Leap of Faith

Skydiving champion Cheryl Stearns, who has jumped out of airplanes more times than any other woman on the planet, explains how she uses fear to her advantage, makes soft landings, and plans a world-record plunge from 130,000 feet (seriously).

It is the moment of truth. After weeks, months, maybe years spent planning, second-guessing, and dreaming, you've finally arrived at the point of no return. You're ready to take a chance -- a big, ambitious, sweaty-palms chance. It could be a new job or career, a product unlike anything your unit has ever produced, or a radically different strategy for your company. Whatever it is, the risks are high. This moment is a lot like being miles above the earth, poised in the open doorway of a plane, with a parachute strapped to your back. Time to take that big leap. Can you do it?

Cheryl Stearns can. She's one of the world's top skydivers, having held more than 30 world records, including most jumps by a woman in a 24-hour period (352, or one jump every four minutes). She has won the national skydiving championship 21 times and won the world championships for civilians and for military personnel a total of 7 times. In all, Stearns, 46, has made more than 14,000 jumps -- more than any other woman on the planet.

As a child, Stearns used to dream that she could fly. When she was older, she couldn't wait to experience the real thing, so at 17, she convinced her parents to give her $40 for a one-day parachuting course. Her parents hoped that skydiving was a passing fancy. It wasn't. When she accompanied her brother to visit an Army recruiter in Scottsdale, Arizona, Stearns saw pictures of the Golden Knights, the Army's elite skydiving team, and knew that she wanted to join. Five years and 1,500 jumps later, she became the first woman to make the team.

Stearns's latest world-record attempt is her most ambitious -- and most dangerous. She plans to ride in a hot-air balloon to the edge of the atmosphere -- more than 24 miles up -- and skydive to earth wearing what amounts to an astronaut suit. Stearns expects to break the sound barrier and hit 800 MPH or more, which is far faster than the 737s that she flies in her day job as a pilot for US Airways. Talk about a leap of faith.

Fast Company met with Stearns at the Golden Knights drop zone at Raeford Airport, near Fayetteville, North Carolina. In preparation for an upcoming competition, she was practicing her specialties: style and accuracy jumps. In between dives, she shared her rules for practicing big leaps, taking them, and landing on your feet.

Practice perfection.

Stearns is a preparation freak. Before she gets on a plane, she runs for about an hour, during which time she visualizes hitting dead center of her target with her heel. She does this repeatedly, honing a kind of tunnel vision. "I visualize the center instead of the whole round thing," she says. "If I thought of the whole target, I would be training my body to be less precise." Then, using a small practice pad, she steps on the target circle between 100 and 200 times. Although she plans to land on her right foot, she practices using her left as well, in case she finds herself out of position. "This wakes up my brain and sharpens my 'eye-foot' coordination," she says. It's a monotonous routine that might seem unnecessary for a skydiver of Stearns's caliber, like Tiger Woods practicing tap-ins. But that's why she does it. She takes nothing for granted.

Look before you leap -- but know what to look for.

One thing that Stearns can't control is the elements, namely the wind. Gliding to the ground with a 252-square-foot parachute designed to catch and hold the air, she's like a surfer riding a wave. She reads, then adapts to, the wind currents. "When people miss the target area, they ask, 'Where did those winds come from?' " she says. "I say, 'It was there. You weren't paying attention.' "

First, Stearns assesses the conditions at ground level. "I can stand here and tell you that this is a 2-to-3-MPH wind. I know by how much my hair twitches and by how the leaves in the trees move. Today, there's very little wind, so I can get on top of the target all the way down. But if there were high winds, and I didn't take them into account, I could land two miles from here."

In the plane, Stearns checks the wind streamer, a one-pound weight with a crepe-paper tail that gets tossed at about 2,000 feet. If the streamer lands one mile south of the drop zone, she jumps one mile north of it. "Nature is always changing," she says. "It's out of my control, but I rarely get fooled because I'm not paying attention."

Forget "no fear" -- you need the right kind of fear.

Jumping out of an airplane requires a leap of faith. In yourself. In your equipment. In whatever gives you strength at that moment. You need to have confidence and courage, but too much confidence is a dangerous quality in a skydiver. "That's what kills people," Stearns says. Oddly, the one emotion you need is the one that might prevent you from leaping in the first place: fear. You don't want to experience so much fear that you're paralyzed, but an awareness of the danger is crucial. It protects you from your own ego and from peer pressure to push your abilities too far, to show off. "I can watch someone and know that he's headed for a serious injury," she says, "because he doesn't even know what fear is. He thinks he's invincible. Maybe, if he's lucky, he'll have a close call that will wake him up."

Stearns insists that she's no daredevil. In an inherently risky sport, she eliminates the unnecessary risks. For instance, she opens her chute at around 2,500 feet, a higher altitude than more daring jumpers choose. "If I have a malfunction, I want to have those extra 500 feet to deal with the emergency," she says. "Remember, I can always lose altitude, but I can never gain it back."

