the third female pilot in Romania. After achieving the recognition of the entire world for her aviation accomplishments, Smaranda decides to return to Romania in 1933 and start a career as a pilot, leaving sky diving behind. On the way back home, she stops in Geneva, invited by the Swiss minister of aviation, Marshal Italo Balbo, who welcomes her with admiration. Once at home, His Majesty Carol II, by then king of Romania, offers Smaranda an important aviation distinction. But despite the fame and popularity, she does not manage to receive the financial support of Romanian authorities in order to buy a plane.

However, she gets the money to buy a Miles Hawk Major plane thanks to a crowdfunding campaign initiated by a Romanian journal, so in December 1934 Smaranda heads to the Woodley airfield (UK), to pick up the previously ordered aircraft. She awaits there several months supervising the manufacturing of the plane and training herself to fly this model, but the delivery of the aircraft was continuously postponed, due to unsettled bureaucratic and legal issues that did not allow the plane to leave the country. Tired of waiting, Smaranda takes matters into her own hands and, by August 1934, she simply takes her plane up in the air and runs home via France and Germany (where she is forced to make multiple stops due to technical issues or weather conditions). Two months later, Smaranda finally arrives in Bucharest flying a plane painted in the colours of the Romanian flag.

In the next years, she flies multiple times long distances over water or mountains, on routes such as Bucharest - Belgrade - Zagreb - Venice - Rome - Tripoli or Tripoli - Brindisi - Athens - Sofia - Bucharest, and reaches, in 1936, her most important achievement as a pilot, as she manages to fly over the Mediterranean Sea with a single engine plane and without any layovers. In 1938, Smaranda sells her current plane and buys a new aircraft, a Bf-108B-1 Taifun, specially designed for longer distance flights. One year later, she tries again to change her plane, but does not manage to buy a new one, as the starting of World War II made such transactions more complicated.

In fact, with the start of World War II, Smaranda’s role changes, as she becomes more focused on helping Romanian army troops. She militates for the creation of a paratroopers (military parachutists) division in the Romanian army, which actually happens in June 1941, Smaranda becoming one of the instructors. She also volunteers for the sanitary aviation troops operating on the Eastern front, transporting war-wounded by plane from behind the front line to field hospitals, helping them remain alive.

After the war ends, Smaranda, along with other figures of that period, protests against the falsification of elections in November 1946 allegedly won by the Romanian Communist Party – a decisive episode in the establishment of communism in Romania. As she is accused to be part of a group of dissidents opposing the newly-established communist government, the Soviets sentence Smaranda (along with the rest of the supporters) to prison. But she runs from the communist oppression, assuming multiple false identities. Spending the last years of her life in hiding, she was never found again, so no one truly knows much about her death. A generally accepted version is that she died in February 1948. Yet even to the present day uncertainty surrounds the details of her burial place, hindering all initiatives of a proper commemoration.

This story is not intended to be a lesson about feminism, but one about the strength of every human being… about passion and how many (won and lost) fights it takes to achieve it, about not giving up even if this seems the only (rational) alternative because, sometimes, the impossible starts to get done only when and where rationality ends. And beyond what (for some) may seem just plain motivational speech, this story is also about the values and the figures we promote as a country – a good topic of reflection in times like these that mark the Centenary of our nation’s existence. Because in the matter of choosing what kind of leaders we are creating, we should first decide who the heroes that we honour are.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016