Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan

(1907 – 1995)

 

On July 16, 1938, exactly a week after he had arrived in New York on a solo nonstop flight from Los Angeles, 31-year-old Douglas Corrigan was waiting at Floyd Bennett field for permission to take off on his return flight.

His plane was a 165 hp singleengine 1929 Curtiss Robin, rickety, and half a ton overloaded with extra fuel.  It had an endurance of about 30 hours at a cruising speed of 100 mph.  On paper he had a fair margin for the flight.  In practice, however, he had only four gallons to spare, about 20 minutes of flying, when he had landed in New York City.

Corrigan’s idol was Lindbergh.  Eleven years earlier he had worked as a machanic for the Ryan Co., preparing the plane that Lindbergy flew on his solo crossing of the Atlantic.  Corrigan had long wanted to repeat that flight, but permission had been consistently refused.  Longdistance flights in private planes had not been popular since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart the previous year.

Even the nonstop flight from California to New York had required subterfuge.  Corrigan had been careful not to declare his intention.  He fueled at two different California fields so as not to arouse suspicion.

On July 16, the weather forecast for the return trip was good, and Corrigan announced his intention of taking off at midnight.

At first the airport manager refused permission, but then he relented.  “It’s OK for you to get ready,” he said.  “You can take off at dawn.”

It took 1,000 yards to get off the ground.  Even at 50 feet the controls were sloppy and sluggish, and Corrigan realized he would need more speed and height before he could safely turn onto his course.  He flew on east over Long Island while he slowly gained height.

By the time he reached 500 feet, the ground below was obliterated by fog.  He began a gentle turn, then stared at his compass in dismay.  It wasn’t working properly.  The liquid inside had smehow leaked away.

Fortunately there was a second compass, down on the floor near his feet.  All he had to do was to continue his turn until he had lined up the compass correctly.  When this point was reached he settled on course, still climbing steadily, the ground still hidden by fog.

In fact, Corrigan had perpetrated a navigational howler.  He had misread the second compass, and he was flying on a reciprocal course, east instead of west, out to sea.

Despite the fog several persons caught occasional glimpses of his plane.  The suspicions of officials at Floyd Bennett field were quickly aroused.  The plane was heading deliberately out to sea.  Corrigan’s rejected applications for an Atlantic flight were recalled.  Irked by the persistent refusals of the Bureau of Air Commerce, Corrigan had said, “Why not land at Floyd Bennett field late one-evening when senior officials have gone home, fill up with gasoline, and just go?”  No one could hang him for it.

But Corrigan had given his friends not the smallest hint that he might be about to attempt the Atlantic crossing.  He had no radio.  He had no weather data for the Atlantic.  His only map was of the U.S., and it was marked out for a route via Memphis and El Paso.  Apart from a few fig bars and some chocolate he had no food.  He had no warm clothing, no water, no clearance papers, no passport.

Then there was the question of his plane’s reliability.  Corrigan was an experienced mechanic.  So he would be well arare that his machine, safe enough perhaps for flying over land where a forced landing was feasible, was quite unsuitable for a sea crossing.  Corrigan had arrived in New York with a leaky gas tank, and rather than remove and weld it, which would have held him up for another week, he had decided to risk it.  It was inconceivable that he would have taken such a chance if intending to fly east.

Both friends and officials recalled Corrigan’s care over the weather.  He had studied the cross-country conditions but he had been given no weather information about the Atlantic.  If the easterly flight had been his intention he had carried out a suicidal bluff.

In Los Angeles Corrigan showed himself capable of subtlety.  But there his friends had been let into the secret of his New York trip.  It seemed preposterous to them that they could have been left in the dark about this much bigger enterprise.  Corrigan had, such a frank disposition that his friends did not believe him capable of such deceit.

The New York authorities, however, took a different view.  Soon after Corrigan’s take-off, they warned all shipping in the Atlantic to look out for his plane.

