CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait - Two California Army National Guard flight crews were awarded the prestigious Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots in London Oct. 21. The Cal Guard crews received the award for their daring rescue of 263 people and 16 dogs trapped by the enormous Creek Fire that raged across California's Sierra Nevada Mountains in September 2020.
Campers and hikers who had been up in the mountains for the Labor Day weekend were trapped at a reservoir by the massive wildfire that was closing in on them. Before the flames reached them, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter airlifted them to safety.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joe Rosamond, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bradley Hlebain, Staff Sgt. Cameron Powell and Staff Sgt. George Esquivel crewed the Chinook. Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Irvin Hernandez and Warrant Officer 1 Ge Xiong crewed the Black Hawk.
The two crews made three harrowing nighttime sorties through smoke and flames to evacuate the campers and hikers, some of whom were badly injured and in need of medical attention.
The rescue previously earned the crews the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest U.S. military award for acts of heroism in aviation, the California Medal of Valor and the Helicopter Association International's Humanitarian Service Award.
One year after the Creek Fire, Rosamond and Goding, the pilots-in-command during the rescue, deployed with Task Force Phoenix to Camp Buehring, Kuwait.
Task Force Phoenix is responsible for full-spectrum aviation operations in five Middle Eastern countries in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. The Task Force is led by a command element from the California Army National Guard's 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, which is on a nine-month deployment to the region. Rosamond and Goding serve on the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade command staff at Camp Buehring.
During the deployment, Rosamond and Goding learned they were awarded the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, a British organization founded in 1929 to promote flight safety and support aviation and aviators. The crews were to be presented the award at a formal ceremony in the ancient Guildhall in London in October.
Unfortunately, Army pilots deployed to the Middle East aren't usually allowed to break away from their mission to attend award ceremonies in Europe.
The deputy commanding general for Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve is British Brigadier Richard Bell. During a meeting with Bell, Rosamond mentioned the award. Bell was aware of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots and fully supported Rosamond and Goding traveling to London to receive the honor.
"I thought that what they've done was particularly special," Bell said of the rescue. "I thought it was worthwhile that they be recognized. The United Kingdom and the United States have shared values and a shared heritage. It's a great symbol of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States that we were able to get these two aviators there to be recognized with their crews and back again."
In October, Rosamond and Goding met with British forces at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait and caught a British C-130 Hercules aircraft to Cyprus. They then caught a ride on a Royal Air Force-crewed Airbus A330 airliner to London, where they met with their crewmates Hlebain, Hernandez and Xiong. Hernandez was sponsored by the California National Guard for the trip, while Xiong and Hlebain paid their own way from California. Two crew chiefs who were also on the rescue mission, Powell and Esquivel, were unable to attend.
"I definitely wish that all of us could have been there," Goding said. "I feel very proud, privileged and humbled that we were nominated and then to receive the award — it was pretty special. It was great timing for Joe and me as far as being over here in this austere environment in Kuwait and then being able to go to London and have that be part of our memories of the deployment."
Goding's wife and two children attended, as did the wives of Hernandez and Xiong. They all got the chance to do some sightseeing, visiting Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
The ceremony at Guildhall was a formal affair full of pomp and circumstance with a toast to the queen, speeches and plenty of opportunities to mingle with attendees. Several aviation awards were presented, with the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award the night's final award. The Cal Guard crews received a standing ovation.
"To be nominated and then receive the award is obviously a huge honor," Rosamond said. "It's definitely something I never would have thought I would be a part of. And then you couple that with being on a deployment and getting the opportunity to go — that's basically unheard of. It was an amazing, unique opportunity, and I'm super thankful to everybody who had a piece in getting the trip approved, for sure."