Alison Hardebeck and her husband agreed on their son's very first solo flight for a special reason — his cousin's birthday.
"I grew up in California, I now live in Washington State. So my whole family is still in California, and my sister calls and says that for my nephew's birthday that was coming up, all he wanted for his birthday was for his cousin to come to his birthday party," Hardebeck tells PEOPLE of the situation that led to a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her son.
While 11-year-old Jacoby was free, the rest of the family wasn't. "My husband coaches our other son's soccer team, so he was not able to go for the weekend. I couldn't go either, and so we decided to go ahead and go for it and let him fly on his own for the first time."
After talking to her husband about it, the couple — who have flown countless times with all three of their kids — felt comfortable letting Jacoby go alone, dropping him at the gate in Seattle and having family members retrieve him from Sacramento.
"Our son, he's a typical firstborn son and he when he sets his mind to do something, he goes for it. But he is very curious and has a tendency to be a little bit more cautious," Hardebeck says of the considerations.
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"He had some questions for me obviously, like 'What's it gonna look like? Where am I going to sit?' And so he asked questions, I answered them, and he decided that this was something that he wanted to do, and we decided to support that."
The moment would be nerve-wracking for any parent, but some dicey weather in Seattle led to additional concerns.
"The plane had actually tried to land a couple of times, and it was not safe for them to land so it diverted to Portland to get more gas. So we were actually about three hours delayed," she shares. "At that point, Coby and I had been in the airport quite a while, and he was hoping he'd be able to go since it was a super quick trip — Friday night to Sunday night."
Once he was finally able to board, the 11-year-old was "so ready and excited," but Hardebeck was left behind at the airport with her worries.
"As a mom, you're letting your baby — who will always be your baby — fly off into the air right? It's an hour-and-a-half flight, no layovers. I know my dad is on the other side, standing there waiting. So logically I know he is going to be okay, and then I get this text from an unknown number."
Hardebeck almost wrote it off as political spam when she spotted a picture of Jacoby. When she clicked, she was met with a picture of her son sitting in the cockpit of the plane.
The message was from Captain Doug Larimer, a Southwest Airlines pilot who took the time to assure both Hardebeck and her family waiting in California that Jacoby was being treated well and enjoying himself, completely shocking the unexpecting mom.
"I was just in utter disbelief and shock, in the best way. Just to see the look on Jacoby's face — it's pure joy. You don't see any anxiety, any worry, just a huge grin on his face. And I truly was so blown away, especially in a day and age where people are tending, to be a lot more cautious, and reserved."
At that moment, the pilot was simply doing what he's done for countless other kids who have been on his flights throughout his career.
"One of the reasons I do it is because every parent loves having a picture of their kid in the cockpit," Larimer tells PEOPLE, recalling times he was allowed to do the same as a kid, inspiring his love for flying.
"It's one of those little pay it forward moments to other people whose kids think it's a neat place to visit, to explore."
It was especially important for Larimer — who is a dad himself to two boys, 10 and 12 — to reassure Hardebeck and Jacoby's grandfather after the weather issues and delays. What he didn't expect was that the gesture would be shared on social media, with Hardebeck hoping to gain the captain some positive recognition.
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"I had put it in my stories, just the screenshot of my text and in my story and the response that I got was just overwhelming. It's just, as a mom, you have someone here who said, 'I'm going home to my boys too.' Just the fact that you recognize as a parent, what that can mean," says Hardebeck.
The Instagram Reel — which has amassed over 6 million views and counting — completely surprised Larimer, who had never had a parent reach back out in response to a cockpit picture before. The dad, who doesn't spend much time on social media, was shocked at how much attention the gesture got.
"I mentioned my encounter with Jacoby to my crew after it happened and a week later, I showed back up to work and one of the flight attendants pulls out this phone and says, 'have you seen this on Facebook?'"
Continues Larimer, "I was like, 'Wow, this is kind of crazy' and we were laughing, like who knew this was going to blow up?"
Equally surprised was Jacoby, who is happy to see Larimer get the recognition he feels he earned. "Captain Doug was a very nice person," the 11-year-old tells PEOPLE. "He's one of my favorite pilots I've ever seen. It was awesome."
For Hardebeck, she believes Larimer's decision to make a "human connection" may have a "lifelong impact" on the pre-teen. "So many commenters said that maybe this will plant the seed in your son, with a love of aviation. And it's just a reminder that a little gesture of kindness, to make someone feel safe, can really go the distance."