What happened next was not only one of the most spectacular marketing disasters of modern times but a massive and costly embarrassment for United Way of Cleveland, the charity that had hoped to raise both its profile and cash for its cause.
Instead, the organisers found they had unleashed terrible consequences that led to lawsuits, a devastating environmental impact and, worst of all, human tragedy.
Later, George Fraser, the charity’s director of marketing and communications, was to refer to the infamous Balloonfest 86 as his greatest success and his biggest failure.
Certainly, the idea was bold in its concept. A Los Angeles-based specialist company had spent six months preparing for what was to have been an attempt to break the record for the simultaneous release of balloons set the previous year in California to celebrate Disneyland’s 30th anniversary.
A three-storey structure was built to hold the balloons and 2,500 students and other volunteers spent hours filling them with helium. Children sold sponsorships to benefit United Way at a price of $1 for every two balloons.
In theory, the balloons should have simply flown upwards until they burst. In practice, they hit a front of cool air and rain and dropped towards the ground.
The result was mayhem. Road accidents resulted from drivers swerving to avoid the "balloon blizzards", the local airport had to be shut temporarily, land and waterways were clogged and prize Arabian horses suffered permanent injuries after being spooked by balloons landing in their pasture.
Most seriously, the balloons were said to have hampered coastguards searching for two fishermen whose boat had capsized on Lake Erie. Their bodies were found two weeks later.