In the early hours of the 18 July 1938 a rather flimsy, sorry looking, and frankly jerry-built plane landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome. Its arrival had not been expected and the authorities at the airport were astonished to discover that its pilot, 31 year old Douglas Corrigan, casually claimed to have just flown from New York.
Corrigan, a Texan of Irish descent, was a pilot and engineer who had worked with the Ryan Aeronautical Company on the construction of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. This was the plane that, in 1927, made the first non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris. Corrigan had made his own first solo flight in 1926 and he’d been severely bitten by the flying bug.
He quickly graduated to stunt flying – much to the annoyance of his employers at the Airtech Flying School in San Diego whose planes he was jeopardising. Corrigan paid no attention to their disapproval, simply taking their planes to a more distant airdrome and performing stunts during his lunch hour, unseen by his bosses. As we shall see the watchword for Corrigan seems to have been ‘out of sight out of mind.’
In 1933 he spent $300 on a four-year old Curtiss Robin monoplane and started to modify it. To put this into some perspective Spirt of St. Louis cost more than $10,000 to build. Corrigan had decided he wanted to emulate Lindbergh but he was going to target his ancestral home, Ireland, as his destination.
When he applied for a licence to make the trip in 1935 he was turned down on the, not unreasonable, basis that his plane was a glorified wreck incapable of surviving the trip. No amount of modifications over two years would make the authorities change their minds.
Based in California Corrigan flew his plane across the USA in July 1938 barely making it to New York before a gasoline leak got him first. He then filed a flight plan for a return trip to the West Coast. He took off on 17 July at 5.15 in the morning but instead of turning west he headed east. He afterwards claimed that low cloud and a faulty compass had brought about the slight error that took him out over the Atlantic. Nobody believed him. Most people who knew him were aware of his obsession.
28 hours and 13 minutes after take off Corrigan landed at Baldonnel. He had survived on two bars of chocolate and two fig bars, had to get his bearings by looking out of the side of his airplane – he had placed his fuel tanks in front – had no radio and a twenty-year old compass which he almost certainly didn’t bother to read until he knew he was over the Atlantic and not New Jersey.
An American journalist with the delightful name of H.R.Knickerbocker, who interviewed Corrigan in Ireland after his epic journey, wrote three years later that …
You may say that Corrigan’s flight could not be compared to Lindbergh’s in its sensational appeal as the first solo flight across the ocean. Yes, but in another way the obscure little Irishman’s flight was the more audacious of the two. Lindbergh had a plane specially constructed, the finest money could buy. He had lavish financial backing, friends to help him at every turn. Corrigan had nothing but his own ambition, courage, and ability. His plane, a nine-year-old Curtiss Robin, was the most wretched-looking jalopy.
Corrigan’s ‘mistake’ might not have gone down well in official aviation circles – his licence was suspended for fourteen days and his hero Charles Lindbergh never acknowledged his achievement – but he was a big hit with the general public and returned to a hero’s welcome in the USA. He received a ticker tape parade in New York – reckoned to have been attended by more people than greeted Lindbergh. Later he starred in a movie about his own life called The Flying Irishman, delighted in the nickname ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’ and endorsed numerous appropriate products such as a watch that told the time backwards.
Douglas ‘Wrong-Way’ Corrigan took off from New York, bound for California and got conveniently lost, 77 years ago, on this day.