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Default July 17, 1938: 'Wrong Way' Corrigan Gets It Right

1938: Douglas Corrigan claims his place in the annals of aviation history when he "mistakenly" flies from New York to Ireland. With a single flight, Corrigan breaks the law, charms the Irish, becomes an American hero and earns an unforgettable nickname.
According to the flight plan he filed beforehand, his destination was California. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't: Corrigan had wanted to fly to Ireland all along, hoping to emulate Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight of a decade earlier. But the Bureau of Air Commerce denied the request, on the grounds that Corrigan's plane -- a rather well-used Curtiss Robin OX-5 monoplane -- was too unstable for a long flight over water.
Like other early aviators, Douglas Corrigan was drawn to flying at an early age. While still a teenager, he took a paid ride aboard a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny," and once bitten with the bug, there was nothing else to do but fly. Within a week Corrigan was taking lessons, and he made his first solo flight in 1926, still younger than 20.
Offered a job as an aircraft mechanic with Ryan Aeronautical Company, Corrigan moved to the firm's San Diego factory and wound up on the team that built Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. In fact, it was Corrigan who pulled the chocks away from the plane as Lindbergh prepared to take off for New York, and history.
Lindbergh's epic solo flight left a lasting impression on young Corrigan, who resolved to make a similar flight. He bought the Robin, used, in 1933 and spent a couple of years modifying the plane, trying to get it rated airworthy enough for certification. He never did, and at one point officials in California grounded the rattling bucket of bolts -- which Corrigan had named Sunshine -- for six months.
Finally, in 1938, he was ready. Armed with a conditional permit, Corrigan flew to New York. He took off in the early-morning fog of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn on July 17, ostensibly bound for California. This is where things get a bit murky.
Corrigan steadfastly maintained, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was indeed intending to fly to California but was compelled to take off to the east because of the weather, and got turned around owing to a balky compass on board. He said he didn't discover his navigational error until he was 26 hours into the flight, a claim that lifted more than a few eyebrows.
The thing is, Sunshine really was a crate. It was patched up and lashed together and, worse, during the California-New York flight had developed a gas leak that Corrigan decided he didn't have time to repair. Gasoline actually leaked into the cockpit while the plane was over the Atlantic. Corrigan solved that problem by using a screwdriver to punch a hole in the cockpit floor.
So, after a flight of 28 hours, 13 minutes, Corrigan reached Baldonnel Airfield in Dublin in a plane that was structurally unsound, leaking fuel, lacking a reliable compass and equipped with reserve fuel tanks mounted in such a way that they blocked his straight-ahead view.
Corrigan received a warm welcome in Ireland and was taken to Dublin town, where he met Prime Minister Eamon de Valera, as well as eager reporters. The Irish were particularly tickled by Corrigan's assertion that his faulty compass was to blame for the wrong-way flight, and the American press wasted no time in nicknaming him "Wrong Way" Corrigan.
"Wrong Way" and his junk pile of a plane were eventually bundled aboard the liner Manhattan and shipped home, where he received a ticker-tape parade that drew a bigger crowd than turned out for Lindbergh in 1927. Interview followed interview, and Corrigan doggedly stuck to his story, basically: "I got turned around up there and wound up flying east."
Everybody figured Corrigan was pulling a fast one, including President Franklin Roosevelt, who later told him, smilingly, that he believed every word of Corrigan's story.
No doubt some aviation authorities would have loved sticking it to their wayward pilot, but Corrigan's goofy feat had so captured the national imagination -- he received congratulatory telegrams from a number of prominent Americans, including Henry Ford and Howard Hughes -- that the best they could do was a 14-day suspension of his license. Case closed.
Source: History.net


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