1. Military

Air Force pilot killed in Iraq helicopter crash honored at Tampa funeral

The remains of Major Andreas O'Keeffe arrive at Church of the Incarnation in Tampa on Friday. [U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman Sean Madden]
The remains of Major Andreas O'Keeffe arrive at Church of the Incarnation in Tampa on Friday. [U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman Sean Madden]
Published Apr. 6, 2018

TAMPA — Air Force Capt. Andreas O'Keeffe was the kind of guy who lived to help others, which is why he was in the co-pilot seat aboard an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter when it took off March 15 from a base in western Iraq.

A graduate of Tampa Bay Technical High School and the University of South Florida, O'Keeffe, 37, switched years earlier from flying reconnaissance planes to the more dangerous helicopter rescue missions so he could help save lives.

Known to his friends, fellow Air National Guard members and family as "Andy," O'Keeffe flew often-perilous missions on the battlefield and in the chaos after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, helping his unit save lives.

"He had a very big heart and loved helping people," said his brother Shan O'Keeffe, 41. "He knew the risks and loved the mission."

But the March 15 flight — call sign Jolly 51 — would be his last.

Sometime after takeoff, the helicopter crashed, killing O'Keeffe and six others on board in an incident that remains under investigation. It has been classified as unrelated to combat.

More than 200 family, friends and fellow service members attended a funeral Mass for O'Keeffe on Friday at Incarnation Catholic Church in Tampa. They came from as far as his ancestral homeland of Ireland, where his father was born.

For O'Keeffe, who was living with his girlfriend, Allison Denniston, in New York, Incarnation "was his spiritual home," said Father Michael Suszynski. O'Keeffe, he said, attended elementary school and services there.

• • •

O'Keeffe was born in upstate New York and moved with his parents, and his siblings Shan and Bernadette, to Florida in 1986, according to his older brother, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who also is a pilot.

Their parents, Shan and Mary Ann O'Keeffe, eventually opened up a horse tack store, called Whip N Spur, where O'Keeffe would sometimes work.

O'Keeffe quickly took to the Florida lifestyle, his older brother said.

"He was very happy as a child," said the older brother. "One of my favorite memories was of him running on the beach. He spent a lot of time at the beach and grew up windsurfing, swimming and riding horses."

But he was also driven. To succeed and to help others.

In his youth, he played bass for a band called the Lipids, where O'Keeffe was known as "Kid Lipid," said Air Force Capt. Michael O'Hagan.

After graduating from Tampa Bay Tech in 1998, he attended USF, where he graduated summa cum laude in political science in 2002. While in college, he caught the family's flying bug, joining his father and older brother.

"Sometimes we rented planes and flew together," said the older brother.

After graduation from USF, O'Keeffe joined the Air National Guard on March 11, 2003, nine days before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as an aircraft armament specialist before being commissioned as an officer and getting his flight wings.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

All the while, he continued to pursue his education, earning a law degree from Georgetown University, where he graduated in 2006.

For the first four years of his flying career, O'Keeffe patrolled the skies in an RC-26, a twin-engine propeller plane outfitted with an array of equipment for gathering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. He flew 1,000 hours of combat flight in Iraq and Afghanistan during that time.

But he found those missions "boring and unchallenging and he didn't feel like he was doing enough," said his father. "So he decided to change missions to search and rescue."

O'Keeffe couldn't always talk about what he was doing, but he did share drafts of memoirs about some of the missions, said his older brother.

"They were at undisclosed locations in Africa," he said. "They were extremely challenging over-water rescues in bad weather, at night, at low altitude, flying for eight hours to pick someone up."

There were also dangerous rescue missions after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, recalled O'Hagan, who also served with the Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, based in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

All told, O'Keeffe and his fellow pilots and crewmates rescued 2,000 lives in about 18 days in Texas and the Caribbean, O'Hagan said.

O'Keeffe's ashes will be spread over the ocean after a memorial service at the wing's base on Aug. 4, O'Hagan said.

"Andy is the last of our team being laid to rest," said O'Hagan. "He was a rare breed. A lot of people gravitate toward the glory. He just executed and did the job. He didn't seek any of that."

Contact Howard Altman at (813) 225-3112 or Follow @haltman.