The man in the mask sat on the floor of the black Chinook helicopter, M-4 assault rifle at his side, and explained the operation about to unfold.
"We are going to be running a blocking mission," he said. Because of security concerns, he identifies himself only as "Capt. S" of the Australian commandos.
The plan is to fly low and fast over the harbor, push a Zodiac inflatable boat out the back of the helicopter and take up position on a nearby dock to keep enemy forces from advancing. The task is just one of many in the main mission: rescuing a hostage from a village full of heavily armed bad guys.
It is a precision operation that requires pinpoint timing between the operators and the Chinook crew, who are members of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
But this was not Afghanistan.
Part of a "capabilities demonstration" highlighting the tactics and techniques of international special operations forces, Wednesday’s mission teamed three commandos from Australia, two from Norway and two U.S. Marines to take on a simulated enemy force in downtown Tampa and rescue a mock hostage.
"We’ve only practiced together for three days," Capt. S said over the whine of the engine and the chunka-chunka-chunka of the beating blades. "But we’ve done this so many times that we don’t need too much practice. We are good to go."
The Chinook crew was the first wave of the assault on a village set up outside the Sail Pavilion, complete with plastic huts, a fishing net, a large cache of weapons and an enemy of undetermined origin played by personnel from MacDill Air Force Base.
"We always lose," says Stu Segall, who runs Strategic Operations, which provides similar mock enemy situations for training missions across the country.
At exactly 1 p.m., the chopper lifted off and in seconds was over the water, zooming low over the channel leading to the convention center.
Three minutes later, the Chinook stopped and hovered just a few feet above the water. A salty spray kicked up by the whirling rotors spit through the open door into the cabin as the men pushed the Zodiac out, then jumped into the water.
On the ground nearby, an assault team on Humvees and ATVs wheeled down Franklin Street, taking out an enemy checkpoint in front of the convention center.
Another team "fast-roped" — descended quickly on a line — from a Blackhawk helicopter to take out another enemy position on a barge.
Moments later, the main assault team infiltrated the village using two inflatable boats to rescue the hostage, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
"It was about as realistic as a hostage situation could be," Buckhorn said afterward. "Your heart is pounding, you feel the adrenalin. You’re thankful the guys who came to get you are on our side."
Buckhorn, who also faces a band of faux pirates invading the city every year, said the military operators "are tougher by a long stretch. As my daughter says, ‘The pirates smell bad.’ "
The high-profile demonstration and exercise attracted lots of attention downtown, with people lining roofs and roads to catch a glimpse of the action and take photographs.