CLEARWATER — Capt. Joseph McGilley, the new commander of Coast Guard Air Station next to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, has been here before.
“After I joined the Coast Guard they sent me here for my first duty station 24 years ago,” said McGilley, who took over the active base June 27. “I’m back and it’s fantastic to be back.”
Compared to the simple duties of a new “Coastie” he took on here in 1995, McGilley today is in charge of what is, in effect, the largest Coast Guard air station in the United States.
Air Station Clearwater aircrews fly an average of more than 400 search and rescue cases each year along both the east and west coasts of Florida, the Bahamas, and beyond.
As such, the friendly McGilley oversees department heads who command upward of 600 aviation, ground support and security personnel. His equipment includes a fleet of 10 MH-60T Jayhawks, the orange-and-white helicopters that Clearwater residents and beachgoers see flying overhead into the Gulf every day. The helicopters are multi-mission, twin-engine, medium-range helicopters used in search and rescue, law enforcement, and other fast-response missions.
McGilley is also in charge of the C-130s that take off from St. Pete-Clearwater Airport throughout the day and also visible to residents on the ground as they cut through all kinds of weather to tour the Gulf and Tampa Bay. The station’s HC-130H7 Hercules aircraft is an ideal platform for long-range search and rescue, law enforcement, marine environmental protection and logistics.
“Air Station Clearwater not only serves the people of Florida and the boaters in the maritime community, but being the largest Coast Guard Air Station, we’re the first unit to go and surge for hurricane operations anywhere in the Southeast,” McGilley told the Beacon. “Last year alone, we ran a lot of counter-narcotics operations in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, even off South America. This is not too far a range to go to keep those nefarious actors out of our areas, to keep our streets safe.”
McGilley comes to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after serving as Chief of Response for the Coast Guard’s 9th District headquarters in Cleveland. That rough rescue environment includes the Great Lakes, which in summer sees summer squall lines pop up out of nowhere, and in the winter freezing weather that can cause hypothermia in overboard sailors in minutes.
It was his job to coordinate and execute all Coast Guard search and rescue, environmental, security and maritime law enforcement actions in the Great Lakes region.
McGilley and his wife Carol were introduced to the Clearwater City Council at the Aug. 1 council meeting.
The Philadelphia native, who graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, takes command seven months after a U.S. government shutdown led to a halt in pay for Coast Guard personnel around the nation.
The residents and businesses of Clearwater, which is Florida’s only official Coast Guard City, worked together to reduce the stress on local Coast Guard families.
In addition to utility and rental offices extending payment deadlines, local grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses donated cash, clothes and food to Coast Guard members at Clearwater stations, including Small Boat Station Clearwater on Sand Key, where some 45 active-duty members are responsible for more than 2,000 square miles of nearshore and Gulf of Mexico waters. The third unit is Port Security Unit 307, a reserve unit responsible for port safety.
Capt. Edward Sandlin, the commander McGilley replaced during change of command ceremonies in June, briefed his successor on the community’s support.
“Coasties usually like to serve others and we don’t ask for help,” McGilley told the Beacon. “The outpouring from just total strangers and random people who just showed up at the gate dropping off groceries, that was incredible. I want to thank all the people of Clearwater for their outpouring of support during that time for all our members. We don’t often get out there and get to meet you all in person but to see that really strengthened the bonds we have with this city.