The sight of soldiers falling from gray military cargo planes, floating under their white parachutes and splashing into the warm green waters just north of Key West is a common sight in the Lower Keys.
The Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School syllabus has long included airborne operations.
Most of that work includes what's called static-line jumps from 1,500 feet out of prop-driven airplanes. Such parachuting was the bread-and-butter of Army airborne operations in World War II.
All Green Berets at the Fleming Key school have to learn how to incorporate those basic parachuting tactics they've already learned with scuba diving before graduating from the grueling Combat Diver Qualification Course, considered to be one the toughest challenges in the military.
The Army is currently taking steps that would require all Green Berets to go through its Military Free Fall Parachutist Course, which includes the risky high altitude-low opening (HALO) and high altitude-high opening (HAHO) jumps from much higher altitudes -- as much as 30,000 feet.
That could mean an increase in airborne operations as more elite commandos head to Key West to incorporate water into training, but Army leaders this week were not ready to pull the trigger on any such an announcement.
Specifically, how the expansion of free fall training to the overall Green Beret qualification course (at Fort Bragg) will impact the Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Fleming Key is up in the air, said Lt. Col. Steven P. Basilici, commander of 2nd battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne).
Basilici's battalion oversees the Army dive school as well as airborne operations, mountaineering and sniper training.
"Whether or not you will see more of those airborne operations down there seems logical, but I can't project what the Army will chose to do," Basilici said Thursday when reached by phone at his Fort Bragg, N.C. office. "So, it remains to be seen."
The move to make all Green Berets HALO/HAHO certified means Special Forces will give mission planners more options, Basilici said.
"Basically, we're making them even more flexible and agile," Basilici said.
High altitude skydiving can require jumpers wear oxygen tanks and masks. It's designed for elite troops looking to avoid enemy detection. Special Operations Forces train to do these jumps in all weather conditions.
The difference in the two refers to when the jumper deploys the parachute. HALO jumpers can reach terminal velocity at 126 mph before they deploy their chute. HAHO jumpers deploy the parachutes at very high altitudes and then glide great distances.
Both types are considered the height of military skydiving operations and demand the best students.
An inattentive jumper could die from things ranging from cold air exposure to drowning as well as be blown far off-course.
Dive school commander, Maj. Samuel Kline, is himself free fall qualified as are a handful of the dive school's instructors.
"You're at the pinnacle of your awareness," Kline said. "I would describe it in that you're in a state of super-awareness and super-attentiveness."
The dive school is currently not a required school for Special Forces students trying to earn a Green Beret as the parachuting course would be. The divers who graduate from the Fleming Key school are typically already Special Forces soldiers, but the school hosts students across all branches and sometimes allied nations.
Though most of the students are already Green Berets, the school has seen Army 75th Ranger Regiment soldiers, Marines, Navy SEALs and Air Force special tactics commandos in its history.
The heavy Navy presence in Key West often creates confusion about who operates the dive school.
"Special Forces" is singular to the Army and refers only to that branch's Green Berets. It is often used incorrectly to refer to any premier military unit, such as Navy SEALs.
"Special Operations Forces" is the correct term for all elite military units, such as Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, the Air Force Combat Control Teams, and the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment.
Kline said the dive school would be ready to do whatever the Army decides.
"There's a lot of excitement here for any possibility of more operations," Kline said.