There they were again. A father and his young son of around twelve stood in their regular spot. They were standing just behind the chain link fence separating the terminal building from the main ramp and had returned just to watch the planes coming and going. I had seen them there at least six or seven times over the past several months. It reminded me of the many times my father had taken me out to the airport near our home on a beautiful evening just to watch.

As a new first officer with just a few months experience as a line pilot, I was learning the ropes from the guys who had been flying these routes for years and today was no different. I was flying with a real veteran. He’d been with the company since he was 19 years old, had accumulated nearly 10,000 hours flying these commuter airline routes and was rapidly approaching what, at the time, was the dreaded cutoff age for new hires at the major airlines; 30 years old. The majors were, of course, the ultimate career goal for most of us commuter pilots, but a bad economy had left hundreds of pilots furloughed at most companies with just trickle hiring going on at a few. But things finally seemed to be improving and a few of our senior pilots were actually getting job offers.

That was the case for Captain Danny, as we called him. He was on butt nine today. This was his last day as a “Commuter Pilot” before heading off to his “Dream” airline job. Nothing could ruin his day and every fellow worker we saw today congratulated him and wished him well. It almost seemed like a retirement flight, but in reality, was more like a graduation flight for him.

We were just about to begin our final round trip of the day to Chicago’s O’Hare airport and as usual we didn’t have a minute to spare before getting ready for the next segment of our eight-leg day. The weather was wonderful that early Saturday evening so all we had to do was determine our passenger and cargo load before finalizing our fuel order. Captain Danny was still busy with that task inside the terminal building as I completed the enroute walk-around inspection. With no time for left chitchat, I climbed back on board to get started on the weight and balance calculations before departure.

While the ramp handlers were busy loading the luggage and passengers had begun boarding, Captain Danny, still on his own “Butt Nine,” seemed to float out to the plane. But as he settled into his seat he was all business again and we began the busy pre-start checklist procedures. With all doors closed and receiving the all-clear signal from the ramp crew, we started the engines. I’d just finished recording the peak start temperatures on our sensitive turboprop engines while we waited the few moments necessary for the ground crew to disconnect the power cart before we could begin taxiing.

That’s when I noticed them again, father and son, still standing there against the fence, in from a hard day’s work on their family farm somewhere in central Wisconsin. They were both still wearing their bib overalls complete with all the evidence of their day’s efforts. Just coming out to the airport was obviously the highlight of their day. By their expressions, it seemed as if they had somehow magically slid from the tractor seat directly into the cockpit of our Metroliner. You could easily see the joy of the moment on both their faces as the father leaned over close to his son’s ear to be heard over the roar of our twin Garretts.

The ground crew had given us the wave off, indicating clear to taxi, but by then Captain Danny had noticed them too. Over the years, he had probably seen these two standing there a hundred times before. He didn’t say a word and for a few seconds simply stared at them as his smile returned. I was beginning to wonder why he hadn’t yet started to taxi when he did something quite unexpected. Suddenly unconcerned with maintaining the schedule we had been working so hard all day to keep, he turned and said, “I’ll be right back,” as he shut down the left engine and then grabbed his Captain’s hat as he lowered the airstair door, leaving me alone and bewildered in the cockpit.

Captain Danny walked over to them and leaning over the fence he placed his Captain’s hat atop the boy’s head. The hat wasn’t pretty, clearly showing all the stains, rumples and bruises that had come from thousands of flights. And it was way too big for the boy, falling well below his ears. But it didn’t matter; not one bit. You could tell from his twinkling eyes and wide smile as he looked first up at his father, then back to Captain Danny. It was as if a King’s crown had just been placed on his head. This was a magical moment as one generation of pilots linked to the next through this giving. Danny turned away with a smile and a wave as he returned to the cockpit. He restarted the engine and we taxied for takeoff.

He said nothing about his gift to the boy until we had leveled off at cruise. Then, looking at me with a knowing smile, said, “Don’t worry, he’ll grow into it.”  I smiled back and said, “Looked like it fit him pretty good already, didn’t it, Captain?” Captain Danny, still smiling, just nodded as he checked in with the next controller.

Bob Schmelzer is a Chicago area designated pilot examiner and a United Airlines Boeing 777 captain/line check airman. He has been an active flight instructor since 1972.