By S. Clayton Moore
When Denver businessman Jeff Puckett decided he wanted to give something back to his community, it was sure to be something unique. The experienced aviator, who divides his time between the oil and gas trade and running the Diamond Aircraft distributorship in the Western U.S., chose to combine his love for aviation and an underlying faith that supports all his ambitions.
Every Monday morning at Centennial Airport (APA), Puckett fires up the turbine-powered, seven-passenger Bell 206 L-4 LongRanger he’s dubbed Prayer One. He then spends the day flying pastors, ministers and others involved in local ministry over Denver.
The flight takes only 22 minutes but has many goals, according to the Promise Keepers, a Christian evangelical ministry that partnered with Puckett to provide this enlightening opportunity. The flights are designed to encourage leaders to see the city without boundaries; to challenge passengers to expand their mission through prayer, partnerships and aerial observation; and to emphasize the blessings of the city.
“It’s become a really neat project,” Puckett said. “I’ve been blessed in so many ways. I’m trying to give back a little bit through the aviation side of things, because it’s really the only way I know to give back. I can’t sing.”
Learning to fly
Puckett’s spiritual connection to flying represents a lifetime of ambitious growth for the successful businessman and aviator. In fact, Puckett has accumulated more diverse experience in his 2,600 hours of flying than some owner-operators get in a lifetime.
Puckett first learned to fly in a Cessna 172, in the late 1980s.
“I was living in Denver, but selling real estate in Tonopah, Nevada, which is about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas,” he said. “I’d have to drive 30 minutes out to Stapleton (the former Denver airport), and take an hour and a half commercial flight to Las Vegas. I left a car in the Las Vegas parking lot. I’d drive four hours up to Tonopah, and then four hours back to the airport.”
Sometimes, he’d make the drive from Denver to Las Vegas, which would add considerably more time to the trip.
“After about a year doing that once or twice a month, getting a day’s work done, with three days of travel, it became a grind,” he said.
“Flight of the Intruder,” the Vietnam-era aviation thriller by Stephen Coonts, inspired Puckett to become a pilot.
“I figured if I could do my business in Tonopah and be back on the same day or the next day, I’d save myself a lot of time,” he said.
Puckett got his pilot’s license in 1987, and purchased a Cessna 182RG. Before long, he was stretching the limits of his abilities by learning basic aerobatics in a 1978 Super Decathlon, once owned by the late actor Steve McQueen.
“A friend and I decided we’d see if we could buy an airplane and sell it to make a little money,” he said. “After a few flights in the Decathlon, I decided I liked aerobatics, so I sold the 182 and kept the Decathlon.”
When he sold the 182, he bought a Pitts. He then sold the Pitts and bought a Seneca.
“I really wanted to fly a Pitts Special,” Puckett recalled. “A guy was bringing a brand new Pitts through Denver from the Aviat factory in Afton, Wyoming. I talked him into giving me a ride. That airplane never left town, because he sold it to me.”
Puckett started participating in International Aerobatic Club sponsored events, and ended up competing for about three years.
“Most of my inspiration from those years came from the fact that the airplane was a blast to fly,” Puckett said. “Plus the whole competitive nature of the sport is in my nature a little bit. It was a really fun diversion, but I started losing a bunch of buddies in the business, so I lost interest.”
Long way around
Puckett’s adventures weren’t over yet. He concentrated on his real estate business and flew the more sedate Seneca IV for a while. About eight years ago, though, another book, the aviation classic “Flight of Passage,” by Rinker Buck, influenced him. The book describes a trip across the United States in a Piper Cub, undertaken by the author and his 17-year-old brother. They became the youngest duo ever to attempt the feat.
“I wanted to buy a tail-dragger. Inspired by this book, I also decided it would be fun to take a trip with my son, Chase, who was 10 years old at the time,” Puckett remembered. “I looked at Cubs and Scouts, and decided the Husky was the one I wanted to buy. I called the distributor, who happened to have Alaska and Colorado as his territory. I told him I wanted a demonstration flight. He told me he lived in Anchorage and couldn’t give me a demo, but he could arrange one at the Aviat factory in Afton. I flew up there in my Seneca and got a demo in the Husky. I flew home and decided that was the airplane for me.”
Puckett called the distributor and convinced him to sell the aircraft at cost—if Puckett would demo for customers back in Colorado.
