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.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar