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Winging It

A classic plane, a camera, and a can-do spirit lift Shirley Chevalier above the fray

by Keith Morrill

Shirley Chevalier, the owner of Fli-Rite Aviation in Colchester, shoots aerial photos for a long list of Vermont businesses.

Shirley Chevalier has a rare perspective on Vermont’s landscape. While most Vermonters have their feet planted on terra firma, Chevalier soars above it all. Literally. As the owner of Fli-Rite Aviation in Colchester, she spends most of her days flying the open skies, snapping photos for clients and loving every minute.

Around Burlington International Airport, where everybody seems to know her, Chavalier goes by a different name: “Champ 99 Echo,” or Champ for short. That’s her runway moniker and the name of her plane, a 1959 American Champion. It’s the sort of classic that makes most aviation aficionados drool, and with its red-and-white trim and heart motif, it’s absolutely Chevalier — as is her comment, “It’s a brand new, 1959 plane.” 

“Brand new” refers to the massive restoration the plane underwent earlier this decade. The process took more than two years to complete, and it marked a new life for both the plane and pilot. Before that, Chevalier had flown the plane with little fuss for at least 20 years. She picked it up in Swanton with the help of her friend and mentor, the late Grace Pugh — Vermont’s first female aviator — and flew it more or less as it was until the restoration. It’s the only plane Chevalier’s ever owned, and the only one she’s ever needed, she says. 

It was the restoration and rebirth of the plane that prompted Chevalier to finally combine her love of flying with her experience in photography and launch her own business. She chose the name Fli-Rite Aviation to honor Pugh, whose company was called Fli-Rite School of Aviation. 

In order to obtain the financial backing needed to finish the restoration and take to the skies, Chevalier took on silent partner, Hobart “Hobie” Tomlinson. Tomlinson is a retired TWA 747 pilot working as an FAA state examiner, an independent flight instructor, and as a charter pilot and director of safety for Heritage Flight in South Burlington. He helped pay for the massive restorations, something Chevalier says she could have never afforded on her own.

Though this is the first time Chevalier has run her own business, she has had plenty of experience in the aviation industry. Born in Springfield and raised in Amsden, her professional career began when she was hired as a tour guide at Burlington National Airport in 1974. Before then, she had raised five children, and was divorced in 1972. Her can-do approach and good people skills led the airport management to create the position of public relations director for her.

The job had Chevalier taking photos quite often. During her time there, she also worked on a book commissioned by the city of Burlington and the Vermont Board of Airport Commissioners called Burlington International Airport: A Pictorial History that was printed in 1982. That project led her to meet Bill Hazelett, CEO of Hazelett Strip Casting Corp. in Colchester, who taught her to fly when she was 40 years old. 

In 1986, as part of a reshuffling by the airport commission, Chevalier lost her job. She describes it as the worst day of her life, no longer being able to do what she loved most. Until she opened Fli-Rite Aviation in 2004, she had a number of jobs, “none of which I was good at,” she quips.

Shirley using her camera out the window as she fliesFrom exhaustive trials, Shirley Chevalier learned that the best way to capture the best shot is to plan carefully and hold the camera in her hands.

Chevalier says when she started Fli-Rite, she obtained clients the best way she knew how — by meeting them face-to-face. First, she took aerial photos of their businesses or property, then went to their front doors bearing her laptop loaded with photos for their viewing. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they would say, ‘Sure, come on in!’” recalls Chevalier. “So I would show them, and they would buy them.” 

Through a combination of knowing the right people and taking the right photos, Chevalier’s client list grew until she had a steady year-round gig. Even in winter, she takes to the skies, plugging in a small space heater to fend off the cold. Her list of clients is quite lengthy and includes familiar names such as the University of Vermont. 

She’s been snapping shots of the university’s recent housing project and  the construction of the Davis Center. She’s also done work for the Vermont Air National Guard, Lake Champlain Transportation, water and electric utilities, construction firms, private homeowners, and several municipalities. “Last year, my photo was on the front of a million brochures for the Lake Champlain ferries,” she says.

