"Wrong Way Corrigan"
New York to Ireland
Douglas P. Corrigan became famous because of a supposed transatlantic flight navigational error. In 1938, Corrigan "mistakenly" flew from New York to Ireland in his vintage 1929 “Curtis Robin,” thus the moniker “Wrong Way.” He claimed it was a mistake…but it wasn’t.
Corrigan was supposed to be flying from New York to California, but because he seemingly “misread” his compass, he ended up in Ireland. He clung to that story.
At the time, Americans were in the midst of the Great Depression and Corrigan's stunt provided a much needed humorous distraction and he became an instant national folk hero. To this day, Corrigan's nickname, "'Wrong Way,” remains a stock handle in sporting events to describe anyone who goofs and goes the wrong way.
Corrigan was born in Galveston, Texas, on January 22, 1907. His father was a construction engineer and his mother a teacher. Corrigan's family around moved fairly often during Douglas's childhood. Eventually, his parents divorced and he was swapped from one parent to another before settling in Los Angeles with his mother. There, he found work in the construction industry.
One Sunday afternoon in October 1925, Douglas observed people taking rides in a Curtiss”Jenny” biplane at a local airfield. One week later the excited Corrigan took his own ride flying over Los Angeles. He now absolutely had to learn to fly and began taking lessons. Corrigan also spent time learning everything he could about aircraft mechanics. On March 25, 1926, Corrigan made his first solo flight.
Coincidentally, Corrigan’s flight lessons were taken at the airfield where B.P. Mahoney and T. C. Ryan, noted aircraft manufacturers, were operating a small airline. He got a job with the team and started working in their San Diego factory. This was the same company which shortly thereafter, built the “Spirit of St. Louis” for Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic flight in May 1927. Inspired by Lindbergh's success, he decided to make his own transatlantic flight someday. Being of Irish decent, he selected Ireland as his destination.
In October 1929, he became a full-fledged pilot. The following year, he moved to the East Coast and began a small passenger-carrying service with a friend named Steve Reich. Although they did fairly well, Corrigan eventually grew restless and returned to the West Coast.
Bureaucratic "Red Tape"
In 1933, he purchased a used OX5 Robin monoplane to make the trip back to California, where he resumed work as an aircraft mechanic. He began modifying his plane for his dream transatlantic flight.
Corrigan applied for permission in 1935 to make a non-stop flight from New York to Ireland. However, officials denied his application, claiming his plane was too old and not sound enough to attempt such a venture. Corrigan made several modifications to his aircraft over the next two years, but each time he reapplied, officials turned him down.
By 1937, Corrigan had become weary of bureaucratic "red tape" and decided to make the flight anyway. He never publicly acknowledged making such a decision.
His plan was to land in New York late at night, after airport officials would have left for the day and then leave for Ireland. But various mechanical problems foiled this course of action and he was unable to risk the flight just then. He returned to California to wait for another opportunity.
On July 8, 1938, Corrigan took off from California headed for New York. The official flight plan called for him to return to California. On July 17th Corrigan’s small plane left Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn in thick fog. He headed east because airport officials instructions were to lift off in any direction except west since there were some buildings at the western edge of the field which could be a hazard.
To everyone's dismay, he kept flying eastward…the opposite direction of California. Corrigan maintained visibility was so bad he could only fly by using his compass, which supposedly indicated he was heading west.
About 26 hours into his flight, Corrigan’s story was, he finally managed to drop down out of the clouds and noticed he was over a large body of water. Since it was obviously too early to have reached the Pacific Ocean, Corrigan looked down at his compass. Without the fog encumbering his eyesight he suddenly noticed he "had been following the wrong end of the magnetic needle." And after a 28-hour, 13-minute flight he landed at Baldonnel Airport, in Dublin.
When questioned by officials, he explained he had gotten mixed up in the clouds and flown the wrong way and how he had misread the compass. Of course, they didn’t buy the story. Authorities continued pressuring him for "the truth," but Corrigan stuck to his guns declaring "That's my story." Officials finally released him after realizing he wasn’t going to say anymore. He was reprimanded with a brief suspension of his pilot's license.
Corrigan returned to the United States and was greeted as a national hero, complete with ticker tape parade…larger than the one Lindbergh had received. The obvious humor of the feat prompted The New York Post to print a front-page headline reading "Hail to Wrong Way Corrigan,” backwards!
Corrigan retired to a quieter life in Santa Ana, California after his famous flight. In the 1950's, he bought an orange grove and lived there until his death on December 9, 1995.
During the 50th anniversary of his flight, some newspapers began reporting he was going to admit having flown to Ireland intentionally. But whether he ever publicly acknowledged it or not has been the subject of some debate.