In our seven years of high altitude balloon launches, we have had the opportunity to work in some very exciting locations; New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the US, the Cayman Islands, Iceland, Brussels, and even the south coast of France. When we were contacted by Outsider TV to conduct a balloon launch in Bangladesh to highlight the still-developing Rohingya refugee crisis, we knew we were in for an entirely new challenge. Add into this a TV payload inspired by the Kelvin Jones music video and we were looking at our most difficult launch ever.
The first step in any international launch is to investigate balloon and airspace laws in the host country. Fortunately in this case, the project was being managed by Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, who were able to approach the Bangladeshi government directly on our behalf. With this out of the way (or so we hoped), we were able to turn our focus to the logistics and practicalities of a launch in Bangladesh.
Our first realisation was that a launch from the Cox’s Bazaar camp itself was not going to be possible. Unlike the UK, stratospheric wind direction is very consistent over Bangladesh. On the face of it this should be quite helpful in planning ahead for a flight, however, every simulation we ran indicated a flight from the camp would stray into Myanmar. If you are not familiar with the Rohingya crisis, this BBC article might help clarify why this was such a problem: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-41566561
After a long day of logging simulated flight paths, we decided to run a tethered launch on set to get the shots we needed, and relocate the actual flight toward Bogra, northwest of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, giving us the Sylhet Division for our descent. Our plan in place, it was time to head out to Bangladesh and after some back and forth and a couple of delays while our visas were processed, we began our 26-hour journey to Cox’s Bazaar.
As we transferred direct from our flight from London to our internal flight between Dhaka and Cox’s Bazaar we had our first impression of Bangladesh – it was hot. With monsoon season around the corner and cloud setting in, the setting sun as we arrived at the hotel offered no relief from the heat. Desperate for cold refreshment we had our second impression of Bangladesh – being a predominantly non-drinking Muslim country, beer is expensive. $10 for a 330ml Heineken expensive.
Day one began at 4:30 am, a site recce to find the best spot to set up our balloon fill. By 9 am we had found the perfect spot – a large, flat slab of concrete at the bottom of a shallow bowl with camera angles aplenty for the tethered release.
Seeing the camp was a truly eye-opening experience. We knew it was going to be huge. There were half a million people in this camp alone, the same as the population of our base of operations, Sheffield, and there are no high rises here. Our local guide took us to the highest point in our section of the camp and it quite simply went on to the horizon in every direction. No break or end to the sea of tin and tarpaulin roofs.
A huge effort had been made there by an international coalition led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create infrastructure and sanitation in the camps. It was truly impressive how much had been put in place in such a short space of time with public toilets, field hospitals, and even temporary schools. The refugees were friendly and interested in what we were doing and children followed us in excited hordes that grew and grew as we pushed deeper into the camp.
Despite this, living conditions were still shocking. Tarpaulin and bamboo shelters barely the size of a western bathroom housed families of six or more on dirt or concrete floors. Small streams largely fuelled by waste gathered in stagnant pools in the dips and bowls between access tracks. Worst of all was that the horrific story behind this crisis was so plainly visible in the haunted eyes peering out cautiously from inside the shelters – those who had seen the worst of the genocide.
After our tour of the camp, we headed back to the hotel to reassemble the payload ready for our first day of shooting and update the team at home, who were just trickling into the office.
Day two was another 4:30 am start, landing us at the camp perfectly timed to take advantage of the early morning light. It was a long, long day of shooting. The team from Outsider were exacting, every action was repeated for multiple angles, every shot was meticulously set up. Nothing was rushed and no corners were cut – in our view how all projects should be. 16 hours after arriving at the camp, we packed up and headed back to the hotel for an early night ahead of ‘launch’ day.
Day three and nobody was getting used to the 4:30 am starts. Today was the first of our balloon days, this time just a tethered flight up the maximum 100m length of our cord reels. Plenty enough height to capture some stunning views of the camp and give the cameras a great impression of a balloon on its way to near space. We set up our gear at the launch site and headed back up to the access site to fill the balloon, and so began one of the strangest experiences we’ve ever had in high altitude ballooning.
Our gas supplier arrived with five colossal cylinders clearly marked as Chinese HGV diesel tanks. Things get reappropriated in developing countries and so we didn’t think too much of it – these tanks were surely rated to very high pressure and impact resistance regardless of their intended use. Then the supplier opened the valve, poured in two powdered substances and around a litre of water, and resealed the valve. Even with the tank resealed just a sniff of the acrid stench of the chemical reaction burned throats and eyes. In the UK, Europe and America the vast majority of hydrogen is separated from natural gas and provided in a convenient 20L cylinder at 99.7% purity. This was a very different experience.
Rotating the five cylinders, it took two hours to fill the balloon with the presumable hydrogen, a process that usually takes 20 to 30 minutes depending on fill volume. Tensions were high as we walked our balloon down to the launch site as tin and bamboo structures offer a lot of sharp edges to tear a balloon on. Once we had safely reached the launch site, we wrapped up a few shots of the flight train and began a further two hours of reeling the balloon up and down while the Outsider crew ticked off their shot-list. Several hours later, day three was wrapped and our launch team joined the Outsider crew for a celebration of a successful shoot back at the hotel.
Day four saw us back on an internal flight to Dhaka – another day of traveling – followed by a well-needed day of rest and recuperation at the Dhaka Regency Hotel before our triumphant launch team headed back to the UK.
After a long edit process, the final product was timed for a release on the 6th of September 2018, marking a year since the beginning of the crisis. We are immensely proud to have been involved in this project and both grateful for the experience had by our launch team, and the opportunity to contribute to the effort to highlight the plight of the Rohingya people.