Aerial view of Basin Harbor by Shirley Chevalier.An aerial view of the beautiful coastline of Lake Champlain in the green glory of summertime

For the new 18-hole golf course at Spruce Peak in Stowe, Chevalier was asked to take a shot from directly above that could be measured with a grid to identify where plantings were located, among other things. “The picture was probably 3-by-4 feet,” she says, “and I worked with Reprographics to put a grid on the picture so that one square equals 100 feet on the ground. If the golf course manager wants to re-seed or tear out a tree in I-14, he knows exactly where to go.”

Chevalier arranged to have two vehicles parked exactly 100 feet apart, so that when the photo was finished, the measurement was easy to extrapolate. “I’ve also done all four of Shelburne Limestone’s quarries that way,” she says. 

Scoring great photos is more than just pointing and clicking, she says. Being a one-woman operation means Chevalier both flies and shoots — at the same time. She achieves this by tipping and lining up her plane at the ideal angle and holding it steady while she takes photos. For shots that would be too difficult or dangerous to do solo, such as the Spruce Peak job, she calls in a trusted friend and fellow flier to hold the plane steady while she snaps photos. 

Her hand-held method is the result of a long period of trials. “I tried to get a beanbag to sit up there,” she says; “I tried a very soft, but dense foam, but that didn’t work; tried to hang it and swing it, but that didn’t work; so I did it the old-fashioned way — put the strap around your neck and shoot — because there’s two struts there, plus the prop, which I can’t shoot through, because I have a fast camera.”

Aerial view of Allenholm Farm orchard in South Hero by Shirley Chevalier.An Aerial view of Allenholm Farm's apple orchard in full bloom

A multitude of variables can affect each shot, and a great deal of planning goes into each job. She must factor in not only shot angles, but also time, seasons and weather, and budgeting. She says she does her best to work efficiently, especially with gas prices being so high, and obtain shots for as many clients as possible in each trip. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to predetermine the needs of a particular shot without the aerial perspective, so some jobs take several runs to complete. 

Sometimes clients over-prepare in anticipation of Chevalier’s arrival, she says. She has some recommended dos and don’ts for people looking to immortalize their property or business. “They run out and mow their lawn,” says Chevalier with a chuckle. “That’s a mistake. The unevenness of the grass shows up like a sore thumb. Longer grass is better, because it’s nice and green.” If her camera picks up striation in the grass, it certainly picks up the clutter of daily living. “I’ll get every single barrel, every single baby carriage,” she warns with a wry grin. “I’ll get everything.” 

Once she has the shots, she puts them on her laptop and takes them right to her clients, so they can choose which ones they’d like to purchase. Chevalier then makes any last-minute touch-ups (such as digitally removing power lines, or maybe a stray carriage or two) before getting the final print. Clients are never obligated to buy the shots, but Chevalier seems to have a hard time recalling the last time a client didn’t purchase any. 

Pam Allen of Allenholm Farm in South Hero raves about the work Chevalier has done for her and her husband, Ray. “She’s done wonderful pictures of our apple festival in October when the cars are lining the streets,” says Allen. “It’s such an interesting perspective to see things from above as opposed to the normal view of a photographer on the ground.” 

Last summer Chevalier took photos at the wedding of Allen’s nephew at Basin Harbor. “She’s an awesome lady,” Allen asserts. “She has a heart as big as the outdoors.”

Despite her sunny demeanor, Chevalier acknowledges that there is potential danger inherent in her work. “Aside from all the fluff, it’s a very serious business. I respect the air-traffic controllers, and I respect the airport personnel, and I respect my mechanic.” That danger appeal might also be the very reason Chevalier loves what she does so much. 

“When I’m up there, and there’s a whole different set of rules to life and death, I’m in total control of my life. It’s not a power thing. It’s a freedom thing. There’s a difference between those two,” she says. “I’ve been up hundreds of times, and every single time is a new adventure. I see something I didn’t see the time before. The seasons have changed. Everything changes. It’s beauty, it’s God’s creation, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.”

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