A passion for planes

September 22, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Issaquah man’s lifelong interest continues at Museum of Flight

Alex ‘Sandy’ Morton (left), in his role as a Museum of Flight docent, recounts true stories to visitors in the Personal Courage exhibit. His older brother once ejected from a Lockheed P-38L Lightning like the one hanging from the ceiling. Photo By Greg Farrar

Alex ‘Sandy’ Morton (left), in his role as a Museum of Flight docent, recounts true stories to visitors in the Personal Courage exhibit. His older brother once ejected from a Lockheed P-38L Lightning like the one hanging from the ceiling. Photo By Greg Farrar

It might be the feel of air rushing around an open cockpit, the seeming weightlessness of his body in the air or the humming drone of a propeller. Alex “Sandy” Morton isn’t exactly sure what he loves most about airplanes, but he is admittedly obsessed.

“It’s gotten into my blood,” he said, sitting in his living room where overhead flies a 1:6 scale model of a 1917 Curtiss Jenny biplane. “I don’t know what disease to call it, but I caught it.”

“He loves it,” said his wife of 61 years, Florence Morton. “I thought it was a work of art and thought it deserved a special place.”“I’m the only guy in the world whose wife would let him put a model airplane over the Steinway grand piano,” he said.

Stalled before hitting the blue

Though he never got his pilot’s wings — much to his chagrin — he’s been involved with aviation, in one way or another, his entire life.

At 6, he built his first model airplane — a Lockheed Sirius Model-6 like the plane that Charles and Anne Lindbergh flew — which he proudly displayed on the roof of the family’s car outside their Ohio home in 1932.

In 1938, he rode in the open cockpit of a 1929 Waco-10, circling over his family’s property with his two brothers.

Just one day away from reporting to aviation school with the U.S. Army’s Air Cadet program in Mississippi, Morton was sent home like many other soldiers at the end of World War II in 1945.

“That flipped me for a while, but I got over it,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that the Lord has our days planned.”

Instead, he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from San Jose State University in California. After graduation, he worked for Lockheed’s missile and space program, and then worked for the government in intelligence for 35 years before retiring to Washington to be closer to the couple’s two daughters and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Into the wild blue, but on the ground

Wings or no wings, he has found ways to pursue his passion.

Every Monday, you’ll find Morton recounting tales of heroism and tragedy in the Personal Courage Wing of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

“I try to relive it,” he said. “I try to tell stories that, even if I didn’t see active duty, I knew the tenor of the men and women who did serve, because I was alive and watched it.”

He tells stories like the one about Edward “Butch” O’Hare, who shot down five enemy craft in five minutes, but was later lost at sea.

“His hometown loved him so much, they named the city’s airport after him, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport,” he said. “It’s not as much about how big or fast the craft is, it’s about the stories and history behind them.”

But Morton wasn’t always a docent. He became involved in the museum through his model work.

“I belong to the Marymoor Radio Control Club and one of the members said the museum was looking for someone to build a model of the Wright flyer,” he said.

After an interview, and showing the curator his model of the Jenny biplane, the job was his. While he was mounting the piece, another museum head asked him to be a docent.

After 13 weeks of museum training and tours, which he passed with flying colors in 2003, he now gives tours from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Mondays.

“I meet new people all the time from throughout the world,” from school children to Japanese executives, he said.

A dream takes flight from a hobby

When he’s not at the museum, Morton is among more planes in his workshop, hunched over his latest project.

During the past two years, that project has been a 5-by-7-foot model of Joseph and Etienne Mongolfier’s hot air balloon for the museum. After logging in 900 hours, a replica of the first manned aircraft was installed at the museum Sept. 5.

“It is a wonderful addition to our collection of flying artifacts prior to the Wright brothers,” said Director of Exhibits Chris Mailander. “Sandy has done several pieces for us, which are located throughout the museum. He is a great friend of the museum and a wonderful man, and we couldn’t show all the things we do to the public without the great help and support of people like him.”

The project took so much time that Morton had to stop being a docent at the museum for about a year. The Monday after the balloon had been completed, June 4, 200 years to the day of its first flight — he was right back giving guided tours of the Personal Courage Exhibit.

But in the workshop is his next project.

The shell of a Neuport 28-C1 plane sits unpainted and without its wings on the workbench, but next to it sits pictures of the life-sized plane he is imitating and his goals are clear.

The model will be an important feature in the museum, because visitors will be able to hit a button on the outside of it and learn how propeller technology works.

“Not many people realize that not just the propeller rotates, that it’s the engine, too,” Morton said.

The meticulous attention to detail — the paint, the size of the lettering, a working engine, the screws — make his work shine.

“I would like this,” he said, gesturing around the shop, “the art of using your hands and your imagination, that is what I would like to impart to somebody and it’s why I do this.”

On the Web

www.museumofflight.org/exhibits/ scroll down and click on The Montgolfier Brothers’ Balloon

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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One Response to “A passion for planes”

  1. Ravi batra on March 26th, 2014 5:57 am

    Your article in your issue of 22 September 2009 relates to Sandy Morton and talks about his brother being involved in a mid-air collision in Bangalore in 1943. I was a small boy then but happened to witness the collision and also see his brother Paul bailing out.I covered this incident in “The Times Of India”” many years later. If possible can you pass this message to him and if he would like me to send him the article I would be happy to do so.
    Ravi Batra New Delhi India

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