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Homegrown Coastie hero

Becky Vargo • Aug 25, 2018 at 12:00 PM

When the orange Coast Guard helicopter flies over the Tri-Cities area during the first week of September, it’s likely that Grand Haven native Andy McCabe will be aboard.

The 1999 Muskegon Catholic Central graduate returned for duty in his home state for the first time since graduating from Michigan State University in 2004.

Earlier this summer, the 38-year-old aviation maintenance technician 1st Class petty officer took orders to go to Air Station Detroit after 12 years in the South.

“It feels amazing to get the opportunity to come back home,” he said. “It is a blessing.”

His father, Dan McCabe of Grand Haven, agrees. 

“When he took the transfer to Detroit, we were smiling,” the elder McCabe said of himself and his wife, Lori. “It tore you up when he was gone (on deployment). It could be two or three months.”

Andy McCabe said that the long and constant deployments during his work with the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron out of Jacksonville, Florida, were starting to take a toll. After six years, he and his wife, Erna, were happy to get a chance to spend more time together.

McCabe studied landscaping in college and took his first job in Hawaii.

“I didn’t like it at all,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do something different with my life.”

While in Hawaii, McCabe discovered he needed a second job in order to pay his bills, so he ended up working part time as a tour guide on the USS Missouri. McCabe said he met a lot of veterans while giving the tours and became intrigued by their stories.

He was looking closely at going into the Army when his parents suggested that he check out the Coast Guard.

“I started looking into it and was fascinated with aviation,” he said.

Although he was interested in entering the service as an officer, McCabe said he decided to enlist so that he could start in the Coast Guard a lot sooner. He enlisted in January 2006 and spent eight weeks at boot camp in New Jersey.

“Luckily, I got an awesome assignment,” he said. “I was on smaller patrol boats off Fort Lauderdale.”

McCabe eventually was selected to move to aviation and attended another 5-6 months of training in North Carolina. His first orders after that took him to New Orleans, where he worked search and rescue and served as a crew chief and hoist operator, and was responsible for maintenance issues.

During the summer of 2010, McCabe was aboard the fourth or fifth aircraft on the scene of the BP oil rig explosion. The survivors had already been removed, so McCabe’s crew surveyed the area for missing people.

“It was very surreal,” he said. “The flame was about 500 feet high. The fire was so hot that the whole platform was starting to sink. You could see the melting metal drip into the ocean.”

McCabe believes that much of the photos and video used by news media was from his work documenting the incident.

When McCabe finished his four years in New Orleans, he left there with 12 lives saved, or assists on those lives saved. Some saves were off boats and some were off marshland, he said. There were also medical evacuations off oil platforms.

Once they had to jump from platform to platform, picking up fuel in order to make it to a tanker to help a heart attack victim. McCabe and the rescue swimmer then had to carry the man on a stretcher up three decks and forward to the helicopter, which had been able to land on the tanker.

McCabe was also a precision marksman aviator, trained to shoot out boat motors and engines from a helicopter. From Jacksonville, his crew deployed off South and Central America hunting drug boats that were smuggling narcotics to North America. In six years, he was deployed nine times, many for months at a time, and “interdicted” 20 vessels with more than a third of a billion dollars worth of drugs.

Now that McCabe is back in Michigan, he has to put in some training hours to regain his search-and-rescue skills, and that is the reason he will be flying out of Air Station Muskegon during the first week in September.

In the meantime, he is supervising maintenance of the helicopters and helping the air station operate.

“I never thought I would be in the Coast Guard,” despite growing up in Coast Guard City USA, McCabe said. But he is proud of what he has accomplished and looks forward to many more years in it.

“The service is definitely what you make it,” he said.

Fun facts: 

— Active duty for more than 12 years (10 in aviation)

— 1,400 flight hours in the MH-65D helicopter (average flight is 1.5-2 hours)

— Qualified as helicopter search-and-rescue flight mechanic

— Credited with 12 lives saved

— Qualified as helicopter interdiction tactical squadron counter drug precision marksman-aviator (June 2012 to June 2018)

— Qualified in several weapons systems: M240 machine gun, Barrett M107 .50-caliber precision rifle, M110 7.62 precision rifle

— Completed nine deployments where he personally interdicted 20 “go fast”-type vessels using warning shots and disabling fire

Medals:

— Coast Guard Commendation Medal 1 for interdicting three "go fast" vessels on one flight. “It was nighttime, zero percent moon illumination with little to no winds. As the gunner, (McCabe) conned the flying pilot into firing azimuth position as the aircraft dynamically maneuvered at its power limits, within 75 feet of the water. In this challenging environment, he safely and effectively fired 56 rounds of precision fire, including several rounds while flying backward. His calm demeanor under pressure directly resulted in an unprecedented three vessels disabled within a two-hour window, the detainment of nine suspects, and the seizure of 1,650 pounds of cocaine worth $24 million."

— Coast Guard Commendation Medal 2: Served as a precision marksman-aviator assigned to Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Squadron (HITRON) Jacksonville from June 2012 to June 2018. “He deployed nine times, totaling 386 days, in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean. These deployments resulted in 20 interdictions, detainment of 64 smugglers, and seizure of over 30,000 pounds of illicit narcotics with an estimated value of over $363 million. This marked HITRON's 500th bust.”

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