Balloonfest '86 was a 1986 event in which the United Way of Cleveland in Ohio set a world record by releasing one and a half million balloons. While it was originally intended to be a fundraising publicity stunt, unintended consequences caused the balloons to drift back over the city and land in the surrounding area and Lake Erie, as well as interfere with traffic at a nearby airport. The event also interfered with a United States Coast Guard search for two boaters who were later found drowned. The event resulted in lawsuits against organizers and the city seeking millions of US dollars in damages, and cost overruns put the event in the red.
The stunt was coordinated by project manager Tom Holowach, who spent six months preparing for it. A rectangular structure the size of a city block, measuring 250 feet (76 m) by 150 feet (46 m) and rising three stories high, encased in a one-piece net of woven mesh material, was set up on the southwest quadrant of Public Square in Cleveland to hold the 1.5 million balloons in place. Inside the structure, 2,500 students and volunteers spent many hours filling the balloons with helium. Holowach originally planned to release two million balloons, but stopped at over 1.4 million. Children sold sponsorships to benefit United Way at the price of $1 for every two balloons.
On Saturday, September 27, 1986, with a rainstorm approaching, organizers decided to release the balloons early at about 1:50 p.m.EST. Close to 1.5 million balloons rose up from Cleveland's Public Square, engulfing Terminal Tower and surpassing a world record set the previous year on the 30th anniversary of Disneyland.
The airborne balloons collided with a front of cooler air and rain and dropped down to the ground, clogging the land and waterways of Northeast Ohio. In the days following the event, balloons were reported washed ashore on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.
Two fishermen, Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, who had gone out on September 26, were reported missing by their families on the day of the event. Rescuers spotted their 16 feet (4.9 m) boat anchored west of the Edgewater Park breakwall. A Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter crew had difficulties reaching the boat, and said they felt like they were flying through an "asteroid field". On September 29, the Coast Guard suspended its search. Within a couple of weeks, the fishermen's bodies washed ashore. The wife of one of the fishermen who drowned sued the United Way of Cleveland and the company that organized the event for $3.2 million and settled for undisclosed terms.
Balloons landing on a pasture in Medina County, Ohio, spooked Louise Nowakowsk's Arabian horses, which consequently suffered permanent injuries. Nowakowsk sued the United Way of Cleveland for $100,000 in damages and settled for undisclosed terms.
Burke Lakefront Airport had to shut down a runway for half an hour after balloons landed there. Traffic accidents were also reported "as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle".