News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 19, 2012

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: The Daring Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan

Bruce Kauffman
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Douglas Corrigan, a dirt-poor flight jockey from Texas, was as different from the age’s flying hero, the austere Charles Lindbergh, as night was from day. But they were connected. In 1926, Corrigan was a mechanic with the Ryan Aeronautical Company in California when Lindbergh contacted Ryan about building a plane for a transatlantic flight. Corrigan wound up working on Lindbergh’s soon-to-be famous Spirit of St. Louis, and when word later reached Ryan’s flight team that Lindbergh had landed in Paris, Corrigan vowed that he too would one day make a transatlantic flight.

The odds were against him. The only plane he could afford was an old Curtiss Robin aircraft that was about to be sold for scrap. Corrigan bought it for $325 and fixed it up himself, but the plane was barely fit for cross-country travel, let alone transatlantic.  Still, Corrigan made his first flight from California to New York in 1936 and, after making some alterations to the plane, applied for permission to fly a transatlantic route. He was denied, so back to California he went, where he continued working to make his plane fit for an ocean crossing.

Finally, in 1939, Corrigan again flew from California to New York and again filed for permission to continue on to Dublin, Ireland — Corrigan was Irish — but was again denied. One look at his plane, which had leaked gasoline on the flight to New York, convinced authorities that such an attempt would be suicide. Corrigan was told his only flight option was back to California, with frequent stops along the way.

And so this week (July 17) in 1938, Corrigan departed New York’s Floyd Bennett Field, ostensibly for California, when he made a sudden turn east and disappeared into a fogbank.  Twenty-eight hours later Corrigan landed at Dublin’s Baldonnel Airport. His first words to authorities were, “I left New York yesterday for California, but I got mixed up in the clouds and must have flown the wrong way.” Corrigan claimed his compass had malfunctioned and fog had made it impossible to know which way he was heading.

Of course, no one believed him, but Corrigan’s daring, determination, luck and Irish charm — “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it” he told reporters with a grin — soon made him an international celebrity. “Wrong Way” Corrigan, as he was dubbed, was besieged by autograph seekers and well wishers, including famous Americans such as Henry Ford. When he returned to America weeks later, he was hailed as a hero and his flight became an aviation legend.

Corrigan died in 1995. Rumors abound that he finally admitted his “mistake” was on purpose, but no one has proved it and most (including me) refuse to believe it.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.