The Man Called "Wrong Way Corrigan" - February 15, 2013

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The Man Called “Wrong Way Corrigan” – February 15, 2013

“Robert Novell’s Third Dimension Blog”

Good Morning and Happy Friday—-I hope the week was good for everyone and the weekend will allow you to have some time with friends, and family, and enjoy time away from airports, airplanes, and aviation. This week we are going to talk about an aviator that history, aviators, and the public have all but forgotten; however, when you consider he was given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway to the cheers of over a million people, which was more than had greeted Lindbergh in 1927, then maybe this is an aviator we need to talk about.


Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan

The man who later earned the nickname “Wrong Way Corrigan” was born in Galveston, Texas in 1907. Wrong Way, whose real name is Douglas, had originally planned on being an an architect but aviation got in the way when he took a ride in a Jenny at the age of eighteen. Douglas went to a Los Angeles airfield, operated by B.F. Mahoney, and Claude Ryan, to experience the thrill of aviation and as luck would have it his later association with the two owners would serve him well.

Corrigan started flying lessons the very next week and was soon a fixture at the airport on Sundays. When he wasn’t flying he was offering his help to the mechanics on the field and when Mahoney and Ryan closed down their operation in Los Angeles, and moved to San Diego, they offered young Corrigan a job. On his arrival to San Diego, at the new facilities of Mahoney and Ryan now called the Ryan Aeronautical Company, he was not impressed. The hangar contained six unfinished airplanes, no people, and probably no future for him. Turns out orders had been canceled on the unfinished airplanes in the hangar and although Corrigan was not sure if he should stay, or leave, the following week would see that problem solved.

A telegram arrived  from a gentleman named Charles Lindbergh who wanted to know if Ryan could build an airplane capable of making a non-stop flight across the North Atlantic. Ryan and Mahoney responded that they could have such an aircraft ready within two months, and it would cost about $10,000. Lindbergh liked the price, as well as the time frame, and advised the owners he would be arriving the following week to check out the factory and their airplanes.

As you may have guessed, the visit was completed, a contract was written, and the “Spirit of St Louis” became a reality for the young Lindbergh. During the two months it took to construct the aircraft, designated the NYP by Ryan, Corrigan and the rest of the crew often worked well past midnight to stay on schedule. Corrigan assembled the wings, installed the gas tanks, and the instrument panel but recalled later that everyone at Ryan Aeronautical seemed motivated by Lindbergh and his goal. Apparently Lindbergh, who spent a considerable amount of time at the factory supervising the construction, was equally impressed with his new associates. In his writing of the Ryan crew he said, “They’re as anxious to build a plane that will fly to Paris as I am to fly it there.”

Ryan managed to meet Lindbergh’s deadline, completing the aircraft in time for him to fly Spirit of St. Louis from San Diego to St. Louis in May 1927, and then onward to New York City where his transatlantic crossing would begin.

(Rollout of the just completed “Spirit of St Louis” and its construction crew. Corrigan is 6th from right.)

Ryan Aeronautical had built what was now the most famous plane in the world, and all of a sudden business was booming. The factory moved to St. Louis in October 1928, but Corrigan stayed in California and got a job as a mechanic for a new flying operation called the Airtech School, run by the San Diego Air Service. I wonder why he would walk away from his success at Ryan? Do you think he knew he was destined for a life beyond the factory? Corrigan would indeed follow in the footsteps of other great aviators, such as Lindbergh, but he was going to do it his way without a lot of fanfare.

Corrigan went to New York with a friend in 1930, working at Roosevelt Field for a while, and did some barnstorming along the East Coast. When Corrigan decided to go back to California in 1933 he started looking for a plane in which to make the trip. He soon found a Curtiss Robin priced at $325. “It looked pretty good, and flew all right,” he said, and a few days after buying the plane he headed back to San Diego.

After arriving back in San Diego Corrigan worked in an aircraft factory for a while, but that did not satisfy his zest for adventure. He decided to refurbish his Curtiss Robin and pursue his dream of flying across the Atlantic. He knew that attempting such a flight was risky, but he was sure it was his destiny, and since he was Irish American, Corrigan naturally chose Dublin as his destination.

Corrigan bought a new engine for his plane, a Wright J6-5 with 165 horsepower and five cylinders, and also built and installed the extra gas tanks that would  be required if he were to attempt a transatlantic flight. As far as he was concerned, Douglas Corrigan was all set to be the first man to fly nonstop from New York to Dublin; however, it was not to be that simple. When a federal inspector checked out the plane, they licensed it for cross-country flights only.

But Corrigan refused to give up. In 1936, he flew to New York and again wrote to the Federal Bureau of Air Commerce, asking for permission to go ahead with the flight. For no apparent reason he was told to wait until the following year. Then he was told that he would need a radio operator’s license to make the flight even though his plane had no radio.

He went back to California, got the license, installed two more gas tanks, and in 1937 he reapplied for permission to make the flight. However, as luck would have it, Amelia Earhart had disappeared over the Pacific just a few months earlier and nobody in Washington wanted to give the go-ahead for another solo ocean flight. To make matters even more complicated, the government even refused to renew the license for Corrigan’s plane.

But Corrigan was not completely out of options. Although he had been denied permission to fly, he still had his plane. “They can’t hang you for flying a plane without a license,” he figured. “Columbus took a chance, so why not me?” He flew toward New York, planning to head for Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. He thought perhaps he could land by night, after the officials had gone home, and then he could fill his gas tanks and head out to Ireland. OK, good plan but it was not to be. He was delayed for a number of reasons but did not give up.

