when a Texan is wrong, he is right. Take, for example, famed Douglas
Corrigan, a brash and errant aviator, who tried for years to get permission
to fly from New York to Dublin. "No," said aviation officials, "it's
not safe for you to fly over water but instead, we give you permission
to fly from New York to California." Corrigan finally took off in
heavy fog and his jerry-built, patched-up, personally modified Curtiss
Robin plane quickly flew into the foggy haze and was soon out of sight.
28 hours later, he arrived in Dublin. Corrigan claimed it was a "navigational
error." Whatever it was, he got to his dream destination and didn't
even mind it when newspapers dubbed him "Wrong-Way Corrigan, a moniker
that would stay with him all his life.
Groce Corrigan was born January 22, 1907 in Galveston,
Texas, to an engineer and a teacher. After his family moved to
California, 18-year-old Corrigan paid $2.50 to be taken for a short
flight in a Jenny bi-plane (Curtiss JN-4). He later said that he looked
back on that day as the most important of his life. He began taking
flying lessons a week later, studying airplane mechanics in his spare
time. He got a job as mechanic for Ryan Aeronautical Company, which
had once owned the airfield where he learned to fly. At work one day,
Corrigan saw his boss talking to a tall young man who wanted to test
fly one of their planes. "This is that fellow from St. Louis that
wants to fly from New York to Paris," said a worker. Corrigan took
another look at the lanky young guy and said, "Gosh, he looks like
a farmer. Do you suppose he can fly?"
Turned out that young Charles Lindbergh had wired Ryan Aeronautical
asking if they could build a plane capable of transatlantic flight.
Yes, they said, it could be ready within two months, and would cost
$10,000. Lindbergh went to California to check out the factory, and
they got the job. Corrigan actually helped build The Spirit of
St. Louis, making the wing assembly, and installing the gas tanks
and instrument panel. With a colleague, he also helped increase the
aircraft's lift power by extending the wings. And to top that off,
he was the one who pulled the chocks from The Spirit of St. Louis
when Lindbergh took off on the first leg of his historic flight (San
Diego to New York).
Ryan Aeronautical moved its operation to St. Louis, but Corrigan remained
in California and got a job with the San Diego Air Service's Airtech
School, because he got to fly on his lunch hour. He loved doing stunts
like chandelles steep, climbing turns and he started
doing them as soon as the plane left the ground. Other fliers would
yell at him that he was crazy, but he just gave them an innocent smile,
saying, "I didn't think it was dangerous." Soon though, Corrigan was
forbidden to stunt fly in company planes, but that didn't dissuade
him. He simply stopped doing it near the airfield, instead flying
down to a small field near the Mexican border. Even then, he wouldn't,
or couldn't, take "no" for an answer. It was that attitude that would
eventually make him a part of American pop culture.
first plane is the same type shown in this 1918 postal rarity
| After barnstorming
with a friend in small East Coast towns and talking folks into buying
airplane rides, Corrigan decided he should buy a cheap plane of his
own, a major decision, since he didn't even own a car. He paid $325
for a used Curtiss Robin. "It looked pretty good and flew all right,"
he said. He flew back to the West Coast a few days after buying the
plane, stopping every 100 miles or so to pick up passengers wherever
he could find them to make a little extra cash. Once, running low
on fuel, and not finding a field large enough to land in, he came
down in a field overgrown with brush, damaging the landing gear. Corrigan
simply walked over to a nearby farm, grabbed some wood, cut some wire
off a fence, and repaired the damage, then borrowed some gasoline
from a tractor and took off. Wherever he went, it sounds like Corrigan
took a bit of resourceful Texas thinking with him. Another thing he
always had with him was a great spirit of adventure.
decided to give his Curtiss Robin a makeover so he could fly across
the Atlantic like Lindbergh. Aware that such a flight might kill him,
he also knew it would not be boring. As a tribute to his ancestors,
Corrigan wanted to fly to Ireland and toward that end, bought a new
165 horsepower, 5-cylinder engine, and built extra gas tanks specifically
for a nonstop transatlantic flight to Dublin. But a federal inspector
would only license the plane for cross-country flights. Even then,
bureaucracy ruled. Corrigan, however, refused to give in after he
was denied permission, and he installed two additional gas tanks.
The following year (1937), he reapplied for permission to make the
flight to Dublin but his timing was bad; Amelia Earhart had recently
disappeared over the Pacific, and no bureaucrat would okay another
solo flight over any ocean no matter how many fuel tanks were installed.
Today, we think the government interferes too much, and back then,
it was the same. They refused to renew the license for Corrigan's
plane, thereby eliminating his ability to fly at all. "It looked like
I was stopped now for sure," he later wrote, but even the U.S. government
couldn't stop this Texan from completing his destiny.
can't hang you for flying a plane without a license," he reasoned.
"Columbus took a chance, so why not me?" and he climbed into his plane
and took off for Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. The idea
was to land in the dead of night, avoiding the officials who would
have gone home by then, fill all those gas tanks and take off for
Dublin on the quiet. To insure good luck, he finally decided to give
his plane a name: "So now I put the name Sunshine on the cowling."
His plan was in place. Or so he thought.
flight to New York did not go well, and bad weather forced Corrigan
to land in Arizona the first day. On the second day, more bad weather
forced him to land in New Mexico. Due to continuing weather problems,
it took him two whole days just to fly across Texas.
