Fitchburg residents lead effort to build the world’s largest paper airplane
When Jerry Beck’s then-8-year-old daughter came home with a handmade paper airplane one day, he never thought it would lead him down a path to breaking a world record.
Three years later, his project is just about to come to fruition.
Beck, the founder of Fitchburg’s Revolving Museum — a collaborative public art organization — and a team of more than 3,000 children, artists, engineers, and residents from the region plan to launch the world’s largest paper airplane on June 12 at the Fitchburg Municipal Airport.
The goal is to break a Guinness World Record — and remind the community of Fitchburg’s paper-making history.
“Everyone seemed real excited about building a paper airplane,” Beck said. “It’s one of those activities that you learn early on in life that wows you, that creates a sense of wonder. It’s the miracle of flight.”
The body of the 64-foot-long plane is mainly fashioned out of corrugated cardboard — strong, 1-inch-thick material with a honeycomb-like inside — while the outside is plastered with handmade art projects made of everything from old newspapers to hand-painted postcards to music sheets, Beck said. It’s also made in part with rolls of donated paper from Fitchburg’s Crocker Technical Papers, a historic, once-famed mill that closed its doors in 2015.
The current record-holder is a 59.7-foot paper plane crafted by German engineers in 2013.
The team, which includes students and faculty from Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg High School, McKay Arts Academy, and Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, among others, has tackled a range of issues when creating their artwork, addressing topics such as bullying and violence in the workplace, racism, global warming, ecology, women’s rights, and state history.
“The timing of this has come at a point where there’s such derisiveness in America, and there’s a lot of issues that are really impacting kids. . . . We want to emphasize that it’s not just art about art,” Beck said. “It’s art about change.”
The project, called Project Soar, began to take form after Beck and his daughter did some research on the city’s relationship with paper, discovering that Fitchburg was once one of the largest paper-making cities in the United States, with a row of mills along the Nashua River.
“It was one of those renaissance periods in our history,” he said. “Papermaking was our cachet worldwide.”
Once the paper industry moved out of town, the city struggled to make up for the economic losses, Beck said.
“So we set a goal of 5,000 people to make the world’s largest paper airplane and try to ignite a new renaissance of community building, working collaboratively, and dealing with both social and personal issues,” he said. “We wanted to get as many people involved of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to build a sense of pride so that Fitchburg could be on the world map again.”
The plane will launch off a specially designed trailer pulled by a truck. Once the truck picks up enough speed, the plane will be released into the air, and is expected to fly about 100 feet at 30 to 40 miles per hour before falling back to the ground, Beck said.
The team will then bring the plane to a handful of the state’s airports, hopefully including Boston Logan International Airport and Worcester Regional Airport. After that, it will be permanently located in Fitchburg.
“I wanted to focus on our past, our present, and our future,” Beck said. “I wanted it to be a catalyst of transformation ... and have artists, young people, teachers, and city leaders create a creative economy that we hope improves the quality of life for everyone.”