Monday, July 17, 2023

Douglas "Wrong way" Corrigan: Flew to Ireland by mistake or did he?


Today in history, Douglas Corrigan made the second transatlantic flight from New York to Ireland. When challenged that his flight plan was to head back to Los Angeles, he claimed landing in Ireland was an accident.

Douglas Corrigan was born on January 22, 1902, to a construction engineer and a teacher in Galveston, Texas. His Irish family moved often, and his parents eventually divorced. He settled with his mother and two siblings in Los Angeles, where he dropped out of high school and worked construction.

Eighteen-year-old Corrigan’s life changed when he watched people pay to take short flights in a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, referred to as a “Jenny.” He paid the $2.50 ticket (approximately $42 today) and became so enamored that the next week he began flying lessons. While he learned to fly, he also acquired aircraft mechanic skills. He completed his flight training after twenty lessons by completing a solo flight on March 25, 1926.

Corrigan went to work at a Ryan Aeronautics factory in San Diego shortly thereafter. While there, Corrigan assembled the wings and installed the fuel tanks on Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. Corrigan and his colleague redesigned the wing to increase lift. 

After Lindbergh’s successful flight, Corrigan decided to duplicate it, choosing Ireland as his final destination. When Ryan Aeronautics moved to St. Louis, he took a mechanic job at Airtech School. Corrigan didn’t own a plane. He used his lunch hour to practice flying with the school’s planes. He was told he couldn’t borrow the school’s planes if he was going to do aeronautic stunts. So, he flew further from the school to practice. His favorite trick was the chandelle, which consisted of a dozen spirals reaching close to the ground. He held various mechanic jobs using his employer’s planes to develop his flying skills.

In October 1929, he gained his transport pilot certificate and started a passenger service in 1930 with a friend. Their route covered small east coast towns. However, it was more lucrative to do barnstorming exhibitions (performing hair-raising aeronautical stunts). After the exhibition, they sold tickets for short rides.

He left the successful business because he wanted to fulfill his dream of flying non-stop to Ireland. Moving back to California in 1933, he bought a used 1929 Curtiss Robin OX-5 monoplane for $300 (equivalent to $7,000 today) and flew it home. He continued working as an airplane mechanic while modifying his plane for transatlantic flight. He replaced his 90hp engine with two larger engines increasing his horse power to 165hp, then added extra fuel tanks.

When he applied to the Bureau of Air Commissions in 1935 for permission to make the non-stop flight, they refused his application. His plane was only certified for cross-country flight. Corrigan didn’t give up. Over the next two years, he made various modifications and applied for recertification. New regulations were in place by then, making it impossible for him to get the certification. His aircraft was deemed unstable for safe flight.

But Corrigan was determined. In his first attempt to achieve his goal, he arrived late in New York. He filled all his fuel tanks and left for Ireland after all airport personnel had gone home. He had mechanical problems and after nine days he was past the safe weather window to fly the Atlantic, so he returned home to California. The Federal Officials deemed his plane Sunshine unworthy and grounded it for six months.

He used that time to gain more credentials. By July 9, 1938, Corrigan had received an experimental flight license, and permission for transatlantic flight. But oddly, not permission for the return trip.

Over the years. Corrigan had invested three times more than he’d paid for the plane to get it ready for the flight. He flew to Floyd Bennet Air Field in Brooklyn, New York in 27 hours. His logged flight plan had him returning to California on July 17th.

Fortunately for him Howard Hughes was at the airport (the most noted millionaire of the time), preparing for a world tour. All attention was on him.  When Corrigan asked which runway to use, he was told not to use any that flew in the direction of the admin building. Historians think Mr. Behr, the airport manager, may have known what Corrigan was up to, but he denied any knowledge later.

Corrigan took off heading east with 320 gallons of gasoline and 16 gallons of oil. This unauthorized trip gained him the moniker “wrongway” Corrigan. He claimed to have noticed his error 26 hours after taking off. Claiming fog made it impossible to see where he was. I might add, he could only see out his side window because the additional gas tanks obscured his view forward. Once he “discovered” his mistake, it was too late. He had no radio, and his compass was 20 years old. 