Talk about big! After he finally made it across Texas,
he had to land in open fields in towns like Arkadelphia, Arkansas;
Ezel, Kentucky; and Buckhannon, West Virginia. Nine days after he
left California, he finally arrived in New York, where it was, by
now, too cold to risk facing the North Atlantic. What did he do? He
decided to fly nonstop back to California where government men finally
caught up with him, telling airport officials not to let Corrigan
fly his plane. Poor Sunshine just languished in a hangar for
the next six months, while Corrigan got in flight time in other planes.
But he wanted to fly his own plane, so he overhauled Sunshine's
engine and took her in for another inspection. This time, Sunshine
won an experimental license, and Corrigan was given consent to make
a nonstop flight to New York and, if he made it, he had permission
to fly nonstop back to California. On that flight to New York, besides
more terrible weather, the main gas tank developed a leak. Corrigan
merely opened the cabin window and stuck his head outside, "partly
to keep awake and partly to avoid the fumes." This kind of determination,
plus a strong tail wind, landed him in New York with only four gallons
of fuel left.
Was it courage or recklessness that Corrigan decided not to bother
fixing the leaky main gas tank because repairs would have taken too
long? Anyway, he didn't want to take the authorized nonstop flight
back to California; he wanted to fly nonstop to Dublin. That was his
dream and, by God, he was going to do it. Damn the bureaucrats, full
the same day Howard Hughes was at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett
Field preparing for his own record-busting transcontinental flight
while his girlfriend, Katharine Hepburn, waited in Manhattan for his
return, Corrigan filed his authorized flight plan (New York to California),
filled Sunshine's tanks with fuel, and packed fuel for himself
in the form of two Hershey bars, two boxes of Fig Newtons, and a quart
of water. He checked the engine by flashlight and was satisfied with
what he found; however, the manager of Floyd Bennett Field persuaded
Corrigan to wait until first light. At take-off, Sunshine was
so weighted down with fuel that she traveled 3,200 feet down the runway
before lift-off. Passing the eastern edge of the airfield, she was
only 50 feet off the ground. Shortly after that, she disappeared into
the fog. Corrigan's 1938 autobiography, That's
My Story tells what happened: Corrigan had been flying east
for 10 hours and was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean when his feet
suddenly felt cold. The leak in the gas tank had worsened and fuel
was running all over his shoes and onto the cockpit floor.
Time was not on his side. The leak was getting worse, and there was
now about an inch of fuel spilled onto the cockpit floor. Corrigan
was worried that it would leak out near the exhaust pipe, leaving
him no chance of survival if it exploded. He had to do something,
and fast. Again, his resourcefulness saved him. Using the only tool
he had that might work, he punched a hole in Sunshine's floor
with a screwdriver, allowing the gasoline to trickle out on the side
opposite the exhaust pipe. Yes, he was still losing fuel, but at least
Sunshine would not explode. The downside of running the engine
slowly to conserve fuel was that more could leak out, depleting his
supply, so he decided to run the engine fast instead and boosted his
rpms from 1600 to 1900, flying straight ahead, hoping to have sufficient
fuel to reach land. Relaxed enough to feel hunger, he wolfed down
the cookies and started on a chocolate bar when he spied land, "nice
green hills." He had done it. Corrigan had at last achieved his dream.
got mixed up in the clouds and I must have flown the wrong way," said
Corrigan to the Dublin officials who wondered who he was and what
he was doing there. He also blamed "two malfunctioning compasses"
for flying east to Ireland and not west to California. All the Irish
officials had heard from America was that a plane with an unknown
pilot had gone missing over the Atlantic. Rather than arresting Corrigan
who did not have permission fly to Dublin let alone land there, had
no passport, had no entry papers, Irish officials gave him "a spot
of tea." When pressed for an answer as to why he was in Dublin and
not California, Corrigan said, "It was a very foggy morning."
story of Corrigan's flight and all the attending publicity resulted
in his nickname, "Wrong-Way Corrigan," a name that increased
his fame, endeared him to the hearts of depression-weary Americans
and even a few bureacrats. Together, Corrigan and Sunshine
were returned to the United States on the ocean liner, Manhattan.
Although he had no papers on the return trip either, the only action
taken against him was the suspension of his pilot's license for the
duration of his boat trip back to the U.S.
Wrong-Way Corrigan became a full-fledged folk hero and was thus accorded
a hero's welcome in New York, with a ticker tape parade and thousands
of adoring fans, an honor accorded very few (including Charles Lindbergh
and Howard Hughes). The New York Post celebrated the happy occasion
with their "wrong-way" headlines:
NAGIRROC YAW GNORW LIAH (HAIL WRONG WAY
Happily for Corrigan, the rest of his long life was not boring either:
Wrong-Way Corrigan endorsed a watch that ran backwards; ran for the
Senate; worked as a commercial pilot; wrote his autobiography; appeared
as himself on the long-running Goodson-Todman game show, To Tell
The Truth; starred as himself in RKO's The Flying Irishman
(1939), the story of his wrong-way flight to Dublin; was the basis
for a James Thurber short story; was referred to by The Three Stooges
in Flat Foot Stooges; was The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show's
character Captain Peter "Wrong Way" Peachfuzz, the world's worst sailor;
and was portrayed as a Gilligan's Island character, "Wrongway
Until his death in 1995 at the age of 88, Wrong-Way Corrigan insisted
his flight was accidental. Then, at the last minute, he finally admitted
that he made his famous mistake on purpose.
"A Balloon In Cactus" March
9, 2011 column
Aviation History magazine
New York Post, August 5, 1938
International Movie Database