Fitchburg group to build one-ton paper airplane

Jerry Beck, executive director of the Fitchburg Revolving Museum

Fifteen local artists hope to create the largest paper airplane ever assembled, taking ideas from some of Central Massachusetts’ largest manufacturers and paper from historic paper-making businesses in the Fitchburg area. The group hopes to launch the plan at Fitchburg Municipal Airport next week. Jerry Beck, executive director of Fitchburg-based Revolving Museum and the project leader, spoke to WBJ about Project Soar and the influence of the area’s manufacturing history.
How much paper is being used?
Because Project Soar celebrates Fitchburg’s past, present, and future, I thought it was important to use a wide-range of types of paper to make art with. We have collected more than 50 types of ephemera (vintage paper) from the 1800s, when Fitchburg was one the largest paper-making cities in the world. We also were able to get a hold of the last rolls of paper produced by the historic Crocker Paper Co. before it went out of business in 2015. Additional paper was donated by Caraustar Paper Co., the last-remaining paper manufacturer in Fitchburg. We also have a lot of recycled and green paper that doesn’t harm the environment.
How much will it weigh?
It’s hard to say. Someone suggested ​we get a giant scale and weigh it on a hook like they do big fish. We estimate it is going to weigh between 1,500-2,000 pounds. It is hard to know how much glue we will be using to attached the artwork. It could be hundreds of pounds and the same goes for the urethane that will make the 64 foot paper airplane waterproof.
How long is the plane expected to fly?
We never intended to break the record for flight​, ​​only for creating the largest paper airplane artwork. We have spent many hours trying to come up with a plan as to how to make it fly. We talked with helicopter police, aviation engineers, pilots, even a retired U.S. Air Force commander to figure out how to make it fly. It turned out it was just t​oo big for us to safely attempt to get it up in the air. Safety always is first so we went with a different plan and got a donated crane from Astro Crane Co. that is going to lift it high in the sky and have it soar by rotating it in a circular motion.
How many hours were spent on creating it?
We started researching the project about three years ago, but we really dove into the making of it ​last fall. Many people didn’t believe The Revolving Museum could pull this off, so I was even more motivated to develop a plan that would accomplish a world record. We have nearly 5,000 people ​who have participated​, ​generously putting in​ their time. For me, it has been an obsession. It feels like it’s been 18-hour days, seven days a week, since September.
Is the aircraft taking some sort of shape?
The shape is what everyone start​s​ with​ when making a paper airplane​. The simple folds, triangular​-​shaped wings. It is exactly the same shape as my daughter’s paper airplane that sparked the idea to make the world’s largest. 
What was it about the area’s manufacturing history that sparked the project? How did you get a hold of paper from the city’s former paper manufacturers?
​When I came to Fitchburg, I explored its history and quickly discovered it was huge ​in paper-making. People still remember how the paper mills made the Nashua River change colors from day to day. I found out how activist Marion Stoddart got thousands ​of ​people involved and took on the mill owners​. They​ miraculously​ transformed the Nashua from one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. to one of the cleanest. As an environmentalist, she is a hero of mine.
Do you expect this project to reignite the area’s interest in its manufacturing industry?
The primary goal of Project Soar was to get people of all ages and backgrounds involved, to be creative, learn about local history, get empowered​,​ feel a sense of pride in their city, and finally share in a collective adventure to break a world record. I have no doubt community art-making can be transformational and make positive changes in our downtowns and neighborhoods. It can provide spark educational opportunity, urban revitalization, tourism and economic development. The city of Fitchburg is on the verge of a community-building renaissance. It is not just about one project, but many projects happening through ​city ​government, public schools, ​universities, the nonprofit sector, local businesses, and others that believe they can inspire a booming creative economy and a better quality of life for everyone.
This interview was conducted and edited by WBJ Staff Writer Zachary Comeau.