"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 F�d�ration 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.