Navy officials were nervous all day, cautioning reporters and television cameramen that the missiles don't always work.
"You never know until you push the button whether the thing will go up," said Capt. Rick Williams, commanding officer of the naval engineering station at Port Hueneme.
They had reason to be nervous. Two years ago, the Navy trotted out the media to see the awesome firepower of warships assembled off the coast. But the "enemy" missiles in the staged battle never got off the ground.
Another missile foul-up dogged the Navy during last year's media day at Point Mugu's Pacific Missile Test Center, a base spokesman said.
On Wednesday, however, enemy target and defensive missile met in the heavens with deadly accuracy. The pyrotechnic display brought cheers from the 325 sailors aboard the Navy destroyer.
The explosive launch also startled media representatives who were flown by helicopter 40 miles off the coast to witness the event from the deck of the ship, the USS John Young.
"We have broken the jinx of media day," said Cmdr. Paul S. Schultz, the ship's captain, trading high-five slaps with his second in command. "It was a direct hit, skin-to-skin contact."
The high-tech fireworks came during sea trials of the San Diego-based destroyer outfitted with new guidance systems for the Seasparrow missile and other advanced weaponry.
At this year's media event, officials from Ventura County's two Navy bases hoped to do more than show off Navy firepower. They wanted to provide a public glimpse of what goes on at the Pacific Missile Test Center and the Naval Ship Weapon Systems Engineering Station at Port Hueneme.
"Smart weapons just don't happen," Williams said. "They take a lot of engineers and technicians. You really have some of the Navy's real heroes operating right here on the Oxnard Plain."
The engineering station, known as Nemesis, is a secretive brain trust of engineers, computer scientists and other trouble-shooters who keep the Navy's most sophisticated weapons ready for war.
Point Mugu tests missiles fired from aircraft and regularly provides pilotless "drone" aircraft for Navy ships to try to shoot from the sky.
Most of the action takes place in the 35,000-square-mile Pacific Missile Test Range that begins three miles off the Ventura County coast.
The USS John Young was cruising in the range near the Channel Islands on Wednesday afternoon when Point Mugu sent an unmanned "enemy" aircraft after it.
If the surface-to-air Seasparrow did not intercept the enemy aircraft, the ship was prepared to knock it from the sky with its five-inch guns. Failing that, a Gatling gun was ready to spray its 20-millimeter rounds, at the rate of 3,000 rounds a minute.
If any of these went awry, reporters were told that they would have to find cover. The enemy aircraft would be coming from the left--or port--side, they were warned.
Hundreds of sailors crowded on a flight deck to watch the missile launch, a rarity aboard the destroyer. "This is a big event for us," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Dennis Loven. "I've been on the ship 2 1/2 years, and this is my second missile launch."
The enemy aircraft flew into range, and a loudspeaker announced that the ship's radar had locked on. "Target is on port quarter, 34 miles, for a hot run."
Flying at 450 m.p.h., the aircraft toyed with the ship, slipping out of range. The suspense grew. Photographers strained through their lenses, fearing that they would miss the split-second launch.
"Target is positioned for another hot run," the loudspeaker announced. The decks fell silent.
"Target is on port quarter, 24 miles. All sensors are locked on.
"Target is on port quarter at 16 miles. Battery is released.
"Target is on port quarter at 10 miles."
The missile launcher, a massive hunk of machinery, swung into position with speed and grace. A roar rumbled from the ship's stern.
The Seasparrow ripped through the sky like a giant bottle rocket.
Within moments the vapor trail dove toward the ocean and a fiery blaze shot skyward. Then a small cloud of smoke lingered on the horizon.
"Direct hit," the loudspeaker said.
It was all over.
"It is quite a Fourth of July display," Schultz told reporters afterward. As ship's captain, he explained, he was the one who decided when to push the button.
Two enlisted sailors shared a cigarette, savoring the victory of the mock battle.
"It's better than the Fourth of July," one sailor said.