"I don't do buildings or rock formations," says 12-time U.S. skydiving champion Cheryl Stearns, who has never jumped off a building or a rock, but who has jumped out of planes more than 7,700 times, jumped out of the tailgate of a C-141 military cargo jet, out of helicopters, out of hot-air balloons, fallen through thin air and thick, through snow and needle-sharp raindrops, through insects and a bat ("that bat scared me to death"), and through black, moonless nights. Stearns has landed on Liberty Island; on the 50-yard line at the Fiesta Bowl, once with the coin for the toss and once with the football; and on soft, soft, freshly plowed dirt that saved her life. "Talk about feeling like an accordion," she says of the time she hit the ground at 40 mph when both of her chutes malfunctioned. Her notion of "upstairs" is the sky.
"You have to want to jump out of a plane," says Stearns matter-of-factly.
Stearns has wanted to jump out of planes for the past 18 years and has shown enough gumption and desire to win more titles and break more world records than any other person, man or woman. Recently awarded the Leonardo da Vinci diploma of the Fèdèration Aeronatique Internationale, one of skydiving's most prestigious awards, she was also the first woman member of the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army's elite parachute team, for which she was given three Meritorious Service medals and six Army Commendation medals.
"I don't need an airplane," says Stearns, 35, who has logged more than 7,100 hours flying and is now a pilot for USAir. "I have an airline."
She has taught aerobatics in Texas, flown medical air evacuation for a heart surgeon in Florida, and flown and jumped for Air Show America, a barnstorming entertainment troupe. For the latter, she often parachuted while carrying an American flag, popping a balloon when she touched down on the ground. "Sometimes I'd slip on the balloon," she says. "They'd try to blow it up to where it'd pop easy."
There is not much a person can do in the air that Stearns has not done. Once, she had a friend fly an open-cockpit Pitts Special upside down so that she could experience falling out of a plane. "I unhooked my seat belt and put my feet on the seat," she says. "He did a loop, held the plane upside down, and I dropped out. That was fun. I didn't jump out of a plane, I fell."
"I guess I spend about 90 percent of my time in the air," Stearns says with some exaggeration. She has been caught, in a rare moment on the ground, in the backyard of her Phoenix home, which adjoins the 14th fairway of Foothills golf course. "Yeah, I feel more at home in the air," she says, plucking a stray golf ball off the hibachi. "If I'm not flying planes, I'm jumping out of them, and if I'm not jumping out of them, I'm commuting in them." She moves around her backyard speedily, yanking weeds, collecting golf balls. Exceedingly fit, she gives the appearance of having just landed, making the ground underneath her seem springy.
Home for only one day between trips, she barely has enough time to listen to the messages on her telephone answering machine, read the mail, say hi to her Shetland sheepdog, pack a chute on her front lawn, unpack a duffel bag full of bargain cans of tuna fish bought in North Carolina, pick up her dry cleaning, go for a quick bike ride in the South Mountains and hike the Lost Dutchman Trail in the nearby Superstitions.
She rarely spends two nights in a row in the same place. "I live everywhere," she says, unpacking and packing at the same time on the living room floor. "I don't have time to sit on my couch."
Raised in nearby Scottsdale, Stearns started jumping when she was 17. "I wanted to know what it felt like to fall through the air," she recalls. She found out, and she began taking flying lessons four months later. "Most jumpers hate riding in planes. To them it's an unnatural act to fly down and land in a plane." She borrowed $3,000 from her mother to go to flight school, got her ratings and became a flight instructor while attending Scottsdale Community College on a tennis scholarship.
