- Ilinca Stroe
Romania’s “Queen of the Heights”: How Smaranda Brăescu Made It in a Man’s World
When you grow up in the 1900s as one of nine children in a family of farmers, in a village located near an aerodrome, watching planes going up into the skies as if by magic, you develop a dream. And if you’re gifted with unfailing determination, you turn that dream into glorious reality no matter what.
Smaranda Brăescu (1897-1948) had the dream of flying at a time when her country barely guaranteed any civil rights for women. So when in 1923 she applied for training at the military flying school at Tecuci, she was very much a woman trying to break into a man’s exclusive world. Turned down and scoffed at, she had to swallow her bitter disappointment and resign herself temporarily to a more “ladylike” pursuit: she enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts and graduated in 1928 from its Ceramic Art Department.
But the dream was still very much there. After a few casual jobs, Smaranda took action: she borrowed some money and travelled to Berlin to meet Otto Heinecke, a German engineer and parachutist whom she had contacted in 1927. Mentored and trained by him, she obtained her parachutist’s licence and in July 1928 she made a parachute jump from 600 metres at Staaken, officially becoming the first Romanian female parachutist.
She returned to her country and applied again to get admitted to the flight school, but was eventually told in as many words that “women aren’t allowed to take up flying”. Undeterred, Smaranda decided to show her fellow nationals what she could do: she demonstrated her skill at the Băneasa Air Show in October 1928, when she made her first jump on Romanian soil alongside two famous male parachutists, Heinecke himself and American Leslie Irving.
The success was shocking to the local patriarchy. A legend had been born: Romania’s first female parachutist, whom the press was quick to catapult to fame. “Will it or will it not open?” Miss Brăescu was encouraged to confess about the parachuting adrenaline to the reporters in 1930. “Two options: life or death. Seconds feel like hours. My heart stands still. Eventually, I feel a strong jerk. The parachute has opened! […] 100 metres above the ground, I’m experiencing torment yet again. I feel I’m going down too fast. I might crash against the ground. I’m not afraid of death, disability would hurt, but it is failure that would really afflict me…”
A series of impressive achievements followed. First, she set the first female world record in 1931, jumping from 6,000 metres with no oxygen cylinder. The King himself was impressed: he decorated her with the Order of Aeronautic Virtue. Then she aimed for the absolute world record, and while the Romanian government continued to be rather unsupportive, a newspaper, “Universul”, raised funds by public subscription so that Smaranda could cross the Atlantic and go for the world title. Indeed, in Sacramento, USA, May 1932, she was flown to around 7,000 metres, jumped and landed successfully 25 minutes later: the absolute world record had been broken, and it was only 20 years later that another parachutist was able to outdo her 6,929-metre jump.
While still in the land of (more) equal opportunities, she took the chance to finally get her pilot’s licence, becoming the first European woman to hold an American pilot certificate. That same year, 1932, she put it to good use by breaking yet another record: a 6-hour-and-10-minute crossing of the Mediterranean from Rome to Tripoli in a plane with one engine, without any stopovers. The world was now impressed, and she was nominated for the “Female Athlete of the Year”. However, with people like Amelia Earhart competing for that same position, Smaranda did not win the title, after all.
When World War II broke out, Miss Brăescu, once ridiculed by the Romanian military establishment for her „unwomanly” ambition, was contracted to train the newly formed elite battalion of Romanian paratroopers. During the War, she was in the “White Squadron”, risking her life to fly wounded soldiers from the Eastern front to the safety of hospitals behind the frontline. That won her another decoration, the Cross of Queen Marie.
But the times were changing. The Yalta Agreement placed Smaranda’s country in the Soviet sphere of influence and when national elections were organised in 1946 the results were simply reversed by the Soviet-supported Romanian Communist Party. So the latter came into power with ruthless determination to turn the country into a Stalinist state. Smaranda and 11 other personalities protested in a public letter, and the new authorities sentenced her promptly to two years in prison. Somehow, however, the top parachutist eluded detention. She lived in hiding but, alas, she didn’t live for much longer… Suffering from breast cancer, she was nursed by Greek Catholic nuns in the city of Cluj till the end. A couple of people attended her funeral. No monument embellishes her tomb.
At the end of 2021, the Romanian Prime Minister sent the Parliament a draft law by which 2022 was to be declared “The Smaranda Brăescu Year”. Asked by the reporters who she was, exactly, only one MP (out of about eight interviewed) was able to refer knowledgeably to her professional achievements. So 2022 is probably a great start for the Romanians to remember and honour their forgotten female heroes.
International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact email@example.com. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.