Mountain Island woman falls to the top

From 10,000 feet up, Cheryl Stearns’ home in the Mountain Island area looks like any other roof on the block.

But a quick glance inside and it quickly becomes apparent that Stearns hovers a little higher than others. Trophies and medals line the wall, and a large parachute is spread out in the dinning room. Stearns was one of eleven people recently inducted into the inaugural class of the National Skydiving Museum’s Hall of Fame. She has more than 18,000 jumps and is the most decorated female skydiver in the world.

She has more than 70 first place women’s titles from the annual U.S. National and biannual World Championships in parachuting and scores of medals from other national and international competitions. Four times Stearns has been the overall U.S. Champion for men and women combined, most recently in 1998.

She’s a three-time overall women’s style and accuracy champion at the military world championships and Guinness World Record holder for the most parachute jumps in 24 hours by a woman, 352 jumps.

Wanting to go 100 mph

Stearns took her first step off an airplane in Scottsdale, Ariz., when she was just 17 years old.

Cheryl Stearns comes in for a landing at a skydiving competition. She was one of 11 people recently inducted into the National Skydiving Museum’s Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. She has more than 18,000 jumps and is the most decorated female skydiver in the world.

“I just wanted to know what it felt like going 100 mph,” she said of her fascination with freefalling.

She looked up a local skydiving instructor in the yellow pages and cashed in her babysitting money for an eight-hour lesson. Back in the early days of skydiving there were no tandem jumps, a method widely used today where an inexperienced skydiver is hooked to a more experienced jumper.

“If we did have tandems I would have taken one jump and would have been done. It would have satisfied my curiosity,” she said.

Instead Stearns’ first jumps were on a static line. She jumped out of the airplane, and after falling eight feet a cord attached to the plane automatically pulled her parachute and she slowly drifted to earth. While the method was safer than freefalling, it didn’t provide the rush she needed.

“My freefall wasn’t a freefall,” she said. “It was an eight-foot drop. That didn’t satisfy me.”

Stearns

It also was during those days she fell in love with her other passion, flying airplanes.

“I would be riding that airplane and be scared to death. But I didn’t mind jumping out of it. Instead of running from fear I go and get knowledgeable about it. And then there’s no fear. I took one flying lesson and I said ‘this is where I want to go.’”

Her father didn’t like her jumping out of airplanes, so he paid for her private license thinking she’d give up jumping and stay in the cockpit.

But that wasn’t the case, and Stearns has pursued both passions equally. She has flown more than 75 different types of aircraft, has more than 18,000 flying hours and more than 19,000 aircraft landings. She is currently a captain with U.S. Airways flying Boeing 737s.

A break into the big leagues

Stearn’s launch into the skydiving stratosphere came in 1975 when she wrote a letter to Gene Thacker, a pioneer in the skydiving community.

Thacker was one of the first members of the Army’s parachute team, the Golden Knights, and the first Golden Knight of the Year. In 1970, Thacker set up shop next to the Raeford Municipal Airport, a short drive from Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne, in late 1970, intent on making the tiny town the center of the skydiving world.

Stearn asked Thacker to let her come out to North Carolina and train with some of the best skydivers around.

“I picked up the phone and called her and said that’ll be fine, if it don’t work out here I’ll get you back to Arizona. And she worked out real well,” Thacker said from Raeford, where he still lives next to the airport.

Thacker remembers how he was immediately impressed with Stearns’ accomplishments. The 19-year-old already had about 400 jumps, a commercial pilot’s license and had completed two years of college.

“What got my attention was that someone only 19 years old had accomplished all these things,” Thacker said. “I don’t think you could make her tired. She’d fly six or seven hours and then make six or seven jumps. She definitely had her goals and has accomplished more than she ever thought.”

Thacker put Stearns up in the back of one of the airport’s hangers where she slept the few hours she wasn’t piloting jump planes or jumping out of them.

Two years later Stearns, following in her mentor’s footsteps, joined the army and became a member of the Golden Knights as its first female skydiver. Thacker was the one who recommended Stearns for the job.

“The Golden Knights approached me and they wanted a female Golden Knight. They wanted a really good jumper and she had turned into a really good jumper,” Thacker said.

As with any new experience, it wasn’t always easy, Stearns said.

“They were like my brothers. Some of them weren’t in favor. Some of them were,” she said.

But being the only female didn’t bother her much, especially once she was falling to earth at more than 120 mph.

“The thing was that I was beating all the men, so I wasn’t there as the token woman. I was there because I was good,” she said.

After 11 years in the Golden Knights, Stearns left her lasting mark on the skydiving team.

“She has set a really good example when she left the Golden Knights for other women,” Thacker said. “She set their standards really high. Everyone who came after her wanted to be like Cheryl Stearns.”

Stearns retired from the Army in 1985, moved to Charlotte and went to work for Piedmont Airlines and then on to U.S. Airways, and has been flying with them for 25 years as a captain on the Boeing 737.

But her passion for falling still soars.

“I love flying and I love skydiving. If I’m not flying, I’m jumping,” she said. “If I’m not jumping, I’m flying. I get the best of both worlds. Jumping out of the airplane is just like me getting out of the car. Now it’s performing and competing. It’s the constant challenge.”

And even though she’s competing against people half her age, they can’t match her experience, Thacker said.

“They can’t beat her now,” he said. “Even the young ones. They can’t hold a light to her.”

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