Good and bad times at Johnstown’s Vaughn Airport

On June 4, 1931, a small advertisement in the Morning Herald stated that “H.E. Merchant, Pilot of the Plane at the Johnstown Airport, will Open a Permanent Office.” Further, “From 8pm to 10:30 he will be at the office to interview students and charter trips.” Perhaps no one noticed any irony in the fact that Merchant’s office was located “at John A. Dorn’s Undertaking Parlor.” Also note the reference to the ‘plane’ rather than planes, suggesting Merchant’s ship, a Wright ‘Whirlwind’, at that early date may have been the only aircraft present.

On June 15, 1931, the Herald noted Merchant was already training two student pilots, Bill Strong of Gloversville and Asahel Vaughn, son of Waterworks Superintendent John Vaughn, owner of the property the airport was located on. Vaughn became an avid pilot known as ‘Ace’. He also became airport manager in 1937. Although many newspapers and local residents referred to the location as “Ace Vaughn Airport”, it always remained legally the Johnstown Airport, located on the Vaughn family property. ‘Ace’ Vaughn must have been good: During World War Two, according to a brief mention in the March 16, 1942 Fort Plain Standard, he had become “a flight officer with a bombing squadron in the Royal Canadian Air Force.” The paper also noted him as being “well-known in Mohawk Valley aviation circles.”

So it has often been that if Gloversville has something, Johnstown must have it too. If Gloversville had a hospital, Johnstown must have a hospital, if Gloversville had its prestigious Memorial Hall, Johnstown must have its Kennedy, and certainly if Gloversville had a large and commodious airport, as it did between 1925 and 1942, so must Johnstown puff itself up with a similar endeavor, until the new “Fulco” county airport opened in the fall of 1946 and absorbed its predecessors.

Johnstown’s airport, now the quiet location of Maple Knoll Apartments, was also a popular community gathering place during the 1930s. Newspapers mention picnics and even weddings at the airport, plus occasional evening music entertainments. One particularly popular attraction of the 30s were ‘dare-devil’ sky divers, such as the gentleman claiming the honor of the most-dives-in-one day record, ‘Frankie’ Hammond, the grandson of President McKinley, who occasionally ‘dropped in’ at Johnstown. On Aug. 31, 1931, for example, the Herald reported, “Several hundred persons gathered at the Johnstown Airport last evening, and many hundreds more throughout the city cast eyes skyward to watch Frankie Hammond make one of his famous parachute jumps. Hammond made one of the prettiest jumps anyone could wish to witness. He fell like a ball in the air for some distance until the big umbrella opened, after which he came gracefully down at a slower speed.” Hammond did, however, encounter a landing glitch. “He had a narrow escape from injury when he landed in the wires lining East Avenue on the edge of the airport, but he was able to extricate himself and land on the ground unharmed,” a mishap that might otherwise have led his career to a shocking conclusion.

All went well at the Johnstown airport until Sunday afternoon, July 20, 1936, when everything went wrong. Monday’s Morning Herald printed the dark-type banner headline completely across the top of the front page that read, “Glove City Girl Dies After Plane Crash.” Freeman, 22, of 18 Spruce Street had been talked into going up “just for the ride” by her friend, pilot Milton McQuade. Eerily, the two posed for a photo — also printed in the paper — just before taking off.

“The plane, a Taylor Cub of the Vaughn Flying School, crashed on the extension of East Main Street.” McQuade wasn’t an experienced flyer: He’d passed the examination for his flyer’s license only ten days earlier. The crash, however, may not have been due to his inexperience. “McQuade is said to have told his mother at the hospital that he attempted to land the plane twice, that the control had jammed, and each time he worked with the ‘stick’ he could not loosen it to control the plane. Just before crashing, he shouted to Miss Freeman, “The control is stuck and I can’t land right.” On the third attempt, he crashed into a yard thirty feet from home owner Herman Willis who was sitting on his back porch.” McQuade suffered from fractures of the jaw, leg, and arm, plus a concussion, but at least survived.

Milton McQuade packed much action into his short life, dying at 38 in December 1941 in Egypt, as one of a group of Curtis-Wright employees sent to service fighter aircraft. Earlier, he’d escaped Gloversville to enlist in World War One at the age of 14, fought in Europe, and was discharged in 1919. The Johnstown crash had disabled him from flying, but as an airplane mechanic he could still service aircraft, so away he went to Egypt and his fate in ’41. He died of pneumonia, received a full military funeral, and is buried in an American cemetery in Cairo.

While McQuade lingered at Littauer, Elsie Freeman received a large funeral and was buried at Prospect Hill. Although only 22 years old, she was already manager of the children’s clothing department of Lurie’s Gloversville store. An inquest followed, but due to the airplane’s destruction, it was impossible to confirm or deny McQuade’s story of the jammed ‘stick’, and so there the tragedy concluded.