Pioneering Skydiver and Pilot Looks Back on 50 Years Aloft

Cheryl Stearns was the first woman to join the Army’s Golden Knights and was recently named Distinguished Stateswoman of Aviation.

Cheryl Stearns, second from left, receives the NAA’s Distinguished Stateswoman of Aviation Award [Courtesy: National Aeronautic Association]

For skydiving ace Cheryl Stearns, jumping out of an airplane began as a dream when she was eight, growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. In the dream, she was stepping out of a window and feeling the sensation of falling—or was she?

“The dream felt so real, but I wondered if falling really felt the same way,” she said recently, more than 22,000 jumps later.

As it turned out, Stearns had to wait until she was 17 to find out if reality matched the dream. That was when she joined a group of girls from her high school who were going for an introductory jump with the local parachute club.

“What I didn’t realize was that it would be a static-line jump, so there was no freefall. And that did not satisfy my curiosity,” she said. While the other girls headed home, Stearns stuck around. “I went back for more jumps, and kept jumping until they allowed me to freefall. By then I was hooked.”

While babysitting for 25 cents an hour to help fund her new sport, she also earned her private pilot certificate as a Civil Air Patrol member while working at the airport drop zone, packing parachutes and serving as a jumpmaster. It was the 1970s, and general aviation and skydiving were gaining popularity. Young people routinely worked odd jobs at airports in exchange for flying lessons—earning stick time to build hours.

“I was 19, naive as ever, living in a hangar, making 20 bucks a month and loving it,” Stearns said of the time.

She almost immediately became interested in competition, and excelled in style and accuracy contests. For style, the skydiver performs a series of flips, twists, and other figures during freefall. In her early days of competition, accuracy meant guiding her old-fashioned round-canopy parachute so precisely that she could land on a target just  10 centimeters in diameter.

“I’m a competitive person and I wanted to do more, so I set a goal to become national champion, and after that, to be world champion,” she said 

Some people laughed off her ambitions which, at the time, might have seemed beyond far-fetched. But, like many women involved in difficult, adventurous, or dangerous pursuits, Stearns was accustomed to being told she could not do certain things, yet accomplishing them anyway.

During her skydiving career (she is still jumping), she has won two world championships—in 1978 and 1994—along with 33 national championships, and she has set 30 world records. She spent two tours of duty with the U.S. Army’s elite Golden Knights parachute team after becoming the first woman to join the team in 1977. Stearns continued her military career with Army Reserve and National Guard units, retiring as a Master Sergeant after 29 years.

While juggling skydiving stardom with a military career, Stearns attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Pope Air Force Base campus, where she received bachelor of science in aviation administration and master of aeronautical science degrees. In 1986 she began working for Piedmont Airlines, which became part of U.S. Airways, and later was absorbed by American Airlines. Stearns retired from American in 2019.

Last month the National Aeronautic Association presented Stearns with its Distinguished Stateswoman of Aviation Award in recognition of her accomplishments as a parachutist, pilot, and mentor. Stearns said receiving the NAA award “is a great honor,” and being nominated by the United States Parachute Association made the experience particularly special.

“It meant so much to me to be nominated by my peers. This is the group that has made such a difference in my life,” she said.

These days Stearns shares her aviation knowledge with cadets in the Shelby, North Carolina, Civil Air Patrol Squadron. She continues to perform demonstration jumps as a member of the Children of Fallen Heroes Skydiving Angels team, a non-profit organization.

She said she is working toward matching her jumps—just over 22,000—with her roughly 26,000 flying hours. She flies her Cessna 185 regularly, so reaching that goal might take a while.

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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