Breaking the world record for largest simultaneous balloon launch is an idea that sounds cool in theory. For citizens of the city where it happened, the execution was a different story.
In 1986, the United Way decided that, instead of hosting a walk or selling t-shirts that year, they were going to raise funds by releasing 1.5 million balloons over downtown Cleveland. A rectangular platform the size of a city block and three stories high was built over the city’s Public Square to enclose them. Twenty-five hundred volunteers worked a full night and morning to fill the balloons with helium and release them into the massive net “ceiling.” The original plan included 2 million balloons, but after bad weather threatened the unveiling they settled at under 1.5 million.
The release itself was a sight to behold. Watching a monstrous rainbow cloud slowly consume a city’s airspace is as whimsical/surreal/terrifying as one might imagine. After the initial excitement wore off, complications started to arise. The balloons, which had been expected to spread out and away from the city, were hampered by rain and caused a local airport runway to shut down. After being forced to suspend a search and rescue operation that day, a crew of Coast Guard helicopters compared the experience of navigating the balloons to “flying through an asteroid field." Traffic accidents were reported, caused by drivers either gawking at the spectacle or swerving to avoid wayward falling balloons.
The event at least seemed to do some good: for every two balloons, children sold $1 sponsorships to benefit the United Way. How much of that money eventually went toward paying off balloon-related lawsuits is unknown.