His feet grew cold as gasoline leaked into the cockpit, creating noxious fumes. Using a screwdriver he punctured a hole in the cockpit floor away from the hot exhaust pipe to prevent a midair explosion. Obviously, he knew he was over the ocean, or he could have landed to make repairs. Instead, he increased his speed in hopes of reducing his flight time.

He landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome, Dublin, Ireland in July 18th.after flying 28.13 hours. His only provisions had been two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, and a quart of water.

Journalist H. R. Knickerbacker, who met Corrigan in Ireland after his arrival wrote in 1941:

You may say that Corrigan’s flight could not be compared to Lindbergh’s in its sensational appeal as the first solo flight across the ocean. Yes, but in another way, the obscure little Irishman’s flight was the more audacious of the two. Lindbergh had a plane specially constructed, the finest money could buy. He had lavish financial backing, friends to help him at every turn. Corrigan had nothing but his own ambition, courage, and ability. His plane, a nine-year-old Curtiss Robin, was the most wretched-looking jalopy. 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 (from Knickerbocker, H. R. Is Tomorrow Hitler’s?New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941).

 Aviation official sent a 600 word telegram to Corrigan listing all the regulations broken by his flight. That was some expensive missive considering telegrams are charged by the word. Despite his offenses, his pilot’s certificate was only suspended for 14 days. By the time he and his plane traveled by steamboat back to New York, his license was valid again.

He received a tickertape parade in New York with more people in attendance than at Lindberg’s welcome home. He also received a ticker-tape parade in Chicago. Perhaps his American ingenuity and drive inspired the nation. Corrigan’s autobiography That’s My Story was released on December 15, 1938. He received a four-page letter from Lindberg after he sent him a copy of the book. In 1929, he portrayed himself in biographical movie, The Flying Irishman. The $75,000 salary from the movie (one and a half million today) was equivalent to 30 years’ salary as a mechanic.

During World War II, he tested bombers and flew in the Transportation Command.

He retired from aviation in 1950 and bought an orange grove where he lived with his wife and three sons. After his wife’s death in 1966, he sold most of his grove to developers and remained in the ranch-style house on a few acres for the rest of his life. He became a recluse after one of his son’s died in a private plane crash in 1972.

In 1988, he joined the 50th anniversary celebration of his “wrong way flight.” He allowed his plane to be reassembled and put on display. (Why he stored it unassembled was unclear.) Corrigan was so excited to see it in all its glory that the organizers placed guards around the plane. It is said they considered tying the plane to a police car so he couldn’t fly away.

Never in his lifetime did Corrigan admit he intentionally went the wrong way. Various cartoons adopted “wrong way” characters. Accusing someone of doing-a-wrong-way-Corrigan was accusing them of telling an unbelievable lie.

How about you? Have you heard of Douglas Corrigan or other references to characters titled wrong way? 

Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She is addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

Visit her website and sign up for her newsletter and receive some free short stories as a thank you.  

Angelina’s Resolve: Book 1 of Village of Women

Proving her skills are equal to a man’s may cost her more than she ever imagined.

Modern-thinking Angelina DuBois is determined to prove her cousin Hiram wrong. He fired her from the architect firm she helped grow when her father’s will left the business to Hiram. Using her large inheritance and architectural degree, she sets out to create a village run by women—Resolve, Kansas.

Carpenter and Civil War veteran Edward Pritchard’s dream of building homes for Chicago’s elite must be put on hold until he gains references. Serving as a contractor under Angelina’s well-known DuBois name provides that opportunity. But can Angelina trust her handsome new carpenter to respect her as his boss? Will the project take Edward one step closer to his goals, or will it make him a laughingstock? Can these two strong-willed people find love amid such an unconventional experiment?







  1. Thank you for posting about this remarkable, persistent man!

  2. Enjoyed reading about Wrong way Corrigan. My dad a guy who loved to read told me Corrigans story when I'd go with him to deliver Dry Cleaning. He'd let me drive and call me wrong way Corrigan. Great memories.