Professor’s news project takes flight

Ben Wolford

Joe Murray checks the oil of the Cessna 172 he pilots as part of his preflight checks. Pilots are required to do a series of checks before they take off. Murray points out that planes are not like cars, where one can just hop in and go. Flying is much mor

Credit: DKS Editors

Joe Murray prepares to take off after completing a preflight check and setting his GPS. David Ranucci | Summer kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

A weather vane crowned one red aluminum hangar at the Portage County Airport. The sun was just falling on the rooster’s head.

In an adjacent hanger, three friends reclined and chatted as at a barbecue, but where wings might have been sizzling over a charcoal pit, an open-cockpit bi-wing waited for flight.

Its owner, Tim Paul, waited for Joe Murray.

Murray, assistant professor of electronic media at Kent State, was coming to shoot B-roll footage for one of the multimedia stories that would be part of “Grass Roots: Digital Journalism in the Nation’s Birthplace of Aviation,” his latest news project.

But until he showed up, they relaxed in front of the open hangar passing stories.

They talked at length about the crash landing of a mutual friend who survived with no scratches. Then there were the lesser musings: Who puked in whose cockpit. Things like that.

When Murray arrived, he got to work unpacking his video camera.

Since accepting a $17,000 grant in May from the media financing organization New Voices, Murray has been hopping around Ohio documenting the people who make up the aviation industry – crop dusters, cockpit upholsters and flight school instructors, among others.

Jacquie Marino, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication, and Gary Harwood are supporting the project as contributing editor and chief photographer, respectively.

The film, audio, photos and vignettes they compile will go on a Web site, and mini-documentaries will go to (the online Akron Beacon Journal) and WKSU-FM. Murray hopes to eventually put together a book.

“This is the story we want to tell,” Murray said, motioning to the hangar loungers. “It’s a family. It’s a community.”

Ready to start taping, Murray told Paul to walk him through the process of getting the plane ready to fly. Paul would have to do that anyway; he was taking a couple friends up for a ride later.

Murray, a pilot himself, followed with his camera as Paul checked the plane’s hydraulics and oil. The plane is a Model 75 Stearman, a single-engine bi-wing built in 1943 for military training.

“He really sees himself as a caretaker of that Stearman,” Murray said.

Paul climbed onto the wing and then into the cockpit.

“Never start an open-cockpit without your seatbelt on,” he said.

Murray filmed the Stearman as its blubbering engine carried it to the runway, Paul driving from the back seat, his rider in the front.

They had to wait because another plane was coming in for a landing. It bounced three times on the runway before settling.

“That was a bad landing,” Murray said, then looked up at the lawn chairs. “They’re probably up there talking about it.”

He said they’ll stay there talking into the night. They might talk about the turn that was skillfully executed, the engine that needs a tweak or the weather that was perfect.

But now the blue-bodied, yellow-winged Stearman gathered speed and left the asphalt. Those on the ground watched it buzz away until it disappeared in the glare of the setting sun.

Contact principal reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].