Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published July 17, 2012
By 1938, flying between the USA and Europe had become commonplace. What had a decade before been the stuff of Lindbergh and Earhart, was nearing a time when the first airlines could contemplate commercial flights across “the pond.” Yet there would be one last great flight celebrated with ticker tape parades and nationwide recognition. This is the story of Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, a pilot and airplane mechanic who went down in history, not so much for pioneering a new air route across the Atlantic Ocean as for standing up to bureaucratic red tape, gaming the rules and getting away with it.
Douglas Corrigan learned to fly in the 1926, soloing in March of that year. Simultaneously, he became a skilled aviation mechanic and was hired by the Ryan Aeronautical Company. Soon after, Charles Lindbergh came calling for a single engine plane to fly solo across Atlantic — this would become the Ryan NYP, better known as the “Spirit of St. Louis”. Among other things, Corrigan was responsible for the plane’s extended wingspan, which would prove key to the success of Lindbergh’s flight.
After Lindbergh reached Paris, Corrigan watched in awe as Lucky Lindy was feted as a hero aviator. Lindbergh enjoyed a ticker tape parade through the streets of New York and was even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his feat. Yet the aircraft designers didn’t receive anywhere near the celebrity, even if it was their pioneering design that had made it all possible. Douglas Corrigan decided that he too would fly the Atlantic as a pilot like Lindbergh, and go down in history.
Corrigan’s Preparations Run Afoul of Red Tape
The onset of the Great Depression in October 1929 hit Corrigan hard. He lacked the funds to create a purpose-built transatlantic machine and had to settle for what he could afford — a used Curtiss Robin J-1, purchased in 1933 for $310. For the next two years, he prepared it on his own in his spare time. He added a more powerful engine and larger gas tanks. Then in 1935, he applied for permission from the Bureau of Air Commerce for his dream flight from New York to Ireland. He was shocked when the Feds denied his application. They stated that his little plane unsafe for a flight over the ocean, but they approved it to fly overland between New York and California instead.
Dismayed, Corrigan went back to work to get the plane in compliance with Federal requirements for his flight to Ireland. In 1937, he reapplied after having enhanced the aircraft’s capabilities. This time, the Feds not only turned him down, but grounded the plane for six months as unsafe even for a single passenger over land, despite Corrigan’s improvements since his previous application.
Douglas Corrigan’s War on Red Tape
Incensed, Corrigan registered his modified Curtiss Robin as an Experimental Category aircraft. In this way, he was allowed to fly from San Diego to New York and back again to prove his experimental modifications. Pleased with the result, Corrigan flew from San Diego to New York to test the aircraft’s systems, exactly as he was authorized to do. He flew precisely at an indicated airspeed of 85 mph, which he had determined and thus verified would maximize his range and fuel economy. On the way, however, he also discovered that there was a leak somewhere in the fuel system. By the time he arrived at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, the cockpit was filling with gas fumes.
Fearing that the Feds would discover the problem and ground his plane a second time, Corrigan kept silent about the gas leak and tried to fly out that same night, even without any rest. The local authorities told him to wait until the morning, so he instead filed a flight plan for the following morning for the authorized return trip to California. He filled the tanks with 320 gallons of gasoline and 16 gallons of oil. Then, at 4:17 am, he simply took off into pre-dawn light and headed eastward toward Ireland.
His preparations were abysmal — he had two chocolate bars, some drinking water, two boxes of fig bars and a plane that was leaking fuel. Ten hours into the flight, approximately while he was passing Newfoundland, he realized his feet were sloshing around in a couple of inches of gasoline on the cockpit floor. Rather than making an emergency landing, he simply punched a hole in the bottom of the cockpit with a screwdriver and was pleased when the fuel drained out without exploding from the engine’s exhaust flash.
Aftermath of the Flight
After 28 hours and 13 minutes, Corrigan arrived Baldonnel Aerodrome in County Dublin, Ireland, where he was met by local officials. Some reports say that he hopped off the plane and asked, “Just got in from New York. Where am I?” In any case, Corrigan would gratefully accept a cup of tea and later say that he must have made a navigational error and flown the “wrong way.” He also claimed that clouds had obscured the ground until he was 26 hours into the flight. Later, he would point out that the Feds were right about the unsafe nature of the plane — the 20 year old compass he even failed to lead him in the right direction!
The journalist H. R. Knickerbocker summed up the unlikely state of the aircraft and flight perfectly when he wrote:
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.
Quickly, the Feds issued a six hundred word telegram enumerating all of the rules he had broken. Corrigan and his plane were grounded. He would return to America by ship. However, despite his grounding (which lasted two weeks), Americans celebrated Corrigan as everyman’s hero, an underdog facing down bureaucratic red tape. With that, Corrigan’s dream had come true. He would enjoy a ticker tape parade larger than Lindbergh’s and even a second parade in Chicago. Offers would pile in from advertisers and sponsors — and he enjoyed his celebrity for many years afterward.
Corrigan would go on to a full career in aviation, even flying ferry operations for the Federal Government. Finally, not long before passing away in 1995, he would admit that he had always meant to fly to Ireland — but to the day he died, he refused to allow the Federal Government’s Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum to acquire his little Curtiss Robin for display. It would be his final act of defiance.
Douglas Corrigan kept his plane stored in his garage for nearly five decades. Finally, for the golden anniversary of his flight in 1988, he allowed the plane to be taken out to the local airfield where it was displayed at an airshow. Just for a laugh, the organizers put in a little fuel and oil, and everyone was surprised when the engine started and ran perfectly. A visibly excited Corrigan then started asking for more fuel so he could take it up for a short demonstration flight. Who knows what he actually might have had in mind…. At this, the authorities got the last word and placed guards at the wingtips to ensure that he couldn’t make a break for it. It seems that to the end, he deserved his nickname — Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan.