Wrong Way Corrigan mistakes Ireland for California
The story of how Douglas Corrigan ended up in Ireland while aiming for California is one of my favourites. In fact, I feel sure that I’ve written about him before*.
It was seventy-eight years ago, the 17th of July in 1938, when Douglas Corrigan earned the nickname “Wrong Way Corrigan”.
He started his aviation career in 1925, where he saw a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane offering short flights. He paid $2.50 (not a trivial amount in those days) for a trip and a week later he started flying lessons. The airfield where he was learning to fly was home to Ryan Aeronautical Company and they hired him to work in San Diego, where they received the contract to build Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis.
In February 1927 Corrigan saw Mahoney talking to a tall young man. Corrigan, along with a mechanic, was sent out to the field to get one of the aircraft started so that the lanky youngster could test-fly it.
As they were walking out to the plane, the mechanic explained, ‘This is that fellow from St. Louis that wants to fly from New York to Paris.’ Corrigan glanced back at Charles Lindbergh and said: ‘Gosh, he looks like a farmer. Do you suppose he can fly?’
They took two months and were paid $10,000 to construct the Spirit of St. Louis, a single-engine monoplane. Charles Lindbergh used it to fly the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris, worth $25,000 to Lindbergh as he claimed the Orteig Prize for the flight.
Supposedly, Corrigan was the one to remove the chocks when the Spirit of St Louis flew from San Diego to New York to prepare for the historic flight. Certainly, everyone at Ryan Aeronautical Company was thrilled to have shared in the success (if not the prize money) of the first transatlantic flight. Corrigan apparently decided on the spot that he wanted to fly across the Atlantic.
He got a new job as a mechanic for Airtech School, which had over 50 students in training every day. Corrigan only got to fly during his lunch hour. He flew steep climbing turns which infuriated the company pilot until the company finally forbade Corrigan from flying stunts in company planes. Corrigan began flying to a small field near the Mexican border and flew his stunts there.
In 1930, he moved to New York, barnstorming all along the east coast and making as much as $140/week selling airplane rides. He bought a used Curtiss Robin aircraft for $325 and flew it back to California, stopping every 100 miles or so to sell flights to pay for his trip.
Once, when he was running low on gas, he passed over several towns without finding a field that looked good enough for a landing. He finally came down in a field that was overgrown with brush. It was a rough landing–one of the wheels hit a tree stump, damaging the landing gear.
Luckily, there was a farmyard nearby. Corrigan walked over, found a few pieces of wood and cut some wire off a fence–all he needed for some quick repairs. He borrowed some gasoline from a farmer’s tractor and flew on after his repair work was completed.
Back in San Diego, he refurbished the Curtiss Robin with a new engine (a Wright J6-5 with 165 horsepower and five cylinders) and extra fuel tanks. His plan was to be the first to fly non-stop from New York to Dublin.
Sadly, the FAA inspection of his renovated Robin did not go as planned: the Federal Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC) licensed it for cross-country flights only but deemed it unsafe for transatlantic flight.
Corrigan flew to New York and wrote the BAC to ask permission for the flight to Dublin. He was told that he would have to wait until the following year. Then, he was told that he could not make the flight unless he had a radio operator’s license. He got the license, even though his aircraft had no radio. He installed two more fuel tanks and he applied again.
His timing was not great. By now it was 1937 and Amelia Earhart had disappeared over the Pacific just a few months earlier. Not only did the BAC refuse him permission for the flight, they refused to renew the license for the Robin, which meant Corrigan was grounded.
It has to be said: this photograph of the Robin in 1938 does not make it look like the most airworthy of aircraft…
He flew to New York City anyway. His plan was to land by night, fill his tanks and then fly across the Atlantic to Dublin. It was a hard journey and by the time he reached New York, however, it was the end of October and Corrigan didn’t risk the North Atlantic in winter. He flew back to California where an inspector recognised the aircraft and told the airfield he was banned from flying it. The Robin was stuck in a hangar for six months.
