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He posed by an airplane as a kid in 1976. 40 years later he recreated the photo with his son

By Francesca Street, CNN

(CNN) — Brian Aerni’s favorite photo of himself was taken when he was just three years old.

It was 1976. Aerni was living in Denver, Colorado, where his father worked as a station agent at Stapleton International Airport – then Denver’s aviation hub. Young Aerni was obsessed with airplanes and in awe of his father’s airport job. Even as a small kid, he loved tagging along with his dad to work and watching aircraft take off and land.

On one of these airport excursions, Aerni’s father took a photo of his son. In the picture, young Aerni – in the forefront, dressed in a white t-shirt and plaid plants – is smiling widely. Behind him is a Convair 580 propeller aircraft, painted in white and blue Frontier Airlines livery.

As Aerni grew up, his interest in aviation grew with him. While he didn’t end up working in the industry, later in life he got his pilot’s license. Now aged 50, Aerni has a small private plane. A framed version of the 1976 airport photo has pride of place on a wall in his home.

Some years ago, in 2015, Aerni found himself wondering what had happened to the aircraft featured in the photo. He did some Googling, trawling the FAA database and eventually discovering the aircraft had ended up in Canada. More research led Aerni to learn the aircraft was owned by Conair, an aerial firefighting company, which had repurposed it into a firefighting aircraft.

An idea started formulating in Aerni’s mind. He was now a father, with a three-year-old son and a toddler daughter. Not only was Aerni’s son the same age as he’d been back in the 1976 photo, he looked a lot like young Aerni. Maybe, Aerni wondered, they could try and recreate the photo.

40 years later

On a whim, Aerni reached out to Conair via phone. To his surprise, the company was enthusiastic about Aerni’s photography mission and welcomed the idea of a visit.

Before they knew it, Aerni and his then-wife were boarding a flight to Canada – although not before seeking out a pair of plaid trousers for their son to wear in the recreated photo.

For aviation fan Aerni, visiting the Conair facility in Abbottsford, Canada was great fun.

“The guys were super cool. They gave us a tour of their facility, and we got to go up in the airplane,” he recalls. “And then we did our best to try to recreate the photo.”

In the 2015 version, Aerni’s then-three year old son perfectly recreated his father’s 1976 pose – arms behind his back, big smile. And his parents successfully found some plaid trousers that resembled his father’s 1970s pair. In the recreated shot, the aircraft is now painted red and white, but it’s instantly identifiable.

Aerni also posed for a photo in front of the plane – he couldn’t resist – with his arms around his son and his daughter.

“Seeing the aircraft again made me smile,” says Aerni. “I’m so glad I got the pictures.”

The only bittersweet part was Aerni’s father had passed away the year before, so he couldn’t join the excursion, or see the photos from the trip.

“I was hoping that he could have come along,” Aerni tells CNN Travel. “I think he would have enjoyed the photo recreation.”

But all day long, while touring the Conair facility and while recreating the 1976 photo, Aerni felt close to his father. And later, when he showed his mother the recreated photo, she was delighted.

Aerni also shared the images with fellow aviation fans online, where they were greeted with much interest and enthusiasm. His local paper also ran an article on the photos and the story made the front page.

Family ties

Aerni’s son, who is now 12, doesn’t currently have the same passion for aviation as his father. But Aerni says both his kids enjoy occasional jaunts in his private airplane. In particular, his daughter, who is now 10, has a daredevil streak and Aerni’s starting to wonder if she’s the one who might follow in his footsteps and become a pilot one day.

“She loves all of the crazy fair rides,” he says. “She likes all the turbulence and the bumps.”

For Aerni, the photos are a reminder of the impact family can have through generations – if his dad hadn’t worked at the airport, he might never have developed his love for aviation, something that’s defined his life. Whatever interests his kids have in the future, Aerni looks forward to supporting and sharing them too.

Earlier this year, Aerni learned that the aircraft that starred in the 1976 and 2014 photo had been dismantled and sold for scrap. Hearing the news, he felt a little sad, but also extra grateful he’d had the opportunity to see the plane again and take the photos.

Looking back at the pilgrimage today, Aerni admits it was “kind of crazy.”

“It was a lot of money to go just to create a photo,” he says.

But six years on, Aerni has no regrets – after all, he now has a couple of favorite photos to rival the original 1976 picture. The photo of his son beside the plane now hangs below the original. He loves looking at the pictures together.

“They always make me smile,” he says.

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