Jeff Puckett's helicopter gets Denver closer to God
A pastor, a football player, a ministry leader and a seminary student walk into a helicopter. Well, they don't walk, really. They hoist and scoot themselves into the seven-person Bell 407, a sleek navy-and-white beauty equipped with six aqua-green headsets attached to microphones that curl in front of the passengers' lips.
The helicopter is sitting on a helipad on the tarmac of Centennial Airport in Englewood, and its whirring propeller is making a lot of noise. The pilot, a lighthearted businessman with salt-and-pepper hair named Jeff Puckett, pulls back on the joystick, and the 407 begins to hover. For a few seconds, it feels as if the helicopter is a person standing on one leg, struggling to hold his balance. But just as quickly, the shaking smooths out and the 407 climbs into the sky.
"Thank you, Lord, for this day," Puckett says into his microphone. He steers the helicopter past the small airport's air-traffic control tower and toward the Cherry Creek Reservoir. From a height of 500 feet, the reservoir looks like a massive puddle, with boats the size of Matchbox cars making white streaks across the water. The viewpoint is close enough to see the individual people on the ground — mowing their lawns, bicycling to work — but far enough that you can't tell who they are. Now at skyscraper height, Puckett continues to pray into his crackly microphone. "And thank you for the folks on board this helicopter," he says. "We pray today, Lord, for those below."
It's the second flight of the day for Prayer One, an all-volunteer helicopter ministry started by Puckett and his friends five years ago. The passengers are among the nearly 2,600 people who have flown in the holy helicopter. A total of twenty people arrived at the airport at 7:30 a.m. this particular Monday and were led up to Puckett's handsome second-floor office in the X Jet building, an aircraft refueling center that feels like a luxury hotel. They sipped complimentary coffee, munched mini-muffins and looked out Puckett's wall of windows at a blue sky dotted with white clouds.
Most of the group didn't know each other. There were five people from various local Hispanic churches, including the pastors of Mean Street Ministry in Aurora. Amber Tafoya, a lawyer and former District 4 House candidate, was there with her political consultant. So were two women from Alternatives Pregnancy Center, a pro-life nonprofit in Denver that offers abstinence education and adoption resources.
Everyone had been invited to take a helicopter ride around the city by Jude Del Hierro, a gregarious former pastor who runs a Denver ministry aimed at increasing collaboration between churches. He divided the would-be passengers into groups of five, mixing old friends with new acquaintances, politicians with businessmen, young with old. Before the first flight, he, too, offered a prayer to God in Puckett's office.
"Thank you for these men and women who have a passion for Denver," he said as the participants stood in a circle around the room. "We ask that they would see you and you would give them new eyes for the city."
"Amen," said Puckett.
Prayer One started with a question. Six years ago, Puckett, his pastor and four other friends were hanging in the Bahamas in a house that one of them owned. The men — "these obese white guys," jokes Puckett, who, at fifty, is nowhere near obese — were passing the afternoon wading in a few feet of water. The get-together wasn't a religious retreat, but since God is never too far from their thoughts, Tom Melton, Puckett's pastor at Greenwood Community Church in Greenwood Village, posed a question: What would you ask God for if there was no limit?
"I wonder if you can pray for a helicopter?" Puckett asked. It was a selfish prayer, he thought, but one he'd been dreaming about for a while. "Can you ask for something that has no intrinsic value to humanity?" he wondered.
Melton thought about it. To him, Puckett's question didn't seem self-indulgent. It seemed responsible — if not tinged with a little bit of guilt. His friend was well-off, and he was asking whether it was right to spend a million and a half bucks on something just for fun.
"I said, 'Well, yeah, I think you can ask him for anything you want,'" Melton says. "That's kind of up to God."
A few months later, Puckett bought his first helicopter: a tiny red Bell JetRanger that had belonged to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. And for the next six months, he flew his toy without much purpose.
As a boy, Puckett never really thought about airplanes. The youngest of three kids, he spent most of his childhood in a middle-class neighborhood in Littleton, playing sports and earning C's in school. His dad was in the oil and gas business, having started at age 21 as a landman, negotiating for drilling rights in several Western states, including Colorado. His mom stayed at home with Puckett and his older brother and sister. The Pucketts went to church on Sundays but weren't fervently religious.
Puckett always knew he'd go into business with his father. After graduating from the private Kent Denver School, he went to a small college in Salt Lake City, where he spent more time skiing than studying. He got serious his sophomore year, though, and transferred to the University of Denver to study business, geography and geology.
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?"
