The Right Way for ‘Wrong Way’

Text by Divan Muller
Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without resourcefulness. One pilot from the 1930s showed an extraordinary amount of resourcefulness and thereby epitomized the adventurous spirit of early aviation pioneers.
Early life

Born in Texas in 1907, Douglas Corrigan was the son of a construction engineer and a teacher. At the age of eighteen, he was taken for a flight in a Curtiss Jenny. It was his first flying experience and he would always look back on that day as the most important day of his life. That fateful flight made Douglas forget about his life as a construction worker and dream about returning to the sky. He frequently returned to the airfield, making friends and helping aircraft mechanics, whilst taking flying lessons. In 1926 Douglas completed his first solo flight and found employment at Ryan Aeronautical Company’s factory. One of his first tasks was to help construct an aircraft for Charles Lindbergh. The aircraft had to be capable of transatlantic flight and had to be completed within two months. Corrigan and his co-workers met the deadline and the aircraft was named the ‘Spirit of St. Louis.’ Of course, Lindbergh used this aircraft to complete the world’s first transatlantic flight in 1927. Corrigan was so excited about Lindbergh’s achievement, that he decided that he too would complete a transatlantic flight. He was of Irish descent and therefore chose Ireland as a destination.


During the late 1920s, Corrigan changed jobs a few times, mainly earning a living as an aircraft mechanic, commercial pilot and as a barnstormer. After a few years of barnstorming and travelling, Corrigan found himself a long way from home. He discovered that the most affordable way to get back home was to purchase a cheap aircraft, rather than travelling by road. On his way to California, he would occasionally land at small towns, offering flips in return for payment. After finally reaching his destination, Corrigan refurbished his weary aircraft, a Curtiss Robin, and modified it for transatlantic flight. He fitted a new 165 hp engine and larger fuel tanks, but a federal investigator licensed the aircraft for cross country flights only. Corrigan was determined to become the first man to fly from New York to Dublin and implored the authorities to allow him to begin the flight. He was told to wait another year and to acquire a radio operator’s licence, even though his aircraft was not equipped with a radio. Nevertheless, he earned the required licence and fitted two more fuel tanks. Still the federal government would not allow Corrigan’s epic flight to take place and even grounded his aircraft, deeming it unsafe to fly. Even so, the American Irishman named his aeroplane ‘Sunshine’ and flew it to New York during an eventful flight which lasted nine days. After a few more illegal flights, the authorities began to notice the unlicensed aircraft operating in American skies. As a result, ‘Sunshine’ was forcibly hangared in California for six months. Corrigan used that time to overhaul the engine and build flying hours in other aircraft. Eventually the aircraft was given an experimental licence and allowed to complete a nonstop flight to New York and then another nonstop flight back to California. On the way to New York, the aircraft developed a fuel leak, but it was just able to reach the airport. Corrigan elected not to repair the leak, as it would take too much time and affect his schedule.
The epic flight

On 17 July 1938, Corrigan was ready for take off in the area of Brooklyn in New York, having filed his flight plan to return to California. All the aircraft’s fuel tanks were filled. The only map onboard the aircraft showed a westerly route toward California, whilst the aircraft’s compass was made during World War I. Other than the map, Corrigan had a few chocolate bars, two boxes of crackers and just over a litre of water with him. At four o’clock in the morning, Corrigan took off and flew east into the ocean mist. A few hours into the flight, whilst flying over the Atlantic Ocean, Corrigan noticed that his feet were covered in fuel. The leak in the main fuel tank had increased in size and it was losing fuel at an alarming rate. Armed with a screwdriver, Corrigan made a hole in the cockpit floor so that the fuel would not spray onto the aircraft’s exhaust. He elected to apply more power, reasoning that it would be wiser to burn the fuel, rather than seeing it leave the aircraft through a leak. Finally, 28 hours after taking off, he could see the green hills of Ireland and landed at Baldonnel Airport. He had reached his secret destination and realised a dream, but now he had to face the music. An army officer and customs officials greeted the exhausted pilot, who explained that he had gone the wrong direction by accident. He explained that it was sheer coincidence that he had studied a map of Ireland and was able to recognise the country. Of course, the Irish were told in advance by American authorities that they could expect an aircraft that had gone lost over the Atlantic Ocean, but the officials did not know whether to welcome or arrest the pioneer, who had arrived without a passport or any documents.

Of course, news of Douglas Corrigan’s achievement spread quickly and he instantly became a national hero. The New York Times printed its main headline back-to-front, exclaiming “Hail Wrong Way Corrigan”. The name stuck. ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan was gently punished by having his pilots’ licence suspended until the day that he and his aircraft arrived back in New York by ship. Corrigan received a hero’s welcome. Fireboats sprayed water in celebration as Corrigan’s ship passed the Statue of Liberty. Thereafter, a ticker tape parade underlined his remarkable achievement. Years later, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt jokingly assured Corrigan that he believed the story that the flight was the result of an honest mistake.
After achieving fame, Corrigan had a brief career as an actor, but mostly focussed on his flying career. He always remained passionate about flying and working on engines. About fifty years after the flight, Corrigan finally publicly admitted that his ‘mistake’ was intentional. He died in 1995 at the age of 88.