In 1974, she entered her first national skydiving competition and finished ninth overall. After deciding that she wanted to become a champion, she set her sights east, toward the Raeford (N.C.) Parachute Center, owned and managed by Gene Thacker, an ex-member of the Golden Knights. Thacker specializes in training for individual, not group, competition. Stearns had heard about him from a friend in the spring of 1975. "I wrote to Thacker and told him I wanted to be world champion but didn't have any money," Stearns says. "I told him I had a dog, and he wrote back, 'Don't worry, I won't let you or the dog starve." Stearns showed up on Thacker's doorstep three weeks later, after she had graduated from SCC, with $50 and her dog.
"What really impressed me about her, what made me encourage her, was that at 19 she already had a couple of years of college, many job experiences and had gotten a pilot's license with a commercial rating," says Thacker. "Anyone 19 years old with those credentials has to have a lot of initiative. Cheryl just has a burning desire to be the best at whatever she does. She's a hell of a pilot."
When Stearns arrived at Raeford, Thacker was building a new hangar, and he added an apartment in it for her. "She was the hangar lady," he says. He put her to work laying concrete, doing maintenance on the planes and packing parachutes. Every day she piloted a plane for jumpers. (Three times her plane ran out of fuel and she had to glide in. "I mean, it's not like being on fire or anything, you just lose altitude," she explains.) She also jumped herself, six times a day, seven days a week. With Thacker as her mentor and coach, she went to the nationals in 1975 and placed first in accuracy, 11th in style, the two "classic" categories of competition, and finished seventh overall.
In accuracy competition, the sky diver tries to touch down on a target the size of a silver dollar in the middle of a pit of pea gravel. Accuracy requires an initial study of wind directions, and precise handling of the canopy, or parachute. "Fly your heel to the disc," Stearns says, using jumpers' jargon to describe landing heel first, which gives you better balance than landing toe first. "Bring it down and sink it in slow." Sometimes there are different wind directions at different altitudes, a situation that jumpers call "doglegs."
In style competition, one has to execute a series of six turns and loops during the jump. Each series has to be completed in 30 seconds or less, because that's all the time a sky diver has between starting the jump and needing to open the chute. Each sky diver gets four jumps, and each jump requires a different variation of manuevers. "A lot of people get big when they turn," says Stearns, who can complete a series in less than seven seconds. "That slows you down. You've got to hold your legs up tight against you. You've got to squeeze and squeeze. If you don't, the air starts taking your leg.
"I dig in the air with my hands and work against it. You start with 80-mph winds around you from the plane's forward throw, and as you fall you feel the speed build up around you. I'm working with that speed, with all that wind resistance. When you jump out of a plane you don't just drop. It's like you're on a big cushion of air. In a way it's like being on a beam in gymnastics. You can lose your position and start tumbling in the sky."
Once Stearns began establishing herself as a major competitor, it was only a matter of time before the Golden Knights, based up the road at Fort Bragg, N.C., tried to enlist her. "They came to me and said, 'What would we have to do to steal her from you?' " says Thacker. "It was clearly a good move for Cheryl." In 1977, she enlisted in the Army and was given the token assignment of photo-lab technician. During two tours of duty over an eight-year period, she trained and jumped full time with the elite team that has dominated national and international competition for the past 30 years. When she left the army in 1985, she had gained the rank of sergeant and also had earned a B.S. in aviation administration and a master's degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In 1983 she was the military national overall parachute champion, the only woman ever to win that title.
Part of what makes her career so impressive is the length of it. "Most athletes have a tendency to peak," says Guy Jones, who was the executive officer of the Golden Knights when Stearns trained with them. "Cheryl just keeps coming back, year after year."
"She's still the best of the best," says Thacker.
Now that she's a full-time pilot for USAir, Stearns has a schedule that is flexible enough to allow her to train every January and February with the Golden Knights, in Yuma, Ariz. She also gets time off to compete around the world, and her expenses are underwritten by the Kentucky Army National Guard, of which she is a member.
Even after 7,700 jumps, she still thrills to the sport. "There's nothing more exciting," says Stearns, who spends as much time as she can upstairs.
Joan Ackermann is a free-lance writer based in Mill River, Mass.