This Day in History: Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan's trans-Atlantic flight
On this day in 1995, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan passes away. He is best known for his accidental 1938 flight across the Atlantic in a single-engine plane.
Or perhaps it wasn’t an accident at all. Corrigan had helped to build Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and he’d long wanted to make his own trip from New York to Ireland. Was it a planned “accidental trip”?
Corrigan had purchased and modified a Curtiss Model 50 Robin B monoplane in the early 1930s. The plane had been in terrible shape when Corrigan purchased it, but he tinkered with it and got the plane working. He replaced the 90-horsepower engine with a 165-horsepower one, and he installed extra fuel tanks at the front of the plane.
The tanks blocked the front windows, so Corrigan would have to fly without the ability to see directly in front of him.
Corrigan soon applied to the Bureau of Commerce, seeking permission for a trans-Atlantic flight. Actually, he applied repeatedly. One can only speculate that he got tired of the constant “no’s” and the bureaucratic assessment that his plane was unsuitable for the trip.
He was apparently ready to take matters into his own hands by 1938.
Corrigan made a trip that summer, flying from California to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. At 5:15 a.m. on July 17, he appeared resigned to returning home. He took off again, but then observers saw the plane continue on an eastward path. Corrigan would ultimately land in Dublin just over 28 hours later.
Corrigan claimed that he’d been disoriented and misread his compass. He was “following the wrong end of the magnetic needle,” he explained. He’d been flying above the clouds and hadn’t dropped down to see the ocean. He first noticed his mistake about 26 hours into the flight. “That’s my story,” he deadpanned.
The authorities, needless to say, immediately pounced. They dispatched a 600-word telegram to Corrigan in Ireland, detailing all the regulations he had violated.
Telegrams, you might remember, aren’t supposed to run to 600 words.
Corrigan’s license was suspended, and he returned to America with his little plane towed aboard a steamship. Is it possible the authorities weren’t quite as upset as they’d claimed? Corrigan’s suspension was short enough that he was able to serve the entire term aboard the ocean voyage home.
Meanwhile, Americans loved the stunt. When Corrigan returned to New York, he was met by cheering crowds. The next day, ticker-tape parades were held for him, both in New York and Chicago.
More than one million New Yorkers lined Broadway for the celebration. The parade was even larger than the one that had been held for Lindbergh after his solo flight to Paris.
People loved him, The New York Times reported, because “he was seen as an engaging and impish young pilot who had boldly thumbed his nose at authority, then baldly denied it, and partly because he had made the flight not in a state of the art aircraft with cutting edge instruments, but in a rickety plane so precariously patched together that it was variously dubbed an airborne crate and a flying jalopy.”
Was it an accidental flight or a planned escape? We’ll never really know. Either way, Corrigan would come to be known as “Wrong Way” Corrigan afterwards. The stunt led to a tour around the country and products such as a watch that ran backwards.
And perhaps it did one last thing: It added yet another chapter to the long American story of persistence, daring—and a determination to go our own way.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Douglas Corrigan, That’s My Story (1938)
Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan (U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission)
James O'Shea, On This Day: Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan "accidentally" flies to Dublin instead of California (IrishCentral; Jul 17, 2020)
Melanie Albanesi, Meet Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan (PBS; July 8, 2019)
Mysteries of Flight: Wrong Way Corrigan: Why this mystery is no mystery (Plane & Pilot; Apr. 22, 2019)
Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr., Douglas Corrigan, 88, Dies; Wrong-Way Trip Was the Right Way to Celebrity as an Aviator (NY Times; Dec. 14, 1995)
Tony Long, July 17, 1938: 'Wrong Way' Corrigan Gets It Right (Wired Mag.; July 17, 2008)