Friday, August 28, 2009

USS Farragut fires Tomahawk missile near Cape Canaveral

A live shooting helps these sailors put their training to use
By Timothy J. Gibbons Story updated at 8:21 AM on Thursday, Aug. 27







TIMOTHY GIBBONS/The Times-Union
The USS Farragut, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, participated in a training mission off the Florida coast near Cape Canaveral that had the crew practicing boarding other ships and a live fire exercises, including the very rare firing of a Tomahawk missile.
Timothy GibbonsPhoto 2 of 2 TIMOTHY GIBBONS/The Times-Union
Crew members of the USS Farragut haul in a mooring line as the ship leaves Naval Station Mayport on Tuesday.Timothy GibbonsABOARD USS FARRAGUT - As launch time grew closer, the ship jockeyed for position.

Some 60 miles off Cape Canaveral, the sailors on the USS Farragut fought the current that threatened to pull them off course while trying to pick a speed that would get them in place at just the right moment to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile.

That task was made a bit harder by uncertainty throughout the morning as to exactly when that moment would be.

That uncertainty cleared at 10 a.m. when the call went out: T minus 30 minutes.

The crew was half an hour away from launching a 20-foot long weapon at a target 825 miles away.

"This is why folks join," Cmdr. Philip Sobeck, commanding officer of the Mayport-based guided missile destroyer, said about the impending launch. "They want to see their training put to use."

This was as close as many sailors would get to firing the sort of missiles that pounded Iraq in both wars.

"We do a lot of rehearsals," said chief engineer Lt. Nathan Rowan. "To be able to do a live shoot is exciting."

It was unclear Wednesday morning, though, if the launch would go off at all.

The main reason for the shoot was to test software modifications made to the missiles. On such tests, the weapons are followed by jets who can take care of anything that goes wrong, but bad weather lingering in the area could make that job impossible.

Around 9:45, though, good news: The lead pilot said the storm clouds might have broken enough to proceed.

The crew would know soon.

"We're going to be launching on short notice," said the captain, down in Combat Control.

It would be the second such firing in two days: Monday, the ship hosted the 2nd Fleet admiral and a group of executives who advise government agencies on national security issues.

On the way out for that shoot, the crew also demonstrated how they'd deal with small attacking ships and suspected smugglers.

In the past, Sobeck said, destroyer crew training would focus on the role they play when they serve as part of a carrier strike group, protecting the big flattop from attack.

Such ships are now working on their own more, with missions ranging from fighting piracy to intercepting drug runners, expanding what needs to be practiced.

"All that sort of stuff is now in my perspective," he said. "This is where we're working."

Bigger picture issues aside, Wednesday's shoot was simply exciting, particularly for a crew that had mostly never experienced one before this week and - at $1.5 million a shot - were unlikely to see such exercises again.

"This is about as good as it gets," said Ensign Dustin Crawford, the officer in charge of the group firing the missile - a group all new to the experience. "There's very few times you get to actually launch one off."

Shortly before 10 a.m., the call went out. The clouds had broken. The shoot could go on.

At 10:10, the count dropped: T minus 10 minutes

Outside, Petty Officer 2nd Class Zo Newsom paced with anticipation, ready to relive what he has seen the day before. "All the hairs on the back of my neck stood up," he said about the earlier launch. "It was intense."

The sailor, one of the dozens milling around the flight deck waiting, looked up as two F-16s raced by overhead, preparing to chase the missile.

At 10:19, a siren sounded. T minus two minutes.

Held breaths, a countdown from 10. Then, toward the rear of the ship, a hatch popped open. Silence, then a wall of flame erupted. A dark streak flashed through a billowing cloud and the missile burst into view, ready to head across the state to a firing range near Eglin Air Force Base.

Down in combat control, the strike team was jubilant.

"I have the coolest job in the world," Crawford said, shortly after watching the launch on a video screen at the control center in the bowels of the ship. "I never get to see anything, but I wouldn't trade it for anything."

The shoot wasn't an unalloyed success: During a "health check" - in which the missile circled for several minutes before being allowed over land - the technicians were unsatisfied with some of the data they received. Opting for caution, they dumped the missile, which didn't have a warhead, in the waters near St. Augustine.

Disappointing for the testers - but for the crew, just a chance to again hone their skills as they head out for another test.

"We now know this ship is ready for battle," Sobeck told his crew, alluding to its scheduled deployment next year. "There's no doubt we're going to take this ship in harm's way and make a difference."

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