10th annual Wings, Wheels and Rotors Expo graced by ‘Best Warriors’

LOS ALAMITOS – Army pilots who recently returned from active duty in Iraq smoothly guided two Black Hawk helicopters onto the runway of the Los Alamitos Army Airfield in front of thousands of spectators Sunday as part of a signature moment in the 10th annual “Wings, Wheels and Rotors Expo.”

They were carrying the finalists in the “Best Warrior” competition to identify that most combat-ready soldiers and non-commissioned officers serving in the California National Guard.

As an Army band played, the finalists marched to the main stage at the open house and attended by more than 30,000 mostly civilian spectators.

Event organizer Tom Lasser, former commander of the Los Alamitos Army Airfield and one of the organizers of the event, told the crowd that it was a first-of-a-kind ceremony. Traditionally, the naming of “Best Warrior” is done internally by the National Guard.

But this year, the announcement was made in public at the largest community event of the year at the Joint Forces Training Base, the only remaining military airfield in the Orange/Los Angeles counties area.

One of the stars of this year’s expo was scheduled to be the “Executive Sweet,” a World War II-era B25 bomber similar to the planes Gen. Jimmy Doolittle‘s raiders used to attack Tokyo in April 1942, Lasser said. But overcast skies in Camarillo – the bomber’s home base – kept the decades-old plane grounded.

A World War II C-53 plane that served on D-Day in 1945 – named “D-Day Dolly” – flew over the event Sunday, transporting skydivers who landed with the names of the “Best Warrior” winners.

The competition to identify the most physically fit, mentally-sharp combat-ready soldier and non-commissioned officer began in January among the 16,600 members of the California National Guard, said Command Major Sgt. Hal London.

The finalists competed in physical challenges such as a 10-k run, combat obstacle course, and a climbing wall and then demonstrated their proficiency with rifles and pistols and radios before they were put through a battery of written exams and military boards.

“It was one week of hell,” said Staff Sgt. Demetrius McCowan, who was named the top non-commissioned officer. McCowan, a 10-year veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, trains in Fresno.

Specialist John Cunningham, who drills in Escondido, was named the top soldier.

“I feel like an average solider,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who are just as tough as I am.”



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