Day Four Aboard the USS Lake Erie: Countdown to Missile Launch

Day One
Day Two
• Day Three

7:28 a.m.: At breakfast, you can almost feel the energy spreading from officer to enlisted. You can also sense a bit of nervousness — this is game day and everyone knows it. The crew also wants this to be a success for Captain Hendrickson and the other officers and E-9's. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a hundred times — even the youngest crew member knows what this test reflects. Like it or not, it will come back positively or negatively on the ship’s leaders.

One sailor who's a few years ahead of his time concedes to me, “If this missile test fails, the big Navy bosses will need to blame someone and the ship on the sea is an easy blame.”

7:42 a.m.: The P-3's and other aircraft are up; the Pacific Missile Range Facility has been secured by these and other aircraft from the Hawaiian Islands, The Coast Guard also has several vessels in the waters to ensure that the missile test area is clear of all maritime activity. The captain now steps into the wardroom (where the officers eat and relax); here, we have set up our computer and all wait the big moment. He gives us a brief update; I sense that he is eager to get this going. The captain knows they are ready and his energy is apparent on his face.

7:44 a.m.: "River city" is set to happen soon, which means all communication is down. There’s no e-mail to or from the ship, and we have been asked not to have broadcasts or satellite calls of any type.

8:04 a.m.: The hallways are unusually empty and officers are randomly being summoned to various places on the ship.

8:40 a.m.: "Air warning red," is made and weapons are tight. We are getting closer and the crew is getting more prepared by the minute.

10:42 a.m.: After 62 minutes of anxious waiting the call comes over the intercom — "Code Red” is sounded. It takes us a second to be out the door and Eric Barnes, our photographer, grabs our broadcast PD150 camera. Pat, Nora and I grab smaller personal cameras and we're out the door within about five seconds.

10:45 a.m.: We arrive at the bridge. It's three stairwells above us and to the front of the ship. As we walk in there's 18 sailors already in place. A couple have their own cameras in hand, their eyes fixated on the windows. Over the radios I hear, “range still clear,” “country red has missiles locked and loaded,” ”enemy aircraft also in position” and “staying course zero nine zero." “Country red” is a hypothetical enemy with thoughts on attacking an American ally and the Lake Erie.

11:09 a.m.: There are now 20 sailors on the bridge beside us. The chatter has gone quiet. I hear a few coughs as the air thickens. The Executive Officer (XO) runs down a few clipboards with another sailor. The captain is in the Combat Information Center (CIC). The sky is a hazy blue hue. Puffy grayish-white clouds are poking through. Small whitecaps on the ocean lap each other as the 576 foot cruiser now crawls through them.

11:12 a.m. I notice that on a bridge computer monitor on the ceiling that winds across the starboard side are 21 knots blowing to the southeast. I also can see two monitors, one fixed on the aft launcher and one on the launcher up front.

11:15 a.m.: Over the bridge, I hear the command,“Increase rudder left full to course 2-4-0.” The bridge then goes quiet and a brilliant golden sun lights up the bow of the ship.

11:18 a.m.: Another command is made, “Shift Rudders to course 2-5-0.” We are moving now at eight knots.

11:19 a.m.: The drone is launched, which is meant to simulate a missile or aircraft headed towards our ship.

11:20 a.m.: The watch announces to the ship over intercom, “Ship will be conducting live missile fire. All hands stay inside until further notice!”

Speed is now down to four knots and there are 25 sailors crammed inside the bridge. The air is hot and sticky and nervous anticipation is seen in every face, every twitch and every movement.

11:22 a.m.: Every spot at the window is taken. Sailors monitor all communications. I notice the average age on the bridge has to be in the mid to late 20s.

11:24 a.m.: The XO tells us the drone is being tracked and the crew in charge of this portion of the system is looking for parameters to intercept.

11:30 a.m.: We hear the announcement of the incoming threat. “Aircraft inbound, 1-3-5 relative, range 84 nautical miles,” XO says. “Everyone needs hearing protection. In range is a threat missile.”

Every inch of my body begins to sense the energy, the excitement, the anticipation. It's becoming hard to wait. I can't imagine what must be going through the minds of those who did this last December to no avail. They must be eager beyond comprehension for this launch to go — and to go well. It's in the air now is not only the drone, but also a short range ballistic missile. If all goes as planned the SM3 missile to be launched from the front of the Lake Erie will destroy it in space and an SM2 out back will intercept the drone over the Pacific Ocean.

11:34 a.m.: Over the speaker we hear, “Mark fireball 6-0-0-3, we have an inbound aircraft. Close target clear to fire!”

11:35:40 a.m.: The blast shakes every ounce of the USS Lake Erie's 9,500 tons. It feels like the missile has come from the depths of the ocean below and the heat radiates through the windows of the bridge. The blinding glow lasts for a split second followed by the brown exhaust and fumes of deadly gases left from an SM3 missile already traveling at supersonic speed.

11:35:45 a.m.: Five seconds later the ship shakes again. This time we get to hear a more robust explosion as the SM2 is launched from the aft. At this point, sailors begin to run towards the back door of the bridge; they wait for the gases and smoke to clear before opening the door. I wait with them as the straight faces of the last couple of hours are replaced with broad smiles. They are confident the launches will result in hits and people begin to congratulate each other.

11:36 a.m.: On the bridge I hear, “Sea whiz in auto.” I am told that means the "Gatling Gun" is ready. The gun is the ship’s self protection, basically a close in weapons system.

11:37 a.m.: I quickly stick my camera outside the door and get a couple of shots of the conn trails in the sky. They seem to intertwine like a vine on a trellis. The white trails are clearly visible in the blue sky and way off in the distance what appears to be a hit.

11:38 a.m.: Eric and I run down two flights of stairs to get inside the CIC. I hear a few high fives and laughs. In the background someone yells, “The Admiral is going to be happy with that!” “The Admiral can run to Capital hit with that,” a plain-clothed military observer says under his breath, but the smile on his face says, “just another day at the office.”

11:40 a.m.: The captain announces to the ship over the intercom, “We had a direct hit on a warhead in space. Great job by everybody, don't give up the ship.” The latter being the ships motto.

11:44 a.m.: The captain is back in his chair in the CIC. The SM3 hit can be confirmed easily via camera on the nose of the missile. The SM2 is a bit different, since it was aimed within a certain distance of the drone. Everyone is confident the SM2 intercepted perfectly, but some are awaiting the final confirmation.

11:46 a.m.: Captain Hendrickson says to me, “What do you think?” I give him my quick reaction and what it felt like on the bridge, since he was in the CIC for the launch. Others in the dimly lit CIC continue to crunch numbers, trying to ensure the so-called miss distance of the SM2.

11:55 a.m.: We’re back on the bridge to grab our gear bags. I hear Admiral Hicks on the radio talking to the crew on the bridge and in the CIC. Captain Hendrickson reiterates the good news; you can hear the relief and satisfaction in his voice. Admiral Hicks ends the conversation by saying, “Great job to the crew, be safe and God bless.”

12:15 p.m.: The crew begins to gather at the back of the ship and also at the front. The charred exterior of the missile hatches are inspected. Gray paint has turned brown and the bell's rope at the front of the ship is singed. More importantly, the crew gathers for a group picture with representatives from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and various important Navy officials.

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Adam Housley joined FOX News Channel in 2001 as a Los Angeles-based correspondent. Most recently, Housley reported from President Ford's funeral. He also reported from Nicaragua and El Salvador on the war against drugs and scored an exclusive interview with Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega. You can read his full bio here.

Adam Housley joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based senior correspondent.