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Tampa plane mechanic finds hidden photo of girl who dreamed of flying

Grace Kelly was 4 when she died in 2014. Frontier Airlines discovered she’s been flying all along.
 
Shaun Brown, who works as an interior mechanic, shows a picture of a photograph he found at Tampa International Airport’s Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services North Hangar on Tuesday.
Shaun Brown, who works as an interior mechanic, shows a picture of a photograph he found at Tampa International Airport’s Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services North Hangar on Tuesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 19, 2023|Updated April 22, 2023

TAMPA — Early one February afternoon, during scheduled maintenance of Frontier aircraft N228FR at Tampa International Airport, Shaun Brown made a shocking discovery while replacing a lavatory mirror.

“At first when I saw it, I thought it was a postcard or something,” said Brown, a Tampa-based interior mechanic for Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services. “When I read it, I was blown away.”

Wedged behind the glass, he saw the photo of Grace Kelly. Not the Hollywood starlet. A 4-year-old girl.

A photograph of a picture found with a note hidden on a Frontier Airbus A320 during a routine seat check on Feb. 20. Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services mechanics found the picture of 4-year-old Grace.
A photograph of a picture found with a note hidden on a Frontier Airbus A320 during a routine seat check on Feb. 20. Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services mechanics found the picture of 4-year-old Grace. [ Courtesy Cullen Johns ]

In the photograph, the child sat on an amusement ride shaped like a plane, her long red braid soaring behind her. Her story was scrawled on the back in black ink:

Our dear grandchild, Grace, 4½ years old. Taken from us in 3 weeks with a very rare liver cancer (November 2014).

Our little angel had always wanted to fly — so she flies with Monarch — hidden away for as long as possible.

Happy travels darling Grace, you made our lives just perfect for all too short a time.

God bless. XXX, Grandma + Grandad

“Happy travels darling Grace, you made our lives just perfect for all too short a time,” the note read on the back of Grace's photo.
“Happy travels darling Grace, you made our lives just perfect for all too short a time,” the note read on the back of Grace's photo. [ Courtesy Cullen Johns ]

Brown’s instinct was to finish swapping out the mirror and slide the photo back into place.

“So the girl could fly,” he thought.

He snapped a few cellphone pictures to show to lead mechanic Cullen Johns. Johns agreed that Grace’s photo belonged on the plane. They left her photo behind the mirror.

“We didn’t want to just keep it,” Johns said. “It’s obviously extremely special and sentimental.”

Over the next few weeks, Grace’s story spread.

Cullen Johns, left, who works as a lead mechanic, and Shaun Brown, who works as an interior mechanic, left Grace's photo behind the mirror where it was found on Frontier aircraft N228FR.
Cullen Johns, left, who works as a lead mechanic, and Shaun Brown, who works as an interior mechanic, left Grace's photo behind the mirror where it was found on Frontier aircraft N228FR. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

As Johns was chatting with a Frontier Airlines flight attendant and instructor, Amy “AC” Proctor, the topic of the oddest thing found on an aircraft came up. He mentioned the photograph.

“She understood how powerful it was,” Johns said.

Proctor shared the story on Facebook, tagging fellow Frontier flight attendant Lisa Gallegos, who worked for the British company Monarch Airlines before it folded in 2017.

Gallegos spread the story in a private Monarch Airlines Facebook page, said a Frontier spokesperson. Together, the members of the group pieced together the story behind the photo.

After it went under, Monarch sold some of its fleet to Frontier. And the girl in the picture? Her story was real.

The flight attendants tracked down the Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust, a UK-based charity founded by Grace’s family in 2016.

“We lost Grace when she was just 4 years old,” Grace’s mother, Jen Kelly, wrote in a statement to Frontier Airlines. “She never had the chance to fly in a plane. It feels so special to know that Grace’s photo has been flying for so many years and continues to do so thanks to Frontier Airlines. We are so grateful to know that they have tracked us down to let us know. Thank you so much to everyone that helped make this possible.”

Grace Elizabeth Kelly died at just 4 years of age. Her family founded the Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust in 2016.
Grace Elizabeth Kelly died at just 4 years of age. Her family founded the Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust in 2016. [ ANGELA ROBINSON | Courtesy of Jen Kelly ]

Jen Kelly did not want to be interviewed, but offered more information on her daughter in her written statement:

“Grace’s wish was to help other children and her wish resulted in us founding the Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust,” she said. “We fund research into childhood cancers, provide support to families, write medical publications and teach the signs and symptoms of childhood cancer because early diagnosis saves lives.”

The Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust aims to educate families on childhood cancers.
The Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust aims to educate families on childhood cancers. [ Courtesy of Jen Kelly ]

When the Tampa Bay Times read Jen Kelly’s message to Brown, he was quiet.

“That’s powerful,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.”

“It was the last thing any of us were expecting,” Johns said. “None of us knew her and we all feel like we’re part of something larger now. Something very special.”

Want to know where Grace is jetting off to next? You can use a third-party flight tracker, like flightaware.com, to search for Frontier N228FR. Or look out on your next trip to Tampa International Airport. Frontier Airlines, known for decorating the tails of its planes with animal mascots, adorned Aircraft N228FR with its character Orville the Red Cardinal.

The mascot was added long before Grace’s photo was discovered. But it certainly fits.

People say the red cardinal is a symbol — a sign of strength and good fortune from a loved one, sent from the beyond.

Learn more about the Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust

The Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust was founded in 2016 in memory of 4-year-old Grace, who died of a rare and aggressive form of cancer. The organization aims to educate families on childhood cancers. For more information on the Grace Kelly Childhood Cancer Trust, visit www.gkcct.org.