That night, Puckett and his wife were having dinner with friends. Tom Fortson, then the president of the men's faith organization Promise Keepers, was also there. Though he and Puckett had never met, they struck up a conversation about aviation because Fortson's son was studying to be a pilot. Puckett told Fortson about Melton's idea to take pastors on helicopter rides over the city. The purpose, he said, would be to give them a break — a twenty-minute respite from their six-days-a-week servitude.
"I thought, 'Here's a really good idea,'" Fortson says. "Here's a guy who's interested in his community, and he wants to do something for it."
Fortson took the idea and ran with it, assigning a Promise Keepers staff person to book pastors on the helicopter rides that Puckett promised to make every Monday (a day that many pastors have off). He believed the experience would help them bond with each other, a goal that's sometimes elusive because of busy schedules, denominational differences and cultural divides. "This is a natural for pastors to come together," Fortson says. "The ice is broken and they begin to share and talk."
Soon, the helicopter had a name: Prayer One. It also had a purpose.
Prayer One's mission has changed over time. Through five years and three different helicopters (Puckett has traded up twice now), it's morphed from a novel way to give back to overworked pastors into a profound, multicultural, cross-denominational, inter-generational connectivity and networking tool. Puckett and his crew insist the change was organic, and that they couldn't have planned it if they'd tried.
At first, Prayer One's passengers were almost exclusively Christian, identified through Promise Keepers' connections. But the deal between Promise Keepers and Prayer One was never meant to be permanent; Promise Keepers was just trying to help Prayer One get going. After more than a year, the organization pulled out.
In need of a scheduler, Puckett turned to Del Hierro, who founded Confluence Ministries twelve years ago with his wife. Housed in a beautiful renovated synagogue in a working-class neighborhood off West Colfax Avenue, Confluence hosts monthly meetings for missionaries, pastors and youth, as well as GED, computer and English-language classes for the people in the neighborhood. Del Hierro also heads up the Confluence Band, a mishmash of Christian musicians who come together at a moment's notice to play events and church services.
Under Del Hierro's watch — and with the help of his cell phone, which seems to contain the phone number of every religious mover and shaker in Denver — Prayer One gained some diversity. Del Hierro is hesitant to claim credit, comparing the way he schedules passengers on Prayer One to the way the seemingly bumbling television detective Columbo solved mysteries. But in the past few years, Prayer One has flown government officials, religious businessmen, Christians of all stripes, rabbis, Muslims and, most recently, young former gang members involved in a church program.
Del Hierro's style fits perfectly with Puckett's vision for Prayer One. A helicopter ride can be a very bonding experience, says the latter: There's often fear and anticipation, followed by wonderment and joy. The result, he says, "is almost like going to battle. There's something that draws you close."
In 2007, Melton invited the members of Mayor John Hickenlooper's Clergy Council to fly on Prayer One. The council had been created a year and a half earlier when Denver Leadership Foundation president Don Reeverts asked Hickenlooper at the annual Colorado Prayer Luncheon about his dreams for the city. "He thought a minute and said, 'I have this dream. I've been thinking of the homeless issue in Colorado: If every church, synagogue and mosque could mentor a homeless family, it would change the face of homelessness in the metro area,'" Reeverts recalls. "I said, 'Would you like me to help you with that?' He said, 'Do you think you could?'"
Reeverts did. He called a powwow of religious leaders: a rabbi, an Islamic professor, a Catholic bishop and three Christian pastors, including Melton. They compared the number of churches in the city to the number of homeless families. At the end of the meeting, Reeverts had all of them on board, and the Family and Senior Homeless Initiative — tagline: One Congregation, One Family — was born.
The goal was for 1,000 churches to mentor 1,000 homeless families over ten years. Five years later, 724 families have been helped into housing by 290 congregations, says FSHI director Brad Hopkins. The congregations provide the families with $1,200 for a security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment. A team of congregation members also meets with the family to mentor them on how to be self-sufficient. A study of families helped in 2008 showed 85 percent of them were still housed a year later.
Prayer One is not directly connected to FSHI or the Clergy Council, but observers say it's helped the initiative in more ways than one. Hopkins says that with the help of Melton's connection, he uses Prayer One as a "soft sell" for religious leaders to get involved. "It maybe gets to be a perk," he says. "It's a thank-you to them."
It's also brought the members of the Clergy Council closer, says Roxane White. Now Hickenlooper's chief of staff, White was formerly manager of the city's Department of Human Services and chairwoman of Denver's Road Home, the mayor's ten-year plan to end homelessness, of which FSHI is a part. The sixteen Clergy Council members serve as point people for their denominations, recruiting churches to participate in the program.
At first, says White of the council, "we were all a little skeptical of each other. When it was offered to us to go up in the helicopter, it was like, 'Maybe this could be team-building, maybe this will be a waste of time.'"
