At age 15, Don Morse already held two jobs: sacking groceries and stocking shelves at Safeway, and adjusting engine valves and checking oil levels at Jaremko Motors.
“I was in DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) at North Central High School, so I’d get out at 1 o’clock and go to Jaremko on North Division. When I was done there, I’d head up to Safeway at Monroe and Francis,” Morse said.
“You were supposed to be at least 16 to work at Safeway, and I was only 15 1/2. But the manager said he’d try me out. After a few days, he said, ‘You’re a hard worker, so I’m going to let you stay.’ ”
Morse has been working hard ever since.
This year alone, his Discount Aircraft Salvage has acquired almost two dozen aircraft, either to refurbish and sell, or dismantle for usable parts. That’s in addition to the 500 aircraft carcasses populating his 10-acre “boneyard” adjacent to the Deer Park Airport.
When asked what’s at the top of his bucket list, Morse said, “I want to sell this business and get to where I can enjoy life a little bit.”
Until then, he fields calls and answers emails from pilots and mechanics in search of post-WWII airplane parts, many of which are no longer manufactured.
During a recent interview, Morse discussed Cessnas, customer service and the collateral damage of success.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Morse: On the North Side, near Linwood Elementary.
S-R: What were your interests?
Morse: My dad was an Air Force mechanic, so I picked up on that and was always tinkering.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class at North Central?
Morse: No. School wasn’t my deal. But I graduated.
S-R: Then what?
Morse: I enlisted in the Air National Guard because I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I went down to San Antonio for boot camp, then tech school for aircraft maintenance.
S-R: Did you know more about mechanics than your peers at tech school?
Morse: Probably, because a lot of people go to college and get a degree but aren’t cut out for this work. I run into that whenever I try hiring a mechanic.
S-R: Was there an event that changed the direction of your life?
Morse: Yeah. Don Rohrer was a used-car dealer on North Division who sold Corvettes and other special-interest cars. I used to babysit for him and worked on his cars, and in 1978 he gave me an opportunity to buy his business. I worked that for four or five years, and also bought Deer Park Aviation, which sold gas and rented airplanes before it went bankrupt. I was running both of them when Don said he had someone to buy the car lot. So I sold it, came up here full time, and started the salvage business in my early 30s.
S-R: What’s something Don taught you?
Morse: That in the car business, the money is always made in the buy. So you have to buy smartly. The same is true with airplanes.
S-R: When did you get your pilot’s license?
Morse: In 1978. Before that, every time we wanted to go somewhere, it took a day to get there and a day to get back. The weekend was shot. So I bought a plane and learned to fly, which led to this business.
S-R: How so?
Morse: When I bought that first plane and started repairing it, I discovered parts were really expensive. So, I bought a wreck in Canada for $3,000 or $4,000, took a prop and some parts, and got it running enough to fly home. Then I turned around and sold it for quite a bit of money to a Coeur d’Alene doctor who wanted to fix it up. And I thought to myself, “Maybe I ought to switch careers.” That’s when I started up my own little salvage operation.
S-R: Does the salvage business have highs and lows?
Morse: Oh, yeah. One of the worst times was right after 9/11, when people quit flying. Later, when the recession hit, a lot of little salvage yards went out of business. I was in good shape because I’ve always tried to stay out of debt.
S-R: How’s business now?
Morse: Good. It’s been that way the last four or five years.
S-R: Has the internet helped sales?
Morse: It’s been huge. We’re on a parts website that gets traffic from all over the world. When we come in Monday morning, there may be 10 requests waiting. And this isn’t like selling hamburgers. When we sell a part, it’s a lot of money.
S-R: Which planes aren’t worth salvaging?
Morse: Ones that aren’t popular, because I can’t sell the parts. Cessnas are worth more, since there are so many of them.
S-R: Insurance companies hire you to retrieve crashed airplanes. Do you occasionally find human remains among the wreckage?
Morse: I recently pulled a plane from the river in Lewiston that still had a body in it. When that happens, we call the sheriff’s department.
S-R: And you also buy intact aircraft?
Morse: Yes. I get calls from banks, credit unions and people who have lost their jobs and have airplanes that have been sitting for four or five years. I’ve bought planes as far away as Brownsville, Texas.
S-R: How do you get them back to Deer Park?
Morse: I’ll inspect them, and if I can get them airworthy, I fly them. If not, we take them apart and bring them back on a truck.
S-R: How much might you pay for an aircraft?
Morse: It depends on what they are. I paid $175,000 for an undamaged Huey (helicopter), then turned around and sold it to someone in Australia for $300,000 without doing a thing to it. But for a little airplane like a (Cessna) 172, I may pay $4,000 to $10,000, depending on engine hours and type of radio. By the time the dust settles five years down the road, I may have gotten $25,000 for the parts.
S-R: How many people do what you do?
Morse: There are about six U.S. salvage yards similar to mine.
S-R: What distinguishes yours?
Morse: Service. If we sell a part, we get it out the same day. And if a customer has a problem, we take care of it right away. I’ve dealt with so many people who have bought parts from other salvage yards and gotten taken to the cleaners. It’s sad.
S-R: Do you sell parts as is?
Morse: Some parts are from businesses I bought, and come with FAA certifications. But there’s a disclaimer on my invoice that says all parts have to be inspected by a mechanic before being installed. And I’m a mechanic, so I won’t sell junk.
S-R: What skills learned at Safeway or the Air National Guard transferred to this career?
Morse: Work ethic. When you’re in business, there’s no such thing as an eight-hour day. Some are 16-hour days.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Morse: It used to be the challenge. But now that I’m 68, I want to retire. I have the business listed for $1.5 million, which is a no-brainer. I have 18 flying airplanes, hundreds of wrecks and an 80-unit mini-storage next door. I also own a couple of hangars across the street at the airport.
S-R: What challenge would the next owner face?
Morse: Inventory is my big issue. I buy and buy and buy, and then we don’t get it inventoried. If we have something, we can find it. But it may take a little while.
S-R: What do you like least about your job?
Morse: People coming in wanting advice, taking lots of my time with no intention of buying, and then going 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what I recommend. I’m not saying I know everything, but I know quite a bit about airplanes.
S-R: How do first-time visitors typically react?
Morse: They’re amazed at the disarray. (laugh) That’s my problem.
S-R: Do some travel great distances?
Morse: I sold a wrecked Cessna 180 for $20,000 to a guy who came over from Ireland. We loaded the plane into a shipping container, along with a bunch of extra parts. He was just ecstatic.
S-R: What’s the career outlook for your business?
Morse: It’s good, because a lot of these parts aren’t made anymore and I have so much stuff that nobody else has.
S-R: Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Morse: I’ve been married five times. I’m not real proud of that. I worked so hard that I didn’t have time for the family – the grandkids and all that. I wish I could do it over again.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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