“I started out doing a little bit of local advertising. I went to a lot of pancake fly-ins and air shows, and the orders began to fly in,” Puckett said. “I sold more than 25 Huskys in Colorado in the first year and a half.”
He eventually sold 35 Huskys. In the meantime, the Pucketts made their trip across the U.S., but ended up taking a much longer route than the Bucks.
“My son and I flew the perimeter of the United States,” Puckett said. “I figured it was something he should do at that age, before he got interested in girls and sports and all the other things that attract you as a teenager. Our goal was to hit every state on the perimeter of the country—33 states. Seventeen days and 70 hours of flying later, we made it.”
Starting from Centennial, the duo flew through Santa Fe, N.M., to Sedona, Ariz., before heading north up the West Coast and then across the top of the country into Maine. Every night, they called Puckett’s wife, Nancy, who was marking their progress on a map and making suggestions for the next day’s destinations.
“She’d tell us the good places we could go along our route,” Puckett said. “Chase and I would sit down at night to talk to her and figure out where we were going. Every day after flying, he’d record his observations about his day. That was a wonderful trip.”
Serendipity continued to follow Puckett. Along with Huskys, he began selling the Pitts Special, through his burgeoning aircraft distribution business, USAERO.
“Aviat also builds the Pitts Special,” he said. “I talked my distributor into buying a Pitts for me to demo. I took it to the International Aerobatic Club convention, which was partnered with the Soaring Society of America convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They put my airplane next to the booth that had Diamond Aircraft, which was selling a motorglider. At the time, around 1998, Diamond was selling airplanes direct to the customer. The show was five days long, and at trade shows, you do a lot of standing around. I ended up becoming friends with the two representatives from Diamond Aircraft. We went to lunch and dinner together, and I hung with them for the five days.”
The Diamond reps told Puckett that Diamond was about to go to a distribution network.
“I thought, ‘That’s cool; I’m halfway decent at selling Huskys, so maybe I could sell Diamonds,'” he recalled.
At the time, Diamond had only a two-seat, single-engine aircraft, and the motorglider, but the four-seat Diamond Star was coming along on the drawing board.
“I put together a little business plan and went up to meet Errol Bader (then vice president of sales and marketing for Diamond) at Oshkosh,” he remembered. “I was the only person in their whole network who did a business plan for him. He ended up giving me this little territory that didn’t even include Colorado, but it’s grown from there.”
Kansas, Montana the Dakotas and Wyoming were the only territories that Diamond hadn’t assigned.
“Errol Bader gave me these less populated states,” he said. “I had to sell 10 airplanes a year, which meant that I also had to buy a certain number of airplanes to keep in stock.
He made his quota, and kept lobbying Bader for Colorado.
“I wanted the state where I lived,” he said. “Finally, the distributor in Colorado wasn’t able to sell airplanes, so I got Colorado and kept the other bad states. I made my quota again, so I talked him into giving me Southern California and northern Nevada, where the distributor also wasn’t doing well. Slowly but surely, I chipped away at states where the people weren’t doing well. Diamond saw that I was selling airplanes, so I ended up with the southwestern part of the United States. I had all of California, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and I no longer had the bad states.”
USAERO has seven staff members, including Errol Bader, who left Diamond to work for Puckett. Puckett divides his duties between USAERO’s headquarters at Centennial Airport, and Watsonville, Calif.
“We just opened up a new showroom in Long Beach, and we’re going to have the Diamond D-Jet mock-up there, soon,” he said.
Puckett estimates his company has sold an average of 35 to 40 airplanes a year, for the last seven years. Including 25 Extra airplanes, which he no longer sells, he conservatively estimates they’ve sold about 250 airplanes.
Today, Diamond Aircraft is USAERO’s biggest portion of the business.
“Diamond has the DA42 Twin Star diesel coming out,” he said. “That’s an innovative airplane. We have 50 on the books that we’ve sold, and more than 20 of the D-Jets so far. The D-Jet is literally flying out of the showroom before it’s even there.”
In his personal collection, Puckett has the LongRanger, his Extra and a Cessna Citation I. He recently got his jet type rating in the Citation. As far as having a personal favorite, he says, “It depends on which one I fly that day. I’d really have a hard time selling the helicopter. That one is in my blood. They’re all kind of like children—they’re all my favorites.
Morgan Freeman flew Puckett’s helicopter during Airport Journals’ recent Living Legends of Aviation event. Puckett will be flying Chuck Yeager after a Denver fundraiser at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in November.
