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Cover Story: Geoff Morton

MORTO SOARS WITH HIS OWN WINGS

Aviation engineer Geoff “Morto” Morton can afford to laugh nowadays about his first contract as a businessman.

He was hired to fix an aircraft engine in Katherine.

After finishing the job, he didn’t have enough money to put fuel in his ute to drive the 200 kilometres home
to Batchelor.

“So I had to ask the customer to pay the invoice immediately. It was very embarrassing, but that was the only way I could afford to get back.”

Today, Morto is a successful business owner – and in the mood to expand. But he has never forgotten those early days when success or failure often depended on being paid promptly.

He owns Coomalie Air Maintenance, a specialist and respected aircraft maintenance and repair company.

Clients include cattle corporations, such as the Australian Agricultural Company and Consolidated Pastoral.

“We specialise in remote work, such as cattle properties. We’re happy to go bush to work.

“Our jobs are incredibly diverse – we can fix a small jet engine in Darwin one day and be out bush the next fixing a helicopter that has broken down.”

Coomalie Air Maintenance has added a new capability to its arsenal: avionics.

“We used to have to contract the work out but now we can do it in-house, which is good for us and the customer.”

Morto is causing excitement in another industry – tourism.

He has set up NT Air to operate scenic flights from Wangi Falls in Litchfield National Park.

The firm gratefully received help from the Northern Territory Government to build a helipad but most of the investment came out of Morto’s pocket.

He has a 10-year exclusivity agreement with the Government to operate at Wangi Falls.

“We’re an aircraft maintenance company but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go into the scenic flight business. It’s a good fit for us.”

Coomalie Air Maintenance, which  won the Telstra Regional Small Business Award in 2012, has eight staff and has trained six Territory apprentices since being founded 10 years ago.

“I like to see apprentices do well. I was given a chance as an apprentice and am always trying to better myself by gaining new qualifications.”

Morto is not sure that he is a good businessman.

“I know that to be a success in business you need to work hard, take risks, not lose focus, never forget why you started working for yourself and never lose your passion for the job.

“But am I a good businessman? I don’t know. All I know is that I could never work for anyone again.”

Morto was born in Alice Springs Hospital and raised on Glen Helen and Derwent cattle stations.

“My mum had five kids under the age of five. She did a good job bringing us up.”

He was taught by the School of the Air at first.

“I was a little ratbag and was always sneaking off to play down at the creek rather than learning.”

His parents, Ian and Chris, packed him off to board at St Philip’s College in Alice Springs when he was eight.

“I was still a ratbag and often got detention. But I wasn’t a bad student and enjoyed St Philip’s. It taught me how to look after myself and how to stick up for myself.”

Morto’s life changed when he was 15 and he started flying lessons at school. He gained his pilot’s licence at the age of just 17.

After finishing Year 12, he gained an apprenticeship with Tony Burns at Aircraft Engineering NT in Alice.

“My dad told me to get a trade. He used to say that if all else went wrong you’d be alright with a trade behind you.”

Morto finished his apprenticeship with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, “mucked about” travelling around Australia and returned home to muster cattle for a while.

But he wasn’t cut out to be a cattleman.

“I never wanted to follow dad into the cattle business. As a kid, I was always tinkering with engines, taking Land Rovers and motorbikes to bits.”

Morto was still only in his early twenties when he was made chief engineer at Chart Air in Alice Springs and then Vincent Aviation in Darwin.

“I loved living in Darwin; I enjoyed the lifestyle. It had plenty going on and meant I didn’t have to leave the Territory. I never wanted to do that.”

But at the age of 28 – exactly 10 years since he started his apprenticeship – Morto made the momentous decision to rent an old hangar next to the Batchelor airstrip and start his own business.

“Everything was going well for me in Darwin. I was earning good money, had a steady job and lived in an apartment with sea views.

“But I wanted to be my own boss.

“Everyone said I was mad. But I thought Batchelor was a perfect place for an aircraft maintenance and repair company. I had to invest everything I had to get the business started.”

He worked and slept in a small office – and got that first job in Katherine.

“I may have had to ask for early payment so that I could get back to Batchelor, but the orders came pouring in after that. I was flat out in no time and started employing people.

“I had work months in advance.”

Morto moved up in the world when he moved into a donga – and lived there for four years.

“I didn’t mind. I just worked and worked. Some people said I should have been locked up in a mental institution.”

He now owns an elevated home set on eight hectares in Batchelor. And he’s bought the hangar.

“I should be content but I never am. I love working. I’m always coming up with new ideas. I never get comfortable.”

Morto enjoys living in Batchelor and thinks it would also be a great place to bring up a family. Morto hasn’t found that special life partner yet and has a mate who thinks he should go on The Bachelor TV show – The Bachelor from Batchelor does have a ring to it and so does #mortowantsawife.

Morto says he’s not in any hurry and she’s going to have to be pretty special to park her boots next to his.

“Batchelor is a great little place, not too far from Darwin, not too far from good swimming holes. Friendly people.

“There’s a lot of potential here, especially for the airstrip, which is very underused.

“It would be an excellent base for a flying school. Now there’s an idea…” TQ