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Local airport was pioneer of flight

September 21, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

Long before the Fulton County Airport served local flyers or the Fulco Aviation Corp. was formed, the Ace Vaughan Air Port served pioneering pilots.

The airport's history from 1920 to 1946 is chronicled in Virginia Vaughan Saldich's book "Ace Vaughan Air Port - A Family Record," by Vaughan's daughter. A copy of the book was donated to the Johnstown Historical Society and a New York state historical marker is at the site of the airport on East Avenue in Johnstown.

Saldich spoke from her Palo Alto, California home Sept. 12.

Article Photos

Charles Nethaway looks out over the runway at Fulton County Airport Wednesday. Nethaway learned to fly at the Fulco Airport co-founded by his father, Harold, and was a spotter for the Ace Vaughan Air Port in Johnstown which pre-dated Fulco.

"It was a unique airport in that it was embedded in the city," Saldich said. "The houses on the west of East Avenue were all there then."

The airport was literally across the street from city residences. This caused complaints and eventually the closing of the airport.

The air field was a natural landing strip as part of Saldich's grandfather, John W. Vaughan's farm, called Idleaze Farm.

Saldich said her grandfather was a natural entrepreneur and when he saw pilots take advantage of his fields for impromptu landings, he decided to make the air strip formal.

But it was her father, Asahel "Ace" W. Vaughan, who made the airport a success.

"The field was begun during the depression," Saldich said. "It provided excitement and entertainment. My grandfather even built an ice cream stand there. Barnstormers saw the open field and often landed there."

Charles Nethaway of Johnstown said he remembered his father, Harold Nethaway, learning to fly at the field at Ace Vaughan's Flying School.

"I was an airplane spotter as a boy," Nethaway said. "I had a book of different airplanes and could call out the name and model of each."

Among notables taught to fly at the field besides Harold Nethaway were John Knox, grandson of Rose Knox, Rudy Russo, actor John Milford, Walter Hogan, J.W. Agersinger of Argersinger's Department Store and Dick Vedder. Nethaway, Hogan and Ira Vedder later founded Fulco Aviation.

Some of the lessons were done for barter. Saldich said remembered sightseeing flights could be swapped for someone washing down a plane and Bill Morrison painted a billboard for the airport in exchange for lessons.

"We made a deal," Morrison is quoted in Saldich's book. "Ace said paint the sign; I'll give you five hours of dual [flight instruction]."

"Johnstown was a prosperous city at the time with many leather businesses and wealthy families," Saldich said. "Flying was something the popular people were interested in."

The field apparently served many purposes.

Saldich said the Knox Gelatines, a baseball team, practiced there and the field was used for Boy Scout campouts and athletic activities.

Don Curtis, who was on the founding committee for the Fulton County Airport, said he remembered soldiers on their way to Fort Drum stopping at the field for maneuvers.

"So many people learned to fly there," Curtis said. "Probably half the pilots who served in WWII learned to fly with Ace Vaughan at one of his [flying schools.]"

Curtis said John W. Vaughan's son, Asahel "Ace" Vaughan was admired. Serving as a volunteer with the Canadian Royal Air Force and then U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force, Curtis said Vaughan was a "hero of two countries and two wars - WWII and the Korean Conflict."

Johnstown Historian Noel Levee said the field was used as an athletic practice field for Johnstown High School baseball and football teams before Knox Athletic Field was built in the early 1930s.

"I remember my father-in-law saying he peddled his bike over to witness a plane crash there," Levee said.

The possibility of accidents were the death knell of the airport. Charles Nethaway said when a pilot hooked electric wires with his landing gear and pulled the wires down with him, the airport was closed.

"I grew up with a fear of flying hearing all those stories," Saldich said. "But back then it was a time of wealth in Johnstown families with boats and planes and parties. It no longer exists."

Besides being a safer distance from the city, Charles Nethaway pointed out another advantage of the new Fulton County Airport.

"The elevation of the air strip is at 865 feet," Nethaway said. "Once you take off to the west you can fly a plane all the way to Poland [Herkimer County] without having to increase altitude."

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at ga@leaderherald.com..

 
 

 

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