When Felix Baumgartner piloted his balloon up, up and a ways into space last October, it was Brian Utley who determined the apex: 127,852 feet. When Steve Fossett flew around the world in 74 hours, Utley verified the route and the distance traveled. And when Bertrand Piccard guided his solar plane from Phoenix to Dallas earlier this month, he found Utley at the takeoff and the landing.
For aerial feats that attempt to set — or break — world records, Utley is the go-to guy.
Using a collection of high-tech GPS devices, he gauges height, speed, distance or duration to determine whether a pilot has attained a new record, then files reams of paperwork with the Federal Aviation Institute (FAI).
As the “official observer” representing the board of the National Aeronautic Association, Utley does more than fill out forms. He also consults with the record-seekers on everything from spacesuit design to “what’s worked for other pilots, what to watch out for, ways to do it and ways not to do it,” he said.
That’s a fitting role for Utley, given that he holds a few records himself, including the longest glider flight ever launched in Minnesota. (In 1975, he journeyed from Sleepy Eye to “a schoolyard just this side of St. Louis,” a 435-mile excursion that has yet to be equaled in almost 40 years.)
Utley offers more than a love of all things aerial. The 80-year-old also brings a whip-smart mind that spent 37 years developing computers for IBM.
“I took the PC to Europe,” he said with quiet pride.
The combination of his computer expertise (he’s written software to analyze GPS data) and his longtime prominence in the world of aviation landed Utley the observer role. (It’s a voluntary position, and the pilots seeking to set the records generally pick up the cost of the equipment and his travel expenses.)
His reputation for being a gentleman didn’t hurt, either.
“He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve ever met,” said George Underhill, who holds Utley’s former post as president of the recreational Minnesota Soaring Club. “He’s also a nice guy, super nice and super smart, all-around good guy.”
From early childhood, Utley seemed destined for an avocation far less grounded than his vocation.
Growing up in Cottingham, York, Great Britain, he loved to make model airplanes out of “stick and paper and glue. And I read about airplanes voraciously,” he said.
Utley was 7 when World War II broke out. Because his family lived near several Royal Air Force bases, “I was around planes a lot,” he said.
“The bombers would come together in formation right overhead, headed out to sea. They’d come back in ones and twos, their engines sputtering.”
In 1949, his family moved to Utah, and once young Utley became a U.S. citizen, he immediately volunteered for the Civil Air Patrol.
Flying took a back seat as he delved deeply into his career in the nascent computer industry (think punch cards). In 1974, IBM sent Utley to Rochester, Minn., where he spent seven years developing an advanced computer. He then became general manager of an IBM plant in Boca Raton, Fla., overseeing the laboratory that developed the personal computer.
While he was working and raising a family (which now includes 11 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren), Utley made time for flying. He discovered engine-less gliders and joined the ranks of “soaring” competitors. He served as president of the Soaring Society of America, and once took a glider to 30,000 feet at Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs.
Gliding, he said, “provides a totally different experience and sensation” than flying “regular” planes.
“You feel the air. You use the air. You interact with the air. It’s much more becoming one with the atmosphere rather than setting this course and pushing these buttons.”
Holding such an elite position in aviation circles has meant rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who gained fame for his heroic Hudson River landing, and Baumgartner. “Pretty heady stuff,” as Utley puts it.
But he speaks most fondly of millionaire adventurer Fossett, who became a good friend while Utley was observing Fossett’s attempts to become the first person to fly a solo balloon around the world.
“Steve was one of the most fascinating people I ever knew,” Utley said of Fossett, who died in a 2007 plane crash. “He was very much understated, no big ego, but a very, very determined person.”
That’s not a bad description of Utley, who has verified how long, how high, how far or how fast all manner of aircraft can go.
Now Utley the record-tracker is about to experience an airborne first of his own.
“I’ve never gone skydiving, but I’m going to because my children bought me a parachute jump for my 80th birthday,” Utley said. “I’ve carried a parachute for 50 years but never used it, thank goodness.”