'Prayer One': Denver Ministry Offers Heavenly Perspective

PHOTO: In Colorado, there is an unusual ministry that is teaching people how to see their world in a way they never have before from above. "Prayer One" is reaching both the faithful and those struggling to walk the straight and narrow by giving them a hPlayABC News
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Flying is Jeff Puckett's drug of choice.

Climbing into the cockpit of his Bell 407 helicopter, he fires up the machine's jet engine. The rotors spin up to full power, and after getting clearance from the control tower Puckett zooms off the tarmac and heads for downtown Denver.

The chopper passes over tall buildings and the gold-dome of the mile-high Colorado state capitol. Then it turns toward the mountains west of town, slowly passing 500 feet above the famous Red Rocks amphitheater.

"How cool is that?" he asks, all smiles.

Over the 407's intercom, Puckett said flying clears his soul.

"You just come up here and you kind of forget about your troubles down below us," he said.

A few years ago Puckett shared that feeling, hoping to cheer up his friend and pastor, Tom Melton. Two of Melton's friends had just died and his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Puckett was trying to cheer him up.

"I just wanted to get him up and let him feel what I feel every time I fly," Puckett said.

It worked.

"It had a profound impact on me," said Melton, the senior pastor at Greenwood Community Church near Denver. "Flying at 500 feet you could actually see people. You get a sense of the vastness, but you also get a sense of the human connection. It is like a God's-eye view."

The flight inspired Melton to fellow pastors to experience the same airborne inspiration.

"It occurred to me-- wouldn't it be cool if we could get these guys into the helicopter?"

That was the start of what soon became a kind of informal flying ministry.

Once a week, pastors—and soon business owners and politicians—started coming together every Monday morning to fly in the helicopter over the city of Denver.

On one flight someone pulled out a bible and began to pray, so Puckett dubbed the helicopter "Prayer One."

Puckett has built successful careers in the oil and gas and aviation industries, and is something of a philanthropist.

He donates all the flight time. For passengers, the flights are free.

To fill seats on "Prayer One" flights, Puckett and Melton turned to Jude Del Hierro. He runs Confluence Ministries in Denver, aimed at bringing together people of different faiths.

"It's very diverse. And very eclectic. It could be business people, government people, ministry leaders and pastors," Del Hierro said. "It's really just a great experience. It's a great way to see the city in another perspective."

Sometimes, "Prayer One" flights are designed to reach at-risk youth, like the ones in Adrian Sandoval's flock.

Sandoval— himself a former gang member who goes by the nickname "Age"— runs "Tha Myx" ministry in Sun Valley, one of Denver's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.

Walking the streets one day, he comes across an abandoned van that serves as a metaphor for Sun Valley's trouble. It's covered in gang graffiti.

"As you can tell we've got gang warfare going on," said Sandoval. "In this community we have five rival gangs."

It's so tough to escape this neighborhood that Age calls Sun Valley an urban cell block.

So for the next "Prayer One" flight, he's reaching out to invite young men in his flock to fly, hoping to give them a rare chance to literally rise above.

One of them is Mat Ortega. He's in his early 20s and used to run with a violent Denver street gang. Jail has been a frequent stop. As he walks through a Denver park, the memories of his violent past are vivid.

"I've been attacked by a lot of people here and I've attacked a lot of people here," Ortega said.

When the day of the flight arrives, Mat walks into Puckett's office just off the tarmac at the Centennial airport south of Denver.

A group of about 20 young men from around the city have already gathered. Some of them are rivals, and there is already tension.

"When we walked in one of the kids in our group told me right away 'I know that kid and he's the reason my nose got broken,'" Ortega said.

During the preflight briefing, few of the men say a word. It's a room full of tough guys trying not to look nervous.

"The body language is tough," said Melton. "And that toughness is really about fear."

When it comes time to fly, Ortega admits he's not only nervous, he's already thrown up once.

"I'm scared of heights. Bad!"

As Ortega slips on a headset in the back of the Bell 407, he says that when he was a small child, his father once threatened him by hanging him upside down over a balcony.

Even now, years later, he can't shake the fear of falling.

But it's too late to get out, as Puckett pulls up on the controls and the helicopter skids begin to lift off the ground.

"Magic carpet time," Puckett says over the intercom.

Soon, Ortega's nervousness turns to exhilaration.

"Man, my heart's beating so fast," he tells Pastor Age, sitting across from him.

Over the course of the day and four flights, street-hardened young men take to the skies, and suddenly turn into kids again.

It's perhaps telling that more than one passenger sees the guard-shack-like airport control tower and asks if they're flying over a prison.

"So is this your first time to fly?" Puckett asks Ortega.

"Yeah, it's amazing," Ortega said.

Puckett says a quick prayer, and then banks toward downtown Denver skyscrapers. He cruises over the stadium where the Rockies play baseball, above miniature streets and neighborhoods.

"Look at the mountains, man. The mountains look pretty," Ortega said to a friend.

Sounding reflective, he seemed as though he's seeing familiar things for the first time.

"We're all just little compared to everything in the world," he said. "We're tiny."

After about 20 minutes, Puckett turns the helicopter back toward the airport. And while nobody claims the short flight will somehow transform Mat Ortega's life overnight, it has clearly given him the taste of a new perspective.

"When we were in the helicopter I was like, 'look around, what are we fighting for?' There's no division point. All the boundaries just disappeared up there. You didn't see north side, you didn't see west side, you didn't see south side, you saw Denver and how beautiful it is and how much it has to offer us," Ortega said. "To me, the helicopter symbolized moving forward in life."

For Jeff Puckett and his friends, it's mission accomplished.

After the flight, Puckett addresses the group and can't help but tear up.

"We're here to encourage you guys. And what happens in return is we get encouraged. It's an awesome experience. Awesome. So my message is, do the unexpected."

Sandoval says the chopper ride, and the spiritual contemplation that comes afterward, offers hope to young men and women that "I can do this. I can conquer something in life. And that's the beauty of it."

In six years and nearly 3,000 passengers, Puckett and his friends said they have never asked for a dime or tried to use the flights as a tax write off.

They do it, they say, simply as a way to give back.

"It's that whole 'pay-it-forward' thing," Puckett said. "I don't want there to be a catch. There's a verse in the bible, to those whom much is given, much is expected. I really feel a responsibility to give back."

What they do ask is for passengers to go home and find their own helicopter, so to speak.

"Everybody in their life has something that's their 'helicopter,' he said. "Go home thinking about 'what's your helicopter? What can I bring to my community and my friends and people I don't know?' If you can find your own helicopter, it's kind of a really rewarding thing."