Finally, he was ready. On July 7, 1938 he left Long Beach for New York and on July 17, 1938 at 4:00 AM he was ready to execute his plan; however, there was one little problem. He still had  not been authorized to conduct the transatlantic crossing to Ireland. He had, in fact, been authorized to fly New York to California so how was he going to make this work?

OK, back to the story of “Wrong Way Corrigan” and the conclusion of this article. I have copied the following facts from another article and the source document used is credited at the end, with a hyperlink, and will carry you to that complete article.

“Wrong Way Corrigan” Leaves New York and  Arrives in Ireland

When 31-year-old Douglas  Corrigan took off from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field on July 17, 1938, in a modified Curtiss Robin, he carried two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, a quart of water and a U.S. map with the route from New York to California marked out. Corrigan, who had spent three years trying to get permission to fly from New York to Dublin, had been told that he could fly nonstop from New York to California, but an ocean crossing was out of the question. It was a foggy morning when Corrigan flew into the haze and disappeared.

He had finished the cookies and started on a chocolate bar when land came into sight. Sometime later, he recalled, ‘I noticed some nice green hills.’ It was not long after that he reached Baldonnel Airport, in Dublin, landing on July 18.

Corrigan had achieved his dream, but he was not sure how much it was going cost him. He had broken the rules, after all–and he realized that how he played things from here on out would probably determine how he was going to spend the next few years.

The first person Corrigan met was an army officer. Corrigan introduced himself saying, ‘I left New York yesterday morning headed for California.’ He added, ‘I got mixed up in the clouds, and I must have flown the wrong way.’ The officer responded, ‘Yes, we know.’ Corrigan was surprised, ‘Really?’ he said. ‘How did you find out?’ The officer replied: ‘Oh, there was a small piece in the paper saying someone might be flying over this way. Then we got a phone call from Belfast saying a plane with American markings had passed over, headed down the coast.’ A customs official in a blue uniform came up and asked Corrigan if he had landed anywhere else. ‘I did pass over a city–I guess it must have been Belfast,’ explained Corrigan. ‘But I didn’t see an airport there. This is the first place I’ve landed since leaving New York.’

‘That makes it easier for us, then,’ said the customs agent amiably. They led Corrigan into the field office, where he signed the airport register. Then they showed him the newspaper article, which talked about an unknown pilot who had disappeared over the Atlantic.

Corrigan not only did not have permission to make the flight, he had neither a passport nor entry papers. The officials were not surprised. The officer said he would call the American minister, Stephen Cudahy. ‘Why don’t you come down to the barracks and have a spot of tea while we’re waiting?’ suggested the officer. Corrigan gladly accepted the invitation.

When Cudahy was ready to see him, the customs man was reluctant to let Corrigan go. ‘I haven’t heard from my superiors yet,’ he objected. ‘Why don’t you wait around awhile longer?’ The officer spoke up: ‘What’s the matter? You’re not putting him under arrest, are you?’ The customs man seemed confused. ‘No, but this never happened before,’ came the response. ‘I don’t know what to do.’ The officer just laughed, and he and Corrigan left.

When they met with Cudahy, the American minister wanted an explanation as to how Corrigan ended up in Ireland. Corrigan knew this was a key moment. He smiled and explained that he had taken off from Floyd Bennett Field–heading east. ‘It was a very foggy morning,’ he pointed out. ‘I see,’ said Cudahy dryly.

Corrigan went on to tell the same story he later told in his autobiography. He explained that the plane was so weighed down with fuel that it would not climb fast enough, so he had decided to fly east for a few miles and burn off some fuel before he turned around. He also said his main compass was broken–the liquid had somehow leaked out, and he had had to use a backup compass.

‘Couldn’t you see anything below you?’ asked Cudahy. ‘It was just too foggy,’ responded Corrigan. ‘At one point there was a break, and I could see a city. I figured it was Baltimore–which would have meant I was on course for California.’ The city had actually been Boston.

That was the only break in the clouds he had seen, Corrigan said. He spent the rest of the flight navigating by compass alone. When he finally emerged from the clouds 26 hours later, he saw only ocean. ‘That was strange, as I had only been flying 26 hours and shouldn’t have come to the Pacific yet,’ he said. ‘I looked down at the compass, and now that there was more light, I noticed I had been following the wrong end of the magnetic needle on the whole flight. As the opposite of west is east, I realized that I was over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere!’ So I just flew on from there. Finally, I saw a city below him, and he noticed that the airport was marked Baldonnel. ‘Having studied the map of Ireland two years before, I knew this was Dublin.’

Cudahy was skeptical. ‘It was hazy when you took off, was it?’ he said. ‘Well, your story seems a little hazy, too–now come on and tell me the real story.’

‘I’ve just told you the real story,’ replied Corrigan. ‘I don’t know any other one.’

‘So you’re sticking to that story, are you?’

‘That’s my story,’ said the pilot, ‘but I sure am ashamed of that navigation.’

Source Document

That’s his story and his sticking to it. Now, you know the rest of the story and to finish up I have a couple videos at the end of the article. Have a good weekend, keep family and friends close, and remember those that will follow in your foot steps are depending on you/us to protect the future of the “Third Dimension.”


Robert Novell,

February 15, 2013