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Wrong Way Corrigan’s Transatlantic Flight to Fame

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With interests in science and nature, I explores topics from a unique and sometimes controversial perspective.

Wrong Way Corrigan

On July 18, 1938, a ragged and rickety Curtiss Robin OX-5 touched down on the runway at Baldonnel Aerodrome in Dublin, Ireland. The plane had left Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, twenty-eight hours and thirteen minutes earlier, and had sputtered across the Atlantic Ocean despite leaking fuel tanks and patchwork repairs made along the way.

This impressive if not death-defying flight, made without the benefit of a working radio, was one of the first solo crossings of the Atlantic Ocean by plane, and should have been met with great fanfare. Instead, it resulted in a lengthy list of violations and a suspended license for the pilot.

That’s because Douglas Corrigan was never supposed to cross the Atlantic Ocean that day. He was meant to fly west, back to his home state of California, but due to a claimed navigation error he accidentally flew in the wrong direction.

The legend of Wrong Way Corrigan was born, the tale of a man who made history by inadvertently flying over an ocean. How in the world does something like this happen?

A Time of Heroes

The early part of the 20th century was a time of great heroic deeds. Explorers, adventurers and anyone else willing to risk their necks could seek fame and fortune by climbing something that had never been climbed before, trekking somewhere no one had ever been before, moving faster than anyone had ever travelled, and flying over things that had never been flown over. It’s hard to imagine today, but back then there were still challenges to conquer in the world.

Flying over things was of particular interest to the general public, as the airplane was relatively new and beginning to gain popularity. Army Pilots Lt. John A. Macready and Lt. Oakley G. Kelly made the first non-stop flight across the United States in 1923. Admiral Richard E. Byrd became the first man to fly over the North Pole in 1926, though his records have since come under scrutiny. Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic in 1927, and female pilot Amelia Earhart matched his deed in 1932.

Amid all of this courage and adventure, one guy who yearned to make his mark was Douglas Corrigan. He was not yet known as Wrong Way, and would not earn that nickname until 1938 when he took off from New York bound for California and instead ended up in Ireland.

Of course he claimed it was an accident, a pilot error, but the evidence paints a picture of a bold man daring enough to make his dreams come true, one way or another.

Corrigan worked on the Spirit of St. Louis in preparation for Charles Lindbergh's historic flight.

Corrigan worked on the Spirit of St. Louis in preparation for Charles Lindbergh's historic flight.

The Wrong Way Corrigan Story

Douglas Corrigan was an airplane pilot and flight instructor, and a skilled aircraft mechanic. He worked on the construction of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and served on his flight crew the day Lindbergh took off on his record-setting journey. But Corrigan had a hankering for his own chunk of fame. He longed to make the transatlantic flight himself.

In 1935, Corrigan petitioned the Bureau of Air Commerce for permission to undertake a flight from New York City to Ireland. He planned to fly his modified Curtiss Robin OX-5, which he had named Sunshine, but upon inspection the aircraft was deemed inappropriate for the journey. It was solid enough to fly cross-country, but the trip across the sea would be too much for it.

Disgruntled but not beaten, Corrigan went to work on his plane and made modifications and repairs. With each fix he would reapply for permission to fly across the Atlantic, and each time he was denied.

After two years and many more attempts at modification, his patchwork aircraft had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer certifiable for flight. Corrigan fixed the plane up well enough to stay airborne, and gained permission for a transcontinental flight from California to New York.

Corrigan arrived in New York and again requested permission to cross the Atlantic. He was, again, denied, though allowed to fly the plane back to California.

He then, allegedly, exhibited a textbook example of the phrase: It is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Corrigan took off the next morning with all believing he was heading home to California, but instead flew out over the Atlantic. He was granting himself the flight he had been denied for years.

With a leaking fuel tank and disaster staved off by haphazard repairs he had made in mid-air, Corrigan landed in Ireland on July 18, 1938. He had completed his transatlantic flight, though maybe not legally.

Corrigan Becomes a Hero

Douglas Corrigan returned to the States to a ticker-tape parade. He'd become a hero and a legend, though he had picked up the nickname Wrong Way in the process. Wrong Way claimed the mistake was due to a navigation error, as he had been using a 20-year-old compass. He was flying through thick clouds and he didn’t realize he was off course until 26 hours into his 28-hour flight.

There was no way to turn back then, of course, so on to Ireland he went. It was an honest mistake, though it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t notice the big blue wet thing underneath him at some point.

Despite breaking a bunch of regulations during his journey, he received only a 14-day suspension of his pilot’s license.

Corrigan became a celebrity, sought by corporations to endorse their products, and he even released a book about his story in 1938. In his own way he had found the fame he had been searching for, if with a little wink and nod added in for good measure.

Corrigan later ran for the U.S. Senate, though it seems most for his supporters must have voted the wrong way.

Corrigan meets NFL quarterback Sammy Baugh

Corrigan meets NFL quarterback Sammy Baugh

Did Corrigan Really Fly the Wrong Way?

Douglas Corrigan took the tale of the navigation error heard around the world to his grave, never publically admitting he had pulled a fast one on the aviation authorities. But did he really make a mistake, or did he know what he was doing the whole time?

These days, as they did back then, most people believe Corrigan flew exactly in the direction he intended, if for no other reason than that it is just so hard to think someone could fly other the Atlantic Ocean and not know it. But historians point to leaking fuel tanks and repairs made on the fly as strong suggestions that Corrigan knew he was over an ocean with nowhere to land.

Partway through the flight, fuel began leaking to the point where it was sloshing around Corrigan’s’ feet in the cockpit of the plane. He solved the issue by punching a hole in the bottom of the plane and allowing the fuel to drain out.

If he thought he was over land it seems reasonable that he would have dropped his altitude, and perhaps began looking for a place to make an emergency landing. Instead, he sputtered on.

Whatever the truth, Douglas Corrigan became an American icon in a very American way on July 18, 1938. He achieved his dream, despite the odds (and aviation rules) stacked against him.

So, next time you get on the highway and pass five exits before realizing you’re going in the wrong direction, don’t feel bad. Remember Wrong Way Corrigan, the man who flew over an ocean and didn’t notice it wasn’t a continent. Just keep on going. Maybe you too will accidentally find yourself written into the history books.

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