Douglas "Wrong-Way" Corrigan's Curtiss Robin J-1 Special airplane, 1943.
Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan
Douglas Corrigan became a legendary aviator, not because of his accomplishments as a pilot but rather because of a supposed navigational error. In 1938, Corrigan "mistakenly" flew from New York to Ireland--when he was supposed to be flying from New York to California--because he seemingly misread his compass. For Americans, who were caught in the midst of the Great Depression, Corrigan's antic provided a great deal of humor and uplift and he became a national folk hero. To this day, Corrigan's nickname, "'Wrong Way' Corrigan," remains a stock colloquial phrase in popular culture. People use it to describe anyone who blunders and goes the wrong way, particularly in sporting events. Nevertheless, as much fun as Corrigan's incident provides, many people do not understand all the complexities of his story, nor do they appreciate the fact that he was a sound and accomplished pilot.
Corrigan was born in Galveston, Texas, on January 22, 1907. His father was a construction engineer and his mother a teacher. When Douglas was 15 months old, he was already making a name for himself; he won first prize in a local baby contest. Corrigan's father moved his family around fairly often during Douglas's childhood. Eventually, Corrigan's parents divorced and Douglas bounced from one parent to another before he settled in Los Angeles with his mother. There, he began working in the construction industry. At the time, aviation did not seem to be in his future.
Then, on a Sunday afternoon in October 1925, Douglas decided to visit a local airfield. Corrigan watched a pilot take passengers for rides in a Curtiss "Jenny" biplane. Excited at the prospect of taking his own ride, he returned the next Sunday with $2.50 in hand and persuaded the pilot to take him aloft. Flying over Los Angeles that afternoon, Corrigan was hooked; he was determined to learn to fly. The following Sunday, he returned for his first flying lesson and continued for weeks thereafter. Corrigan also spent time learning everything he could from the field's aircraft mechanics. On March 25, 1926, Corrigan made his first solo flight.
Notably, Corrigan took flight lessons at the airfield where B.P. Mahoney and T.C. Ryan, a team of well-known aircraft manufacturers, were operating a small airline. It was not long before Corrigan got a job with the two men and started working in their San Diego factory.
Shortly after Corrigan began working for Mahoney and Ryan, a new customer approached them about making a special aircraft. Charles Lindbergh wanted them to design and build the Spirit of St. Louis. Corrigan assembled the aircraft's wing and installed its gas tanks and instrument panel.
When Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic flight in May 1927, Corrigan and his coworkers were thrilled, but Corrigan's excitement did not stop there. Inspired by Lindbergh's trip, he decided that he would make his own transatlantic flight someday. Being of Irish decent, he selected Ireland as his destination.
Starting in the late 1920s, Corrigan changed jobs several times. In October 1929, he became a full-fledged pilot when he earned his transport pilot's license. The following year, he moved to the East Coast and began a small passenger-carrying service with a friend named Steve Reich. The two men would land in small towns and convince people to buy airplane rides. Although the operation did fairly well financially, Corrigan eventually grew restless and decided to return to the West Coast. In 1933, he bought a used OX5 Robin monoplane to make the trip home. Back in California, Corrigan returned to work as an aircraft mechanic. During that period, he also began to modify his Robin for a transatlantic flight.
In 1935, Corrigan applied to the federal government for permission to make a non-stop flight from New York to Ireland. Officials denied his application, however, because they claimed that his plane was not sound enough to make a non-stop transatlantic trip. Nevertheless, they did certify it for cross-country journeys. In an attempt to get full certification, Corrigan made several modifications to his aircraft over the next two years, but each time he reapplied for permission, officials turned him down.
By 1937, Corrigan had grown tired of "red tape" and decided to try the flight without official sanction (although he never publicly acknowledged such a decision during his lifetime). His plan was to land in New York late at night, after airport officials had already left for the day, fill his gas tanks, and then leave for Ireland. But various mechanical problems while in route to New York caused him to lose his "safe weather window" over the Atlantic, and Corrigan decided not to risk the flight just then. He returned to California to wait for another opportunity the next year.
On July 8, 1938, Corrigan left California for New York. His official flight plan called for him to return to California, and on July 17, Corrigan took off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. He took off in thick fog and headed east because airport officials had told him to lift off in any direction except west since there were some buildings at the western edge of the field. They fully believed Corrigan would turn his plane around and head west toward California once he cleared the airport's airspace. To everyone's surprise, he kept flying eastward. Corrigan insisted that his visibility was so poor that he could only fly by using his compass and claimed his compass indicated he was heading west.
Approximately 26 hours into his flight, Corrigan claimed to have finally dropped down out of the clouds and noticed that he was over a large body of water. Knowing that it was too early to have reached the Pacific Ocean, Corrigan looked down at his compass--and because there was now supposedly more light to see by--suddenly noticed he "had been following the wrong end of the magnetic needle." Within a short time, Corrigan was over Ireland. He landed at Baldonnel Airport, in Dublin, after a 28-hour, 13-minute flight.
When officials questioned Corrigan about the incident, he explained that he had left New York en route to California but had then gotten mixed up in the clouds and flown the wrong way. He also explained about the fog and his mistake with the compass, but they did not believe him. As authorities continued to press him for "the truth," Corrigan finally ended the situation by replying: "That's my story." After failing to sway him from his explanation, officials released Corrigan. The only punishment he received was a brief suspension of his pilot's license, which lasted only until August 4, the day he returned to New York via steamship.
Corrigan returned to the United States a hero. People loved his audacity and spirit. They also had a great deal of fun with the obvious humor of his situation. The New York Post, for example, printed a front-page headline--"Hail to Wrong Way Corrigan!"--backwards. Corrigan also received a Broadway ticker-tape parade with more than a million people lining the street, more people than had turned out to honor Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight.
Corrigan lived a fairly simple life after his famous flight. In the 1950s, he bought an orange grove in Santa Ana, California, and lived there for the remainder of his life. During the 50th anniversary of his flight, some newspapers began reporting that he was going to admit to having flown to Ireland intentionally, but he never publicly acknowledged that fact. Corrigan died on December 9, 1995.
Although Corrigan never admitted that his story was a ruse, most people believe that he purposely set out to bypass authorities and accomplish his dream of a transatlantic flight. Despite the humor that his story has provided, it is worth noting that Corrigan flew across the Atlantic during the early years of transoceanic flights, something that only the bravest and best aviators of the day attempted. Corrigan deserves recognition for such a daring achievement, even though he had to accomplish the task in such an unorthodox manner.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Corrigan, Douglas. That's My Story. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1938.
Fraser, Chelsea Curtis. Famous American Flyers. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1941.
Daly, Glenn. "'Wrong Way' Corrigan," San Diego Online. http://www.sandiego-online.com/forums/aviation/aviate2.htm
Fasolino, Chris. "The Adventures of Wrong-Way Corrigan," The History Net (first published in Aviation History, May 2001). http://history1900s.about.com/library/prm/blwrongwaycorrigan1.htm
Marsh, Diann. "'Wrong Way' Corrigan," Santa Ana [California] History. http://www.santaanahistory.com/articles/corrigan.html
"The Story of Wrong Way Corrigan," Fiddler's Green. http://fiddlersgreen.net/aircraft/private/wrongway/dougie.htm