Corrigan repaired the engine and eventually gained an experimental license, although with permission for a transcontinental flight from California to New York. The Robin made the journey in 27 hours despite developing a fuel leak. He landed in Brooklyn with just four gallons of fuel left. Transcontinental flight was no longer the cause of much excitement but Corrigan gained national attention because they were surprised that the rattletrap Robin had survived the journey.
His flight plan to return to California was logged for the 17th of July, one week after his landing. He decided it would take too long to repair the fuel tank. Loaded up with provisions: a few chocolate bars, two boxes of fig crackers and a quart of water, he filled the Robin with 320 US gallons (1,200 litres) of of fuel and departed Floyd Bennet Field at 05:15.
He disappeared into the early morning fog, heading east.
On the 18th of July, after 28 hours and 13 minutes, he landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome, County Dublin, Ireland. “Just got in from New York,” he announced as he climbed out of the Robin. “Where am I?”
Corrigan claimed that he had lost his direction (his compass was 20 years old and he had no radio navigation equipment) and that he had not realised he was going the wrong way until much too late.
He explains what happened in this video:
Needless to say, his version of events was seen as deeply suspicious.
Corrigan claimed to have noticed his “error” after flying for about 26 hours. This is not entirely consistent with his claim that after 10 hours, he felt his feet go cold; the cockpit floor was awash with gasoline leaking from the unrepaired tank. He used a screwdriver to punch a hole through the cockpit floor so that the fuel would drain away on the side opposite the hot exhaust pipe, reducing the risk of a midair explosion. Had he been truly unaware he was over ocean, it seems likely he would have descended at this point; instead, he claimed to have increased the engine speed by almost 20% in the hope of decreasing his flight time.
He had no passport and apparently the customs official at the airport had no idea what to do with the pilot arriving in such odd circumstances. The customs official contacted the American minster, who came immediately and asked how Corrigan had ended up in Ireland. “It was a very foggy morning,” explained Corrigan. He claimed that the aircraft was so weighed down that it wasn’t climbing fast enough, so he’d flown east for a few miles to burn off some fuel before turning around for California. When he emerged from the clouds, he saw only water.
‘That was strange, as I had only been flying 26 hours and shouldn’t have come to the Pacific yet,’ he said. ‘I looked down at the compass, and now that there was more light I noticed I had been following the wrong end of the magnetic needle on the whole flight. As the opposite of west is east, I realized that I was over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere!’
They agreed to send him back to the United States (“He entered without paperwork, he can go back without paperwork”) but he wasn’t to fly: he and the Robin travelled by a steam ship. Meanwhile, the BAC sent him a 600-word telegram (paid by the word!) listing all the regulations broken by his flight. His pilot’s license was suspended but only until the 4th of August: the day his ship arrived in New York. He was welcomed as a hero and no further action as taken against him.
A 1941 journalist, H.R. Knickerbocker, wrote about the flight:
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.
As I looked over it at the Dublin airdrome I really marveled that anyone should have been rash enough even to go in the air with it, much less try to fly the Atlantic. He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design. The door behind which Corrigan crouched for twenty-eight hours was fastened together with a piece of baling wire. The reserve gasoline tanks put together by Corrigan, left him so little room that he had to sit hunched forward with his knees cramped, and not enough window space to see the ground when landing.
The New York Times reports that in 1988, Corrigan was asked to display the Robin at an air show.
Mr. Corrigan, who had taken it apart in 1940 and stored it in his garage, was so enthusiastic that the show’s organizers became alarmed.
Although Mr. Corrigan had not flown since 1972, the organizers found it prudent to station guards on the plane’s wings during his appearance at the exhibition and even discussed anchoring the tail of the plane by rope to a police car.
The engine started up just fine and I suspect they were right; it must have been awfully tempting to take it up one more time.
An Irish band called the Corrigan Brothers released a track called Wrongway Corrigan, filled with original footage from the time.
*If you should find an article by me about Corrigan, please point it out to me because I can’t find it anywhere**
**Although I would have written the whole story again anyway, just for Rudy who also ended up taking a wrong turn and ending up in Ireland ;)