Colby College students, from left, Anna Jaubert, Gillon Lim and Branden Brown use the website Aviation Weather Center Monday while reviewing the latest weather information during their aviation class. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Nick Smits finds it difficult to describe in a nutshell all that he has learned over the last month in a Colby College aviation course.

Yes, he learned about aircraft in general and the importance of completing a long checklist before taking off and knowing information about dew points, humidity levels and clouds. One also has to know specifics of preparing a plane, taxiing on the runway, lifting off, departing, landing.

But Smits, 18, also learned a lot more things that are less tangible in the Dare Northward, Colby Aviation Jan Plan course, such as the importance of small, general aviation airports to communities and how critical those are to business, recreation, education and the vibrancy of an area. He learned about how artificial intelligence is part of aviation. Systems have been developed, for instance, that allow someone in an aircraft to analyze airports, weather, facilities and length of runways in the area. Technology now also allows for a plane to safely land if a pilot becomes incapacitated.

Beyond that, Smits and his classmates got to go to Florida, Smits’ home state, tour the Kennedy Space Center, and fly a plane for the first time. Their instructors are employed by Airlink, at both Waterville’s Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport and Valkaria Airport in Grant-Valkaria, Florida. Smits said flying a plane for the first time was daunting but exhilarating.

Colby College student Nick Smits is enrolled in an aviation class at Colby College in Waterville. Smits is shown at the Lovejoy Building where the class met Monday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“I felt a little nervous but once I got going, it was way more intuitive than you think it is and all the training that we did made it easier,” he said.

A chemistry and math major, he said he hopes to land a job after college in something related to environmental studies. The aviation course has made him want to fly more and possibly take a job where flying is involved.


“I don’t know in what capacity, but I want to continue with it — maybe related to environmental conservation,” he said.

Smits, a freshman, described the course Monday in a classroom on the Colby campus while a snowstorm whirled outside, dropping more than a foot of snow in the city. The class was to have convened at the city-owned LaFleur airport where the students typically take instruction, but they stayed on campus due to the storm.

Leading the class was Warren Claytor, an architect from Wayne, Pennsylvania, who developed the program for Colby. A 1992 Colby alumnus, Claytor said this is the second year for the course.

Claytor, 52, and his two older brothers, Tom and Brannon, all graduated from Colby and worked at the Waterville airport while they were students there. Tom, now 59, who studied physics at Colby, is a bush pilot in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and National Geographic did a documentary about him when he about 31 and a bush pilot in Africa. Warren Claytor showed the film to the students Monday.

Colby College graduate Warren Claytor launched an aviation course at the college. Claytor is shown Monday in a classroom at the Colby. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Brannon Claytor, who studied pre-med at Colby and graduated in 1988, became a doctor and flew to places in remote northern Maine to attend to accident victims and other patients. Warren Claytor majored in economics with a minor in cultural anthropology. As a pilot, he uses that skill now in his work as an architect. He has clients in places such as Boothbay, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Virginia and Wyoming.

“I use aviation to help promote my business, but also to make it more efficient,” he said.


He emphasized to students that small general aviation airports are going by the wayside, because they aren’t viable and can’t generate enough income, and that is a great loss to communities. But Waterville’s airport, he said, is going strong and is used by not only private pilots, but also the tourism industry, businesses, institutions and colleges such as Colby.

Claytor flew into LaFleur from Pennsylvania on Sunday and plans to return Tuesday, weather permitting. He said he and his brothers were inspired to become pilots by their grandmother who was a farmer and who, in the 1930s, earned money to get her pilot’s license. His family instilled in him and his siblings the importance of giving back, and that’s why he developed and supports the Colby aviation course.

Students on Monday said they took the course for various reasons, including an interest in aviation and that someone in their family was a pilot.

For Smits, who had never seen snow before coming to Maine, the course was something he would “one-thousand percent” recommend to others.

“When else in my life will I be able to say I learned how to fly a plane?” he said. “Just from day one, it’s been like learning a new language. You can be completely immersed. It’s a lot of information because flying is hard, and not everyone will do it. It’s really fascinating to learn. I learn something new every day. I’m never bored.”

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