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.