“It’s a great little business,” he said. “Aviation’s been good to us.”
The Puckett Companies
Throughout his entire career, Puckett has also been involved in oil and gas exploration and production in the western United States. He devotes equal effort to his aircraft distributorship and The Puckett Companies, an oil and gas and real estate venture in which he is a co-partner with his father, Robert.
In 1992, Jeff and Robert Puckett bought property from Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO).
“Atlantic Richfield had oil shale land on the western slope of Colorado,” he said. “We produce natural gas there now. We also had a 700-head cattle operation on the land for about ten years.”
Puckett had long resisted the draw of helicopters, but then conceded to what has become a real passion for rotor aircraft. The catalyst was a ride in a Hughes 500 with Centennial local Jon Strom.
“I thought he was nuts but he had me indoctrinated into helicopters, and I got hooked,” he said.
He started taking flying lessons with Rich Westra, the AirTracker helicopter pilot for ABC’s Channel 7 News in Denver. Westra taught Puckett to fly the Hughes 300. It wasn’t as easy as Puckett thought it would be; he had an engine problem during his check ride with the Federal Aviation Administration examiner and ended up putting the helicopter down in a field. A leap of faith got him back in a helicopter.
“I was down in the Bahamas with a bunch of guys, and we were talking about whether you could pray for something physical,” Puckett recalled. “I thought I’d pray for a helicopter. ‘Do you think you can do that?’ I asked. They said, ‘Sure, you can pray for a helicopter.’ Right after that, I found a helicopter that was a good deal.”
After shaking off his earlier bumpy ride, Puckett bought a Bell 206B JetRanger once owned by the fire chief of Los Angeles County. When Christmas came around that year, he used the helicopter to boost the spirits of Tom Melton, his friend and pastor at Greenwood Community Church.
“It was a terrible time for all of us,” Puckett remembered. “Tom’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer, and another friend had been killed in a snowmobile accident. Pastors are busy during the holidays, and he was just about to lose it. So I called him up and said, ‘Hey, it’s a beautiful day. Grab your boys and we’ll go for a ride.'”
Puckett took the pastor and his sons out to Centennial Airport, powered up his whirlybird, and took them for a ride over Denver none of them will ever forget.
“I took them up and down the Front Range and then flew around downtown Denver, at building level,” Puckett said. “Tom had never done that before. He said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I feel like a new man.’ It really lifted his spirits and gave him a new vision for the city. You think maybe you aren’t the only one with problems, after you see all those people down there.”
Encouraged by his flight, Melton suggested that the pair share their experience with other ministers in the area—to “give them a lift.” Puckett acquired a Bell 206 LongRanger to better suit his new enterprise. He named it Prayer One, after the manner of Air Force One and other aircraft with specific missions. Every Monday morning, at 7:30 a.m., Puckett and Melton gather their visitors at Centennial Airport, introduce themselves and go over the logistics for the flight. Then Puckett takes three or four flights over the city with five ministers per trip.
“We try to do three things,” Puckett said. “First, we try to give the ministers a break and let them recharge their batteries a little. It really gives them something fun to do on a Monday morning after the efforts of their weekend. We also mix inner city and suburban ministries, so that we’re bringing people together who might not meet otherwise, to help their different ministries. The last point, and maybe the most important one, is that they pray over the city, for the government and schools and the folks down below.”
Since Puckett and Melton first came up with the concept, Prayer One has flown more than 500 people from all walks of life. Both men talk about Prayer One to groups all over the Front Range. Puckett hopes to make a presentation during a helicopter conference next year, in an effort to spread the word about his remarkable aviation enterprise.
“God has given Jeff and Tom a bold vision on how to impact a city,” said Tom Fortson, president and CEO of Promise Keepers. “Prayer One gives you a unique and extraordinary experience to see and pray for the needs of people in the metropolitan area. For the young and old, pastors and Christian leaders, Prayer One provides a breathtaking aerial view of God’s creation, the city, and the essential need to pray for one another. I’ve experienced it.”
Perhaps most remarkably, the Prayer One team has cancelled flights only three times since Puckett first began them in May 2005.
“Maybe some divine intervention is there,” says Puckett with a smile. “Only God knows.”
For more information about Prayer One Ministries, visit [http://www.prayeroneministries.com]. For information about USAERO, visit [http://www.usaero.aero].