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The day after he graduated in 1982, he showed up to work with his dad at what became the Puckett Land Company, an independent oil and gas business based in Denver that, in those days, leased land in northeastern Colorado to drill and speculated land for other companies. Puckett was eager, working six days a week at the small venture.
"I was anxious for independence," Puckett says. "I kind of saw [that] if I could be successful in business, that's a great way to get independence from being a kid."
He married his college sweetheart, Nancy, in 1983, but by the mid- to late '80s, the oil and gas business was in a slump, and times were tight for the Puckett Land Company. An unlikely real-estate deal with industry giant ARCO helped pull it through — and, just as unexpectedly, led to Puckett's learning to fly.
The story goes like this: ARCO, which is now a subsidiary of BP, once owned a molybdenum mine in the middle-of-nowhere desert town of Tonopah, Nevada. (The town's claim to fame is that reclusive billionaire and onetime Tonopah mine owner Howard Hughes married Hollywood starlet Jean Peters in a secret motel-room ceremony there in 1957.) To lure workers to its Tonopah mine, ARCO built dozens of houses and apartments. But when the mine closed several years later, ARCO wanted to unload the housing stock — and wound up offering it to the Pucketts.
Seeing an opportunity, the family ended up in the real-estate business, and Jeff ended up playing realtor and landlord for seventy houses and a 122-unit apartment complex. He sold the houses to government workers in Tonopah, which is the seat of Nevada's Nye County, and civilian contractors working at the nearby Tonopah Test Range, a military aircraft test site.
But Tonopah was difficult to get to from Denver; the trip involved flying from Stapleton Airport to Las Vegas, hopping in a car and driving four tedious hours. So in 1988, after reading the Stephen Coonts bestseller Flight of the Intruder, about Navy aviators flying attack missions during the Vietnam War, Puckett told his wife that he was thinking about taking flying lessons. The two were on vacation in Hawaii at the time, and Nancy was six months pregnant with their only son, Chase. "He enrolled himself in class and started pounding away at it," Nancy says. "He was working full-time in the business with his family. But before I knew it, he had his pilot's license."
Puckett bought a four-seat Cessna 182 and was soon making the trip from Denver to Tonopah in three and a half hours. Flying came naturally to him, and he loved it. "It's the freedom," Puckett says. "There's nothing in my life that I can go do and just think about that — and not think about business or other problems that might be on your mind.
"But I can go get in a WACO biplane and it makes me feel like — the sound of it sounds like a Harley, and the air is going through your hair, and you're looking down — there's nothing like it. It's definitely my escape," he adds.
Over the years, the Puckett Land Company grew. In 1990, Puckett and his dad negotiated to buy 40,000 acres of oil shale ground on the Western Slope from ARCO. That parcel, which also produces natural gas, is still the crown jewel of their holdings.
By 2005, the oil and gas business had brought Puckett financial success. He'd used some of that capital to start an airplane distributor called USAERO in 1999 that sold Diamond airplanes, Aviat Husky two-seaters, WACO biplanes and Extra aerobatic planes in six Western states. He also now owned a helicopter. A helicopter without much purpose.
Late 2004 was tough for Tom Melton, a usually laid-back Evangelical Presbyterian pastor with a gray mustache who speaks with a hippie intonation left over from his days at the University of Colorado in the late '60s. A friend had died of cancer, and the wife of another was killed in a snowmobile accident. And then Melton's own wife, Jill, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Puckett saw that Melton was suffering and wanted to lift his spirits. He thought about the way he himself felt when he was flying — unburdened — and it dawned on him: the helicopter. "So I called Tom and I said, 'Listen, why don't you just come out and take an hour, and let's just get you out of the house. Bring your boys and we'll go fly around the city.'"
Melton agreed, not expecting much. But once in the air, he was surprised by his reaction. "It changed my view of the city," says Melton, who grew up in Aurora. "There were no neighborhoods; there were no boundaries." In some ways, Melton says, he felt like he was seeing Denver the way God sees it: as a whole, instead of a bunch of little pieces separated by race and class. Puckett was touched by Melton's reaction. Flying at 500 feet had changed something — stirred something, even — inside his friend.
The next day, Melton was still thinking about the helicopter ride during a meeting with six other pastors and wondered: "What if we could take every single one of them up in the helicopter, too? What if they could see the city the way I had?"