As a Golden Knight, Stearns has parachuted into football stadiums and, once, around the points atop the crown of the Statue of Liberty, landing on Ellis Island. But in 1979, after being selected to be the first person to skydive into the Super Bowl, she "weathered out" moments before kickoff. The volatile winds over Miami could have made her landing unsafe. "If I'm scared in the plane, it means I don't like what's happening on the ground. So I won't do it. There's always tomorrow."

If you don't run an emergency, it will run you.

Just before she jumps out of a plane, Stearns thinks about what could go wrong. This isn't last-minute panicking on her part. She's preparing herself for problem solving in midair.

The idea is to be so prepared that when a situation arises, you're solving a familiar problem, not a new one. Once Stearns is free-falling, there's no time to figure things out. "Time is against you," she says. "When you go to release your chute at 2,000 feet and it doesn't open, you have 10 seconds before you hit the ground. You have to deal with the problem immediately. But the last thing you want to do is panic. You need to stay calm and get your reserve chute, but you also need to be aware of time. You have to think fast and slow at the same time."

Skydiving is like other activities in that most mistakes occur when you're in a hurry, Stearns says. It's when you're running to make the plane for another jump that you're apt to get sloppy and pack your chute improperly or forget something. Of course, the difference is that this sport doesn't offer much room for error.

That's not to say that you can't be fast and safe. When Stearns set the 24-hour record, she was running to another plane as soon as she landed. But she had practically choreographed every step ahead of time. There were five planes, 12 parachutes, and 120 people working through the night. Stearns, who had done 400 lat pulldowns a day to build up arm strength for operating her chute almost continuously, could focus solely on jumping. The result: Ninety-one percent of her landings were within one centimeter of the target center, and 52% were bull's-eyes.

Train hard, but don't overdo it.

The paradox of skydiving, or of any dangerous sport, is that you only improve by doing it over and over, but repetition can lull you into carelessness. One reason that Stearns has been able to perform at a world-class level for more than 20 years (she won her first world title at 23) is that she concentrates so much on concentrating. "Eighty percent of skydiving is mental," she says. "To make a good jump, you need to have a positive attitude. If you have any outside problems or negative thoughts, like remembering a previous bad jump, you're going to be distracted, and then you're not going to do well. The key is really knowing yourself, knowing how to keep a positive mind-set no matter what's going on or what kind of day you're having."

These days, Stearns practices three or four times a week. Along with her training, she makes sure to mix in jumps that are purely for fun -- she doesn't want the work to diminish the exhilaration and joy in skydiving. She'll open her chute at 10,000 feet and fly for miles or do back flips over and over during free fall. "I'll flip until I don't know whether I'm down or up," she says. "But all I have to do is stick my chest out, and I'm stomach to earth."

After more than 14,000 jumps, perhaps the greatest danger for Stearns is relaxing too much. She maintains her focus by reminding herself that each jump is different. She logs each one in a notebook to prove it. On jump number 75, she had her first malfunction and had to cut away the main chute and activate the reserve. On jump number 9,517, she scored a bull's-eye in China, earning the world title in 1994. And today, on jump number 14,195, she left the plane at 10,500 feet and practiced a set of right spins. The log is a way of charting her performance and a way of reminding herself that each skydive demands full concentration to avoid any lapses or mistakes. "This is a very unforgiving sport," she says. "All it takes is one."

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about Cheryl Stearns on the Web (www.cherylstearns.com; www.stratoquest.com), or contact her by email (cherylstearns@mindspring.com).

Sidebar: Out of This World

In 1960, Air Force test pilot Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. stepped out of a balloon gondola at 102,800 feet and set the record for the world's highest skydive. That record holds a strong allure for skydiver Cheryl Stearns. She decided to try to break it after Shanon Mary Friedel, a television producer, approached her about leading an elite team that would combine extreme-fitness challenges with aerospace research. Friedel's project, StratoQuest, is raising the $6.5 million needed for Stearns's jump and commissioning a specially made pressurized suit and a high-altitude balloon.

Stearns is planning to ride in the balloon for nearly three hours until she is 130,000 feet above rural Kansas. She'll be perched above 99% of the atmosphere, on the brink of outer space. Ordinarily, when she leaps from a plane at 12,500 feet, she falls 9,000 feet in the first minute. But in the upper reaches of the stratosphere, where the air is significantly thinner, she expects to descend 105,000 feet in just three and a half minutes. She estimates that she'll be traveling between 800 and 900 MPH and might break the sound barrier, becoming the first human to do so without a vehicle. She must hold a perfectly aerodynamic headfirst position with her arms at her sides when she hits Mach 1 (the speed of sound) and goes through the shock wave. Her life depends on it. "If I'm not in the proper position ... I hate to use the word 'disintegrate,' but I could be in real trouble."

Stearns is one of at least three skydivers who have declared their intention to conquer the high-altitude record. Although the jump is far riskier than anything she's attempted so far, she's preparing for it in her usual manner: with relentless discipline and an obsessive eye for every possible malfunction. For Stearns, one of the keys to flying is staying grounded. "This sport teaches you respect -- for Mother Nature, for your abilities, for your equipment, for life," she says. "If you apply all of those things, you become a survivor in life itself."

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