Meanwhile, Corrigan was two hours out of New York.  Through a gap in the clouds he caught glimpses of city which he took to be Baltimore.  It was Boston.

He was flying now between two solid layers of cloud.  There was nothing at all to be seen, either above or below, and there was nothing he could do but follow his compass.  He steadily gained height.

It was not until he had been airborne for ten hours that he caught a brief glimpse through the clouds.  It did nothing to disabuse him.  He was crossing Newfoundland and there was no sign of sea.

Corrigan’s attention was now distracted by something else.  His feet were cold.  Looking down he sa that fuel from the leaky gas tank was seeping into the cockpit and soaking his shoes.

Clouds were building up beneath him and he was still gaining height, keeping just clear.  After 14 hours flyinghe estimated that he must be over Little Rock, Arkinsas, halfway across the States.  Night was falling, Corrigan concentrated on his rudimentary instruments.  A turn-and-blank indicator and air-speed gauge were all he had.

Sometimes there were fleeting breaks in the cloud and he peered below for lights, but he was not greatly surprised at seeing nothing.

His chief concern was the leaking fuel tank.  He could hear the gasoline, an inch deep, sloshing about on the floor.  He had no idea how much fuel he had left; there were no gauges.  Worse still was his insistent fear that the plane might catch fire.  If the fuel leaked out through the cockpit floor near the exhaust pipe and ignited, the wooden fuselage would be a furnace within seconds.  He had no parachute.

He had to do something to get rid of this carpet of gasoline.  He took a screw driver and punched a hole in the floor on the side opposite the exhaust pipe.  Soon the cockpit was almost dry.

It seemed pointless to keep the engine at the economical setting of 1,600 revolutions per minute.  The best thing was to use the fuel before it leaked away.  He revved the engine up to 1,900, burning up his fuel at a much faster rate but making better air speed.  He was now racing to get as far as he could bfore his fuel gave out.

Dawn came slowly, with still no sign of the sun.  During the night he had climbed to 8,000 feet, but he was still flying between cloud layers, almost scraping the bottom layer with his wheels.  Ahead of him now the cloud-free corridor seemed to be closing as great masses of cumulo-nimbus piled up to a height of 15,000 feet.  Climbing up above those mountainous clouds was beyond the capacity of his plane, and he had no alternative but to enter the storm clouds and fly on instruments.  For the next two hours the plane bucked and reared.  Visibility was reduced to nothing by driving rain which coated the windshield and seeped through the cockpit hood.

After a time the rain turned to sleet, and the wings began icing up.  Corrigan’s de-icing gear was an eight-foot stick.  He poked it out the cabin window and managed to knock some ice off, but he was obsessed by the worry that his instruments would ice up, leaving him with no check on his air speed.  He worried that he might be among mountains, but he feared the icing even more, se he put the nose down and a steep descent.

At 3,500 feet he emerged from the cloud, puzzled to find the he was over the sea.  He must have flown right across the continent and be over the Pacific.  How far out to sea could he be? He looked back over his shoulder.  There was no land in sight.

His first reaction was to turn back at once for the Pacific coast.  He could not get over his surprise at crossing America in 26 hours, but he still had no check on his fuel, and if he didn’t find land quickly he was facing disaster.

As Corrigan prepared to turn back he glanced down at the compass.  It was slightly in the shadow, not oo easy to read.  Blood rushed to his head when he realized the beginner’s error, he had made.  For more the 26 hours he had been using the wrong end of the magnetic needle.

His mind boggled at the complexity of the navigational problem that faced him.  In the end he decided that he simply didn’t have the strength of mind to calculate a new course.  With luch he hoped that his present heading might bring him in somewhere over Ireland.  How soon that might be, and whether his fueld would last, he had no idea, and he tried not to think about it.  But in fact, westerly winds had been helping him for many hours, and he was not far short of the Irish coast.

Within a few minutes he caught sight of a small trawler.  He put the nose of his plane down and idived gently towards it but could see no signs of life on board.

