Texas-born Douglas Corrigan was famous once upon a time. He earned the nicknames ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’ and ‘The Flying Irishman’ in 1938 after he defied the U.S. government and flew across the Atlantic to Ireland in an airplane he bought for $250. The 75th anniversary of his flight was last week, July 17-18.
Charles Lindbergh, who flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic to Paris, France in 1927, inspired Corrigan to make his own trans-Atlantic flight. Lindbergh paid $10,000 for his plane.
“(Corrigan) applied for a permit to fly the Atlantic, and he was turned down,” said Bruce Bleakley, Frontiers of Flight Museum Director.“He had already flown to New York, and he was in the area getting ready to go, but the authorities would not let him fly it across the Atlantic…because they didn’t think the airplane was capable of making the trip.
“So he kind of said, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll get up tomorrow, and I’ll fly back to San Diego,’” Bleakley said. “Whereupon, he took off the next day and headed east out across the Atlantic. Sometime later, he landed in Dublin, Ireland, and said, ‘Wow. Where is this place? I just took off from New York. Where am I? ’
“And he stuck to that story for the rest of his life,” Bleakley said. “He said he read his compass wrong.
“They suspended his license, so he crated up the airplane and took a ship back to New York,” Bleakley said. “By the time he got back, they had reinstated his license. He was a real folk hero when the story got out. He became very popular.”
So much so, that New York honored him with a tickertape parade, and Hollywood made a movie the next year called The Flying Irishman, starring none other than Corrigan himself.
According to his autobiography called That’s My Story, Corrigan originally planned to be an architect, but a $2.50 sightseeing plane ride when he was an 18-year-old propelled him in a different direction.
“(Corrigan) worked for … Ryan Aircraft Company (in 1926), and at that time, they were building small, single engine, lightweight monoplanes that had reasonably good performance and excellent range,” said Jay Miller, a local aviation historian and author. “Charles Lindbergh was adamant on finding an airplane that had those specs, and when he discovered the types of airplanes that Ryan was building in San Diego, CA, he flew out there to meet with Ryan. That’s how the Spirit of St. Louis came to be.”
Corrigan worked for Ryan and became acquainted with Lindbergh.
“Ryan was a very small company – they only had 10 or 12 employees,” Miller said. “One of those employees often seen in photos of the Spirit of Saint Louis during construction there in San Diego is Douglas Corrigan. Lindbergh’s success gave Corrigan a lot of incentive to go ahead with his dream to fly across the Atlantic to Ireland, where his family was from. He was born in Galveston, TX, but his family was Irish.”
In 1933, Corrigan purchased a nine-year old beat up airplane for $250.
“The Curtis Robin was a fairly popular airplane in the post-World War I era, kind of like a Cessna 172 or 182 is today,” Miller said. “It’s a high-wing monoplane of fabric construction, and the standard production engine is Curtis OX-5 with a liquid cooled V-8 engine.
“Corrigan, seeing that was not an engine that would be dependable enough for an Atlantic crossing or even a transcontinental crossing for that matter, followed in the footsteps of Charles Lindbergh and converted that plane from basically a V-8 liquid cooled engine to a multi-cylinder, air cooled engine which is known as a radial engine,” Miller said. “He took it upon himself to do that conversion.
“I think he put a Wright J-5 Whirlwind air cooled radial engine on the plane,” Miller said. “Basically, it was a 5-cylinder radial engine, air cooled, and because he was an A&P (Airframe and Powerplant mechanic) he had the knowledge, skill, and legal authority to make that conversion. It was not a terribly uncommon conversion, and the one he picked was arguably the most dependable one in terms of power to weight ratio, one of the most efficient engines of its day.
“He did all the work himself,” Miller said. “He bought the airplane in 1933, and it took him almost five years to finish the project. He also added fuel tanks to increase fuel capacity of the airplane.”
Miller said he does not think Corrigan was crazy for defying authorities and flying his plane (that was about to be grounded because of mechanical and structural problems) across the Atlantic.
“I’ve read a lot about Doug Corrigan over the years,” Miller said. “He was a very sane person, very methodical about the way he did things. He was very well versed in aircraft maintenance, and he knew his Curtis Robin. After five years, he knew every nut, bolt, and screw of that airplane. There was nothing crazy at any level about what he did, right down to him picking that particular engine to modify his airplane with.”
Miller said that The Flying Irishman came back to a tickertape parade that was bigger than the one given to Lindbergh when he returned from Paris.
“Corrigan was the people’s hero,” Miller said. “The government had fought him tooth and nail on giving him permission to legally fly from New York to Ireland, and he stuck to his guns, took the bull by the horns, and did it his way. It was the 1930’s, in the heart of the Depression when the general populace was looking for heroes. His timing was right; he did a good thing; he didn’t hurt anybody; he didn’t hurt himself. By the time he came back, his story had become widely known, and he became the people’s hero.
“I think during that very short period of time, he was arguably one of the most famous people in the world,” Miller said. “Then, over a period of 10 to 15 years, he faded into virtual obscurity. World War II certainly had an impact on his fame because it took over the front pages of the newspapers. He disappeared back into a normal life.
“The airplane still exists, and the last I heard, it was still in the family’s possession,” Miller said. “That’s an important bit of trivia: because of his flight, that is a historically significant airplane. And it’s an airplane that the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Museum, and many other institutions of that ilk would love to have. No matter what the situation, the airplane is most certainly deteriorating, and it needs to be institutionalized and not necessarily restored but at least preserved in its current state so additional deterioration doesn’t take place.
“(Corrigan) pulled (his airplane) out one time,” Miller said. “About 1988, he was talked into bringing it out for an airshow and putting it on display. To the best of my knowledge, that is the only time he ever did that. Up to that point, I think he had kept the airplane in his garage next to his house.”
Historians still debate whether Wrong Way Corrigan intentionally flew to Ireland or read his compass wrong.
“There was never any question that he was going to fly out of New York to Ireland,” Miller said. “It’s well known that when he took off from the airfield in New York, there was no searching around, implying that he was trying to figure out which way was east and which way was west. When he took off, he headed straight east. He knew what he was doing.”
Bleakley said there were two things that make Corrigan’s story plausible.
“But just barely,” Bleakley said. “The type of compass he used was called an Earth Inductor Compass, and a novice pilot could make the mistake of reading that compass backwards… but not an experienced pilot like Corrigan.
“People asked him, ‘Didn’t you notice you were flying over water instead of land?’ and just to help with his story, that whole part of the globe was pretty cloudy for most of the time he was in the air, so he could just kind of claim that he was flying by compass and flying above the clouds and didn’t see the ocean or the ground.
“Also, if you reverse what we call a great circle route that goes from New York to Dublin, Ireland, and fly it as if you’re reading your compass wrong, it would take you roughly across the United States in the direction of San Diego,” Bleakley said. “But it’s really a stretch; it’s too hard to believe that there wouldn’t have been a break in the clouds some time while he was in the air, but he stuck to that story the rest of his life.”