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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Corrigan's Wrong Way Flight, July 18, 1938

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On July 18th, 1938, Douglas Corrigan arrived in Ireland, having flown there from New York solo in an aircraft that seemed hardly up to the task. The story of his flight lead Corrigan to a life of fame in both the United States and Europe and left him forever remembered as a pioneer in trans-oceanic aviation.

Douglas Corrigan was born in January, 1907 in Galveston, Texas. He was 18 when he took his first plane ride, a short trip in a First World War-vintage Curtiss Jenny biplane. A week later, Corrigan signed up for flying lessons and made his first solo flight in March, 1926. Flying would consume his life for the next quarter century.

Corrigan was hired at the San Diego factory of Ryan Aeronautical Company right about the time a flier named Charles Lindbergh ordered a custom plane for his attempt at a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Corrigan helped build the aircraft and successfully lobbied for making the wings longer than the design called for in order to increase the plane's lift. Lindbergh's flight from Garden City, New York to Paris took 33.5 hours and made him an international hero. A ticker tape parade was held in his honor in New York City upon his return to the United States and he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1929. Corrigan decided to repeat the trip, but chose Ireland instead of France as his destination.

After leaving Ryan, Corrigan gave flying lessons and took jobs as an aircraft mechanic to make ends meet as the nation found itself in the grip of the Great Depression. In 1933, he bought a Curtiss Robin OX-5 for $310 and began to modify it for a trans-Atlantic trip. He installed a larger engine and extra fuel tanks, almost doubling the plane's horsepower and extending her range by hundreds of miles. In 1935, Corrigan applied to the Bureau of Air Commerce for permission to fly from New York to Ireland non-stop. His request was rejected on the grounds that his aircraft was too unsound for transatlantic flight. He was, however, approved for a coast-to-coast flight within the United States.

Corrigan repaired, replaced and modified his plane, now named 'Sunshine', over the course of the next two years, but he still could not gain approval to fly across the Atlantic. To make matters worse, his plane was refused a new license because, despite Corrigan's modifications, it was deemed too dangerous to transport even one person safely over land. The plane was grounded for six months.

It was most likely during this time that Corrigan decided to make his Ireland journey with or without permission. In early 1938, his aircraft was granted an experimental license. That July, he was granted permission for a cross-country flight from San Diego to New York. He made the trip at 85MPH, the plane's most efficient speed. He crossed the nation in 27 hours, but not without incident: the plane developed a fuel leak, filling the cockpit with fumes and causing concern that he would not be able to complete the trip. When he landed in New York, Corrigan decided that repairing the fuel leak would take too much time, as he needed to take off early in the morning to escape detection by airport officials. He filed a flight plan for a return trip to California, filled up his leaking plane with 320 gallons of gasoline and 16 gallons of oil, and taxied to the end of the runway at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

What Corrigan did next would earn him a place in the history books. After takeoff, instead of heading west to California, Corrigan turned east and headed for Europe. He would later claim that his flight to Ireland was the result of a navigational error caused by low clouds that obscured local landmarks. He also claimed that he was 26 hours into the flight before he realized he was heading in the wrong direction. Corrigan also noted that the compass he was carrying was over 20 years old.

Ten hours into the flight, Corrigan's feet began to feel cold. After feeling around on the floor of the plane, he discovered that gasoline was slowly filling up the aircraft's cockpit. He took a screwdriver and punched a hole in the floor to allow the gasoline to flow out of the plane. This was more dangerous than Corrigan later admitted; had the gasoline come into contact with the nearby exhaust housing, the plane could have exploded in mid-air.

Twenty-eight hours and thirteen minutes after taking off from New York, Douglas Corrigan, who was soon to earn the nickname "Wrong Way", landed at Baldonnel Airfield in Dublin. It was July 18, 1938. He had taken two boxes of fig bars, two chocolate bars and a quart of water on his journey. The employees on duty at the airfield offered him a cup of tea, which he gladly accepted. 

Officials in the United States wasted no time in sending a telegram to Corrigan detailing the list of regulations he had broken. It was 600 words long. His instant fame helped the flyer in terms of punishment, as his pilot's certificate was only suspended for two weeks. He and 'Sunshine' returned to New York aboard the SS Manhattan on August 4th, 1938. A ticker-tape parade was held in his honor a few days later; more people attended than had attended Lindbergh's parade a decade earlier.

'Wrong Way' Corrigan retired from aviation in 1950 after testing bombers and flying for the U.S. Army Ferry Command. He lived in Santa Ana, California for last 45 years of his life. His plane 'Sunshine' remained in his garage for all those years, only to be pulled out for the 50th anniversary of his flight in 1988. The engine still ran.

Corrigan never admitted that he flew to Ireland intentionally.

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