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When it comes to hot air ballooning, practice – and trust – makes perfect

  • The hot air balloon “Wild Ride” purposefully dips into the Suncook River, sometimes called a “splash and dash” in Pittsfield on Friday morning. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Bryce Douglass, 4, looks to the sky from one of the chase cars as a pilot balloon, or pibal, rises into the sky to measure wind speed and direction from Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Steph Douglass (left) gets a hand from her daughter Gabriella putting away the hot-air balloon “Wild Ride” after taking the balloon for a ride before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally on Friday. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Dave Markowitz of Maryland, N.Y., adds a little extra air to a helium pilot balloon, or pibal, before releasing it into the air at Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. Balloonists watch pibals rise in the sky to gauge wind speed and direction. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dave Markowitz of Maryland, N.Y., and his crew prepare his balloon “Wild Ride” for flight from Drake Field in Pittsfield.

  • Steph Douglass (left) and her husband Brian help prepare the hot air balloon "Wild Ride" for flight from Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The crew of "Wild Ride" prepare the hot air balloon for flight at Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The crew of "Wild Ride" prepare the hot air balloon for flight at Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Steph Douglass controls the burner on the hot air balloon "Wild Ride" in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Chase crew members Shirley (left) and Paul Martin remain on the ground as balloons take flight over Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Steph Douglass controls the burner on the hot air balloon "Wild Ride" in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A hot-air balloon piloted by Rick Jones of Concord is seen in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dave Markowitz of Maryland, N.Y., flies in his balloon "Wild Ride" in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Steph Douglass (left) gets a hand from her daughter Gabriella along with her husband Brian in unpacking the hot-air balloon "Wild Ride" after taking the balloon for a ride before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally on Friday. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • A hot-air balloon piloted by Rick Jones of Concord is seen in Pittsfield on Friday morning. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • The hot air balloon "Wild Ride" floats above the Suncook River in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The hot air balloon "Wild Ride" falls behind a line of trees beyond the Suncook River in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The chase crew reaches Dave Markowitz and his balloon "Wild Ride" at the end of a flight from Drake Field in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dave Markowitz of Maryland, N.Y., and his crew deflate his balloon "Wild Ride" after landing in Floral Park Cemetery in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Dave Markowitz (center) of Maryland, N.Y., and his crew pack up his balloon "Wild Ride" following a flight in Pittsfield on Friday morning, August 4, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Steph Douglass (left) and Dave Markowitz pilot the hot-air balloon “Wild Ride” Friday morning before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Balloon Rally. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • The "Wild Ride" chase crew watches as the hot-air balloon ascends Friday morning before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally on Friday. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • The "Wild Ride" chase crew watches as the hot-air balloon ascends Friday morning before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally on Friday. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • A hot-air balloon piloted by Rick Jones of Concord floats above Drake Field Friday morning before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally on Friday. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • A hot-air balloon piloted by Rick Jones of Concord floats above Drake Field Friday morning before the 2017 Suncook Valley Rotary Hot Air Balloon Rally on Friday. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Friday, August 04, 2017

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, N.M., 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.

Balloon together,stay together

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,” Shirely 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.”

The balloon rally continues Aug. 5-6 at Drake Field in Pittsfield.