In hot air ballooning, practice and trust makes perfect
By CAITLIN ANDREWS and ELIZABETH FRANTZ
Aug. 07, 2017
PITTSFIELD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire — with its many mountains, rivers and forests — has plenty of room for snags.
As Dave Markowitz and his crew prepared the hot air balloon Wild Ride for flight in the wee hours of Friday morning — before the fog had a chance to burn off of the nearby Suncook River and the sun crept over the horizon — they knew the day held the potential for some surprises.
Open space, the kind needed for landing hot-air balloons, isn't very abundant, Markowitz said. It's nothing like the open plains of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he grew up and where one of the biggest hot-air balloon rallies in the world takes place.
And for those who spring for a balloon ride during the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally this weekend, it might be hard to imagine that there could be a bumpy ride hidden in the rolling hills and shady trees surrounding Drake Field in Pittsfield.
Luckily, Markowitz, who has been a staple at the Pittsfield event for 18 years, has his chase crew, who helps him set up his balloon and, once the wind takes the aircraft, will follow him all over creation looking for a safe place to land.
Often local chase crews are responsible for transporting a hot air balloon back from wherever it lands, and making recommendations on safe places to land within the balloon's path.
It's a relationship that requires local knowledge of the lay of the land, and perhaps more importantly, a sense of trust and the ability to clearly communicate.
If the Wild Ride crew is a family, Markowitz is the patriarch, the glue that has brought the team together.
Just ask Steph Douglass, 33 of Goffstown, who met Markowitz at the Suncook Valley Rotary rally 15 years ago. They've remained close, with Douglass crewing for Markowitz at various balloon festivals since. Now married and with two children, Douglass is training to be a pilot under Markowitz, and her two children and husband often tag along for crew trips.
Their relationship is easiest to see when Wild Ride is airborne — Markowitz's calm and encouraging demeanor never breaks, even as Douglass manipulates the balloon's altitude to make its basket kiss the Suncook River's surface in a maneuver called a "splash and dash." It goes a lot smoother than Douglass's first splash attempt, which was more of a dunk than a dip, she said.
But Markowitz, an emergency room doctor, says he isn't one to panic.
"I never panic, even if something's up," he said. "If I panic, so does everybody else."
That trust is vital not just to learning to fly, but being a part of a balloon crew, Douglass said. "There has to be a lot of communication," she said, "and trust in your pilot."
Indeed, the minutes before Wild Ride takes off are filled with chatter — which lines need to be clipped where, how much air needs to be blown into the envelope, who needs to be where.
That chatter practically disappears when Markowitz takes off; he's not a big fan of communicating with his crew once he's in the air, unless there's a problem. "They're so awesome, I know they'll be able to find me," he said.
Throughout it all, Markowitz's crew never gets very serious.
"Ballooning is not a matter of life or death. It is much more important than that," reads the back of one of Wild Ride's chase cars.
But in some ways, being on Markowitz's crew is a matter of life and death for Paul and Shirley Martin, of Goffstown. They got to know Markowitz and the crew while staying at the same campground for the Pittsfield balloon rally in 2015, but it wasn't until the Martins opened up to Markowitz about the death of their son, Dominik, at age 14 that the couple became permanent members of the crew.
The Martins had lost their son to suicide in 2013. They know he would have loved the balloon. "He was an adrenaline junkie," Shirley Martin said.
"He would have been the first one in the basket," Paul Martin added.
Markowitz wanted to honor their son, the Martins said, and offered to do a memorial glow — when the balloon is fired up at night, turning the balloon's envelope into a beacon — last October.
"I asked him ... I said, 'What's the cost associated with this?' and he says 'Just give me a hot meal' and he came all the way from New York to do it," Paul Martin said. "That's when we said 'Where do we sign up?' to become a member of the crew."
The couple speaks freely of their son's death, with little sorrow or grief, at least when crewing. "These are times that we celebrate with him," Shirley Martin said.
For all the praises his crew sings for him, Markowitz stays humble, never raising his voice when directing his team.
"A few years ago, they were all complete strangers, I didn't know any of these guys," Markowitz said after landing the balloon on a relatively uneventful trip in the Floral Hill Cemetery, just across the Suncook River from Drake Field. "You look at other balloons and their operations and it's all so serious, but ballooning should be about friends, family and fun."
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com