Perhaps the seamen were having lunch.  For the first time he realized that he had eaten nothing since Saturday evening, and it was now Monday afternoon.  He was chewing up fig bars ravenously when amorphous clouds on the horizon suddenly seemed to resolve themselves into a sharper outline.  There was a tinge of colous about them, too, a greenness that could only mean land.  After 27 hours flying wrong direction he had crossed the Atlantic.

Forty-five minutes later he came to another coastline, and realized that he had flown across Ireland.  He turned south along the coast.  A small fighter plane came in close to take a look at him, then dived away and disappeared.  Soon he found an airport marked Baldonnel.  He remembered, from his planned crossing of the previous year, that this was the airport for Dublin.  He circled carefully, then came in to a perfect landing.

“My name’s Corrigan,” he told the airport official who came out to meet him.  “I’ve just come from New York.”  He expected this to cause a sensation.

“Yes, we Know.”

“You Know? How?”

“New York warned us about you.  They saw you start out and guessed you were making for Ireland.  And we had a report that your plane had been seen up north.”

At first everything went smoothly.  Officials showed great toleration.  The only time when Corrigan ran into difficulties was when he tried to explain how the flight had gone wrong.  Whenever he got to this point in the story, the party would always break up.

It was the same when he met the American ambassador, and again when he was introduced to Prime Minister de Valera.  As soon as he got to the part about misreading the second compass, everyone started to laugh.  “Now tell the real story” was everyone’s reaction.

But Corrigan insisted that his Atlantic flight had been unintentional.  “It sure does show what a fool navigator a guy can be.”

“That’s my story,” was his attitude, “and I’m sticking to it.”  He showed a refreshing reluctance to capitalize on his flight, refusing all easy-money offers.  When a reporter offered him $500 for an exclusive story he told him he could have it for nothing.

“Most amazing thing I ever heard of!” was the reaction of the American ambassador in Dublin.  “But what are you going to do when the experts get to questioning you?”

Corrigan certainly had some explaining to do.  It was remarkable that he never saw the sun in 26 hours, strange that the reciprocal couse should bring him in exactly over Ireland.  Some of this seemed to be more than mere coincidence.

Did Wrong-Way Corrigan make an honest mistake? Or did he bring off one of the most spectacular hoaxes of all time?

The answer remains as equivocal today as it was immediately after the flight, when the U.S. Flag association awarded Corrigan its medal of 1938, and he was unanimously elected an honorary member of the Liars Club of America.

(src:  The Catholic Digest / March, 1968)

Corrigan earned about $85,000 from lectures, magazine articles, a book ‘That’s My Story (1938)’ and a motion picture, ‘The Flying Irishman’,  He managed to keep about $50,000 he said, and most of what’s left is invested in his orange grove grove.

During World War II, Douglas flew for the Army ferry command and later tested bombers as a civilian.  After the was he and a friend started a freight service with a surplus C-47 transport and flew everything from gold ore to strawberries.

He lived the life of a county squire with his wife and three sons on his 20-acre orange grove in California.  When he died he still had the toothy Irish grin and unruly shock of hair so familiar to newspaper reader of 1938.  His famous plane is in storage, and the Texas-born pilot hoped someday to re-assemble it and donate it to an aviation museum.

 

Douglas Corrigan died Saturday, December 9, 1995, in Orange, California.  He was survived by two sons, Douglas, of Santa Ana and Harry, of Apex, North Carolina, and a sister, Evelyn, of Santa Ynez, California.

(src:  Washington Evening Star / July 17, 1958 / New York Times OBITUARIES Thursday, December 14, 1995)

INTERNMENT

Douglas Corrigan “Wrong Way”  b. 1907. d. 1995.
Pilot that was to fly to the West coast but ended up in Ireland instead.
Fairhaven Memorial Park, Santa Ana, California, USA
Specific Interment Location: Block M, Grave 31.