TAMPA, Fla. - In the United Parcel Service, ground troops get to shine. After all, they're the ones you see marching up to your doorstep.
But another, anonymous unit flies by night: The UPS aerial wing rises early and operates in the dark, hidden from customers.
"They don't see it," pilot Mark Holloway said.
During the wee hours, most places are dead asleep. But the airport tarmac is alive -- a skeleton squad pulling the graveyard shift.
Joe Cocker sounds reveille and sends his soldiers racing.
"It's a big rush," he explained.
They are bracing for two loaded cargo jets set to touch down mere moments apart.
By artificial light alone, 38 workers shuffle heavy equipment and jockey for position as a stuffed 757 screams its arrival.
"It's been described as a giant ant pile," Cocker continued.
Timing is everything and the clock is ticking. But abruptly, everything stops.
All eyes turn to Lewis Owens. He, in turn, focuses on his watch.
"We count 30 seconds for the engines and turbines to slow down enough," he explains.
Time drags. But the standstill is brief. Suddenly, they attack.
"Chalk and cone, belt loaders, deck loaders, start getting the packages off the aircraft," Owens commands.
Carts close in and hatches open up. The plane's hot fan blades are still spinning when the first deliveries shoot down the conveyor.
Bag, box, or container, as many as 14,000 packages await, and the aluminum whale will give birth in a hurry.
The ground operation is flying when plane two, an Airbus, emerges from the dark -- early.
Now wingtip to wingtip, these cargo liners' chubby bellies empty simultaneously, at NASCAR pace.
Packages are rushed to a tiny building just steps away.
Planes parked on one side; trucks parked on the other. Plus a non-stop belt running down the middle.
Michael Segler is box-slinging machine.
"I don't keep count, but I'm pretty sure it's a good 500-plus," he offers.
Despite modern barcodes and computer scanners, drivers and loaders alike do the final sort with their eyes.
Almost as soon as they've pulled in for pick-up, UPS trucks begin rolling out for drop-off before sunrise.
In a dizzying 90-minute stretch, this otherwise unseen team unloads, sorts, and ships, putting 28,000 packages on the road.
"It's just an hour and a half of go, go, go," Owens continued.
Upstairs, empty containers are heading back to the Louisville hub.
This out-of-sight logistical foxtrot unfolds like clockwork every morning at 96 airports coast to coast, and 81 other airports in foreign countries.
Captain Holloway attributes efficiency to system-wide consistency: "Same thing everywhere we go."
At first light, the towering twin-engine is pushed on its way, soon soaring into the clouds. Suddenly, the busy tarmac below is like a ghost town.
So, the next time you sign for that box and you see that driver wearing the brown, remember the other guys working the pitch black.