Fla. Member Serves Despite Life-Threatening Condition
Capt. Chuck Vaughn is addressing his current difficult situation just like he’s addressed everything else in his life — head-on, with confidence and intelligence and a never-give-up attitude.
Vaughn serves as the public affairs officer of the Florida Wing’s Jacksonville Composite Squadron, as an aerospace educator and as an event planner. He has attended every squadron meeting for six years, and until recently very few knew of his health struggles.
He let his fellow senior members know only because he felt his health had started interfering with his duties.
Vaughn, 64, has end-stage renal disease and will need a kidney transplant to survive.
“I learned about this about a year or two ago,” said Lt. Col. John Morrison, Jacksonville Composite commander. “Before that, it never slowed him down. He might be a little tired or not be able to press on for a long time, and it finally got to a point where it was really bothering him.”
“But failing health has never slowed his fervor,” Morrison said of his go-to guy for fixing or creating something out of nothing. For example, Vaughn fashioned a 15-foot-tall sign of canvas, rope and PVC pipe that the squadron uses at recruiting events.
“You need something built, he’s there,” Morrison said. “He’s also a guy with a lot of contacts in this area, and his expertise in aviation has put us in touch with quite a few people.”
Vaughn joined Civil Air Patrol seven years ago, about the same time as Morrison. It was actually a reintroduction, as Vaughn had hosted CAP meetings in the mid-1990s when he managed a flight school at Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport.
At a recent squadron meeting, Vaughn was presented with a CAP Balsem Award, which recognizes achievement in public affairs. It was his fifth such award in six years.
“He’s very good at documenting the unit’s story and brings his passion of aviation to our cadets,” said Col. Luis Garcia, Florida Wing commander. “Of the 3,500 members in our wing, he has left an impression.”
The seeds for Vaughn’s love of flying were planted at age 4, when his grandfather took him to the U.S. Navy facility where he worked. Young Vaughn got to stand up in the seat of an A-4 Skyhawk his grandfather serviced.
“That’s where it all started,” Vaughn said. Ever since, he’s been surrounded by aviation, whether in an airplane or a hot-air balloon.
Vaughn subsequently followed his interest in astronomy, rocketry and science and earned his private pilot certificate at age 17 in 1973. From 1969-1979 he photographed launches at Kennedy Space Center, and his photography eventually took him around the world.
As a teen, he worked at what is now the Museum of Science & History in Jacksonville, planning planetarium shows there and eventually at other planetariums around the country.
“I tell cadets today what my mentors told me then at age 14 — ‘I will give you tools to find the answers, but I won’t give you the answers,’” Vaughn said.
After junior college in Jacksonville, he attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, where he experienced some amazing moments. As Vaughn was a photographer and a pilot, the college’s president tapped him to escort visitors during the university’s 50th anniversary events. He escorted U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilots around campus and went flying in another Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, his favorite airplane.
“I’d lived the dream,” Vaughn said of that moment.
He was once able to fly 23 aircraft in two weeks’ time. And it was at Embry-Riddle that he was introduced to hot-air ballooning, as he helped another campus visitor set up a corporate balloon. The pilot said Vaughn was a natural balloon pilot.
"Embry-Riddle gave me the confidence to accept any challenge, mentally and physically. It taught me how to look at it and dissect it and come out with the best result,” he said. It’s a life skill that still serves him today when dealing with his failing health.
Those lessons have carried him through his life. His first job was at a TV station in Jacksonville, where his first day included sending live TV shots to NBC’s “Today Show” during Hurricane David.
He later worked for the city of Jacksonville for 16 years, planning activities around large-scale events such as the Gator Bowl, parades and even a Super Bowl. He also operated his own hot-air balloon business for about 40 years.
In 2008, Vaughn suffered a severe case of food poisoning that kept him in the hospital 21 days while doctors tried to get his kidneys working again. They did, but only partially. Since then, he requires frequent IV fluids because his own kidneys will not process fluid.
At first he needed about eight bags of fluid every month. Now he receives 16 bags per week just to keep his body functioning. And soon he’ll need a kidney transplant to survive.
A local TV news station recently aired a story about Vaughn — a fixture in the sky above Jacksonville — that prompted about 35 people to respond as willing to be tested as a living organ donor. Of those, 15 were blood-type matches.
From there, more blood tests check for certain markers necessary to match donor and recipient. The process from matching blood type to actually being deemed an eligible donor could take three to six months, Vaughn said. His hope is that donor offers that don’t match his blood type will carry that spirit forward and take advantage of the national “Paired Donation Program,” so someone else might have a better chance to live.
Meanwhile, the best-case scenario for Vaughn is to find a living kidney donor in the next six to 10 months. That adult can live anywhere in the U.S. and would need to be in good health and have type A-negative or O-negative (universal donor) blood.
Meanwhile, Vaughn will keep volunteering with CAP as he can. “Becoming a pilot is the best experience you can have to learn to deal with adverse conditions,” said Vaughn, who deals with his situation with humor and a hopeful attitude.
And surely, he’ll never give up.