But up in the air, something clicked. "We took turns talking about what we were seeing, starting with affluent households, and then we came around Sun Valley and saw households that were very poor. We all talked about issues of poverty. We all prayed," says White, who has a degree in religious studies from Oregon's Lewis & Clark College. "And each person put up a prayer to their particular god and their particular faith. We were coming together to solve a problem we all unequivocally agreed on, which was homelessness."
"You've found my soft spot," she says about Prayer One. "It was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had in my life."
Hopkins was also on that flight. He says the sensation of flying over the city was "almost like angels or something": "The thing I saw is the inter-connectedness and interdependency we have in the city, no matter who you are or what your background or beliefs are. We all need each other to be successful as a society."
Up in the air, the football player, the seminary student, the ministry leader and the pastor stare out the big windows of the Bell 407. The sun is shining, and it's hot inside the helicopter. Outside, the view resembles the city-building video game SimCity. It's as if the windows are a computer or television screen, taking the passengers on an unfamiliar tour of their familiar city. There are recognizable landmarks: the colorful roller coasters of Elitch Gardens, the Macy's sign at the Cherry Creek mall, the towering downtown Qwest building. But much of what they see feels new, even though they've walked and driven those streets countless times.
At first, the houses below are gorgeous. There are clear, blue swimming pools and well-trimmed bushes that look like green gumdrops. The suburban streets are freshly paved and black. There is grass everywhere. But as the helicopter flies north, houses give way to apartment buildings, roofs look more weathered, the paint peeling and discolored. Grass appears more patchy, like a threadbare rug, and there is concrete everywhere — in schoolyards dotted with four-square courts, in endless parking lots and between houses. The roads are gray and full of cracks.
Kito Hicks, a tall, 33-year-old black North Carolina native who played for the Colorado Crush Arena Football League team and is now negotiating with an NFL team, is the first to pray. He'd been invited on Prayer One because of his fledgling business, Field of Visions, which will paint people's spiritual visions so they can hang them on the wall as a reminder. "Heavenly Father," he says into his microphone, "we are grateful to have the opportunity to be in fellowship this morning."
Chris Chancey, the 23-year-old seminary student — a thin white man in Nikes, who captures the view with a Sony camcorder — speaks next: "We pray that you raise up Christian leaders who live their lives promoting justice, mercy and love."
Christian Rubi is last. In a voice accented by his upbringing in Mexico, the thirty-year-old founder of the Conquistando Las Montañas ministry prays for single people to find love and for families to maintain it. He prays for "every teacher and every school."
Pastor Ron Johnson, who, at 47, is the eldest of the group, is mostly quiet. He jokes with Puckett and points out his house below. When Prayer One circles around the vivid green grass and steep bleachers of Coors Field, a grin spreads over his face. It's the sort of grin that you can't help, a grin so wide it's almost embarrassing.
"I often don't experience God in vision," he says later, after the ride is over. "I just don't experience God that way. But I did today."
While Puckett doesn't like the attention — "The Prayer One thing isn't about Jeff Puckett," he says — friends and family agree that without him, it would be impossible.
First, there's the cost. Though Puckett shies away from conversations about money, he says the cost to rent a helicopter for a day is $1,200 to $1,500. And while he claims his costs are lower, if you multiply that by 52 weeks per year and then by five — for the number of years he's been flying — it's at least $312,000.
But it takes more than money to fly Prayer One. It also takes heart, which friends say Puckett has in spades. "Here's a guy who doesn't have to do this," says Puckett's brother-in-law, Scott Southworth, who is also a pilot and has helped out with Prayer One since the beginning, loading passengers in and out of the helicopter. "He could just be a guy who keeps his toys to himself. And he feels absolutely the other way around. He feels he has a responsibility to take these gifts and use them and share them."
He also feels a responsibility to encourage others to follow in his footsteps. When he started Prayer One, Puckett dreamed that other helicopter pilots across the country would hear about what he was doing and follow suit, taking to the skies to bless their cities once a week. But that hasn't happened. So Puckett has switched tactics. With Southworth's help, he's come up with a question he asks everyone he talks to about Prayer One, whether they're religious leaders or schoolchildren: What's your helicopter?
"Find something in your life that you're passionate about," he says. "It's not necessarily about making the almighty dollar, but it's about giving back to your community and to mankind."
"I'm not a very good singer, and I don't know how to preach," he adds. "I know how to fly a helicopter."
Puckett was honored this past January at the annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards, the so-called Oscars of the aviation world, which are held every year in Beverly Hills and attended by stars with a penchant for flying, such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kurt Russell. Puckett was the first-ever recipient of the Harrison Ford Aviation Legacy Award, an honor he received largely for his work with Prayer One.
