The Day 1.5 Million Balloons Blocked Out the Sky

Thursday August 29, 2019 Written by Ronan

Cleveland, Ohio, doesn’t feature on many tourists’ must-see lists – the siren calls of nearby (sort of) New York City and Chicago are just too strong. Unhappy with being overlooked, in 1986 the city finally did something to get noticed: in an attempt to snare a Guinness World Record, they released 1.5 million balloons into the air.

Over 2000 wide-eyed Clevelandians got behind “Balloonfest ’86”. Hands were blistered and bandaged from tying thousands of balloons, each a floating brick in a three-story-tall ceiling that hovered above the city, held together by a massive net. When the net was released, the ceiling became a wave, surging into the air.

Initially (and rather disconcertingly) the balloons swamp a nearby municipal building. But soon enough they scattered, popped and (even more disconcertingly) polluted the city, disrupting traffic and the local airport. 

Then, in a textbook example of ‘unintended consequences’, the plastic swarm tragically hampers the efforts of a group of coastguards searching for two lost fishermen in Lake Erie. Sixty per cent of the balloons landed in the lake, at which point the fact that balloons look a lot like bobbing heads and life jackets was made painfully clear.

To add insult to some pretty serious injury, The Guinness World Records declined to recognise the attempt, and the city was sued for millions.

Not to detract from the fact that it was a major screw up, footage of the event is captivating, albeit it in an I-can’t-believe-they-did-this kind of way. Documentary maker Nathan Truesdell made the above short film using newsreel footage from the time. It tells a story of optimism and excitement that sours into sadness and tragedy.

Balloonfest is part of a five-film documentary ‘mixtape’ from website Topic, which seeks to show “the breadth of American life".