FITCHBURG — It takes a village to raise a child. But it takes a city to raise a paper airplane — or at least a 64-foot-long corrugated-cardboard aircraft capable of breaking a world record.
On Tuesday, Fitchburg will unveil what artists and community organizers believe to be the largest paper airplane ever assembled. The event at Fitchburg Municipal Airport, where a crane will lift the 1,500-pound plane, culminates three years of planning, building, painting, collaging, graphic designing, and fund-raising from more than 4,500 artists, students, engineers, and business and civic leaders.
“We’re doing something that’s never been done in the world before,” said Jerry Beck, a Fitchburg artist and founder of Project Soar, the team of artists that built the plane under the umbrella of Fitchburg’s Revolving Museum. “It’s a beautiful montage of artwork from all ages, from a 2-year-old to a 92-year-old.”
The supersized paper plane looks like a papier-mâché Viking ship and takes up half a hangar at the Fitchburg airport. Its sloping top is 6-feet tall at the tail and covered in a kaleidoscope of images: vintage ads, comics, faded maps, newspapers, bumper stickers, music scores, portraits, foreign currencies, old ads, hand-painted murals, and the last rolls of paper from Crocker Technical Papers, a historic Fitchburg mill that closed in 2015.
Due to last-minute engineering setbacks — three coats of urethane and gobs of glue have doubled the weight of the cardboard — the Fitchburg plane won’t fly on Tuesday. Instead, a crane will lift the object 30 feet in the air and swing it in a circle, according to Beck. The Guinness world record for “Largest Paper Aircraft,” last broken in 2013 by Germany’s Braunschweig Institute of Technology, requires that the object fly at least 15 meters (about 49 feet). The Braunschweig plane had a 59.7-foot wingspan and weighed just 53 pounds.
Organizers hope the Fitchburg plane will be airworthy by next year. In the meantime, Project Soar plans to propose the creation of a new record category: “World’s Largest Paper Airplane Artwork or Sculpture.”
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale describes Beck as “a cross between Salvador Dali and P.T. Barnum.” Since his first street show, in 1984 — when he refurbished 12 abandoned railroad cars near Northern Avenue — Beck has developed a reputation for public art displays. Project Soar, his latest industrial-scale arts-and-crafts project, began when his 8-year-old daughter surprise-attacked him with a paper airplane she had made at school. Beck had been ambushed by inspiration. He began researching the history of paper production in Fitchburg and discovered a rich past.
“Fitchburg was one of the top three paper-making cities in the world at one time,” said Beck, who founded and directs the Revolving Museum. People here still remember when the river would change colors from the dyes that were leaving the mills that day.”
In the last three years, Beck and his volunteer team have enlisted some 3,800 local kids and teens from 43 schools, nonprofits, and community organizations. Young people helped raise the paper airplane at every step of the process, from designing the wing’s aerodynamics to creating promotional videos for the public.
“You could really see the kids blossoming,” said Karin Gaffney, district governor at Rotary International. Rotary has donated $15,000 to the project. Beck expects the project to cost around $100,000.
Local schools have rallied behind the paper plane. Some students even built their own prototypes, like one 18-foot plane made by students at the Arlington Center for the Arts, in Arlington. At Dawson Elementary, in Holden, 100 fifth-graders needed just one hour to construct a 20-foot model plane.
Project Soar has brought to life classroom lessons on art, local history, physics, and technology, said André Ravenelle, superintendent of Fitchburg Public Schools.
“It’s a good example of an arts-integrated STEM project,” he said. “Our kids are looking for and used to physical manifestations of the work we do in class. We have 3-D printers in our middle schools and high schools, and a paper airplane involves nothing more than taking something two-dimensional and making it three-dimensional.”
For some the plane is a metaphor for a city ready for a liftoff. Once a prosperous mill town, Fitchburg had seen most of its mills shuttered in the late 20th century. Today, nearly one in five residents lives below the poverty line, and only one paper maker remains.
In the last decade, the city has seen a wellspring of creative energy that has heartened residents, including members of the youngest generation.
“I think there’s a real cultural renaissance going on here,” said Matthew Kroch, president of the Multicultural Club at Fitchburg High. “For a long time Fitchburg has been trying to initiate that cultural renaissance, and it’s almost like Project Soar is its igniter.”
The Tuesday unveiling will be a community celebration of art and civic collaboration. Speakers will include the mayor, superintendent of schools, Beck, and other local artists. Ravenelle said that around a thousand students from Fitchburg Public Schools will be bused in to attend the event.
And, regardless of Guinness recognition, Beck said he believes they have created the world’s largest paper airplane.
“It’s always been about the art project,” he said. “We want to awaken people to their own creativity, so they can share their stories and talents and politics to come together and make this city better.”Graham Ambrose can be reached at email@example.com.