Puckett also volunteers as an honorary Douglas County sheriff's deputy, flying SWAT and reconnaissance missions for the police because they don't have their own helicopter. He serves on the board of the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Lowry, for which he helped make a twelve-minute video about aviation that stars Harrison Ford, a longtime pilot who flies his own plane in the film.
"Jeff is a very outstanding pilot," says museum president Greg Anderson. "But he also burns with a passion for sharing flight with others in special ways, and Prayer One is one of those very special ways."
Puckett was almost embarrassed by the star-studded kudos. But he laughs when he thinks about the practical effects of the attention received by Prayer One. "It is kind of fun to make people think that if they see a helicopter flying over the heads, 'I wonder if those are the yahoos that are praying over the city?'" he says.
Part of the miracle of Prayer One, its founders say, is what happens afterward. Though they don't keep strict records or do much followup, Puckett, Melton and company have anecdotal stories of people who have been inspired by the flight.
Prayer One led A.G.E. Sandoval, a Denver-born Christian hip-hop artist-turned-pastor, to the Methodist faith. Sandoval started Tha Myx International in 2006 as an outreach organization for at-risk youth and juvenile offenders. A former member of the award-winning Christian rap group Preachas in Tha Hood, he used Thursday-night basketball games, barbecues and what he calls "holy hip-hop" to spread the word of God.
But by 2008, Tha Myx still didn't have its own building. Sandoval was looking for a new place to host his Hoops and Raps program when a friend introduced him to the pastor of a Methodist church in Lakewood called Light and Life Community Church. The two churches didn't have much in common. One was in the suburbs, the other was in the city. The suburban church had mostly white congregants. Sandoval's had very few.
But Light and Life had a gym and offered to let Sandoval use it. The partnership was going well, he says, but it didn't extend much beyond that. Then, last year, Del Hierro asked Sandoval if he wanted to take a ride on Prayer One, and things changed.
"Up in the air, you can't see any separation at all," Sandoval says of the city. "That was a different experience for me, because growing up in the neighborhoods and dealing with the different ethnic backgrounds, you tend to think these walls set up on the ground are these big things to conquer."
When he came down, Sandoval began thinking more about his partnership with Light and Life. Until that point, Tha Myx wasn't affiliated with any particular religious denomination. "After this ride, it dawned on me that we could have a deeper partnership," Sandoval says. "Why worry about if they're in a suburban community and they're reaching a community that is primarily white Anglo? Why be afraid of that?"
Tha Myx became a member of the Free Methodist Church of North America, which has given it access to financial resources and training. And Sandoval says it hasn't changed what they do: "We continued to do what we were doing: reach the community."
Other pastors say flying on Prayer One helped reaffirm what they were already doing. Dave Runyon is the community development pastor at Foothills Community Church in Arvada. More than a year ago, he helped start a collaborative of churches in the northwest metro area based on the creed of "love thy neighbor." He and more than twenty other pastors encourage their congregants to introduce themselves to the people living around them, offer to help them out, throw a block party now and then.
For Runyon, Prayer One was confirmation that initiatives like his are needed. "For me, it was an incredible visual reminder of the fact that as churches, and as church leaders, we're all on the same team," he says. "When you open up the phone book, it doesn't look like we're on the same team, and that's the problem. Something like [Prayer One] helps you get a global picture that helps you see the forest through the trees."
Jeremy Rivera had a similar experience. The marketing and communications director for FOCUS, a Denver-based Catholic nonprofit that coordinates mission trips for college students, Rivera started a young-Catholics group called the Root a few years ago that began drawing hundreds of people eager to connect with twenty-somethings who held the same beliefs. Going up in Prayer One, he says, "reinforced the belief that people can be really close together and still feel really lonely," he says. "Community has to be something you have to be intentional about."
After flying on that recent Monday, the twenty or so people who'd been in the air gather to talk about the experience. They speak one by one.
A young man named Aaron says it was the first time in his life that he's been rendered speechless. A woman named Janice says she almost didn't show up because she's afraid of heights, but she's glad she did because "perfect love strikes out all fear."
One woman says she prayed for lawmakers to make wise decisions as the helicopter flew over the Capitol. Another says that as she looked at the houses below, she prayed for an end to divorce. A woman named Maria tells the group that she had a vision of angels putting papers on the desks of judges at the courthouse, delivering justice.
The morning ends as it began: with a prayer. "Lord, once again, we thank you for being an awesome God," says Del Hierro. As they did at 7:30 that morning, the participants stand in a circle. But now, less than two hours later, they hold hands.
"We ask that you be glorified and show us more and more how we're supposed to connect together," they say.
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