Corrigan, Douglas (“Wrong-Way Corrigan”)
Corrigan, Douglas (“Wrong-Way Corrigan”)
(b. 22 January 1907 in Galveston, Texas; d. 9 December 1995 in Orange, California), aviator famous for his 1938 solo flight from New York to Ireland, instead of California, his intended destination.
Corrigan was the eldest son of railroad civil engineer Clyde Sinclair Corrigan, a native of Oakland, California, and Evelyn Groce Nelson, a schoolteacher from Tarentum, Pennsylvania. In 1913 the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, and in 1919 after his parents divorced, Corrigan relocated with his mother to Los Angeles. Up until then Corrigan’s first name had been Clyde, but to avoid any reminders of her ex-husband, Evelyn renamed her son Douglas, after the popular movie star Douglas Fairbanks. Corrigan’s formal education ended with the ninth grade, which he completed at Public School 69 in New York City, where he lived briefly with his father when his mother was ill with cancer. Douglas Corrigan returned to Los Angeles in June 1921 shortly before his mother died.
Corrigan worked odd jobs on home construction sites around Los Angeles until one day in October 1925, when he stopped at a makeshift airfield near Mesa Drive and Exposition Boulevard. He was curious enough to climb aboard a converted World War I biplane for a ten-minute flight. He was immediately hooked on aviation. Six months later on 25 March 1926 he flew solo for the first time, “the biggest day in my life,” he later recalled. Corrigan moved to San Diego in February 1927 to work at the Ryan Aircraft Factory, where he helped build the airplane Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic on 21 May 1927. In the early 1930s Corrigan “barnstormed” up and down the East Coast, selling airplane rides for a few dollars a person at air shows and fairs.
In 1933 Corrigan purchased a used airplane, the Curtiss Model 50 “Robin,” for $325. By 1936, dissatisfied with work in aircraft factories and with “life in general,” he decided to attempt a nonstop solo transatlantic flight. He outfitted his Robin with extra fuel tanks and installed a more powerful engine, the Wright model J6—5. The U.S. Department of Commerce, at that time in charge of aviation, would not accept that Corrigan’s plane was capable of such a journey and refused to grant him a license for a transatlantic voyage, but in June 1938 it did issue him the license to attempt a cross-country flight. He completed the Los Angeles—New York leg of his trip in twenty-seven hours and fifty minutes on 9 July 1938 and received a license for the return flight to California.
Corrigan recounted his famous return flight in countless newspaper articles and in his 1938 autobiography, That’s My Story. In the book, he described how he left from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, at dawn on 17 July 1938. With his forward vision obscured by the extra gasoline tanks and only two boxes of fig cookies and two chocolate bars for food and a quart bottle of water, Corrigan took off in an easterly direction to avoid buildings to the west of the airfield that he might not clear with his gasoline-heavy aircraft. Planning to turn westward, he had to set his course according to a compass mounted on the cockpit floor after he discovered that the compass in his instrument panel was malfunctioning. After two hours he flew over a city that he assumed was Baltimore. Heavy cloud cover and fog obscured his vision for the next twenty-four hours; when the weather cleared, expecting the Rocky Mountains to loom ahead, he saw only water. Looking down at his compass in the floor in the brighter light, he realized that he had misread it and had been heading eastward, over the Atlantic Ocean. The city he had flown over was Boston, not Baltimore. He then noticed “some nice green hills” that he decided must be Ireland. He landed at the first airport he encountered, Baldonnel Field in Dublin, twenty-eight hours and thirteen minutes after leaving Brooklyn. Walking up to an official, Corrigan announced: “My name’s Corrigan. I left New York yesterday morning headed for California, but I got mixed up in the clouds and must have flown the wrong way.” And as improbable as it was, he stuck to this story for the rest of his life. But in 1988 at an event marking the fiftieth anniversary of the flight, when asked by reporters whether he made an honest navigational error, he repeated his famous statement, “I made a mistake,” and then added, “I was never really too honest, you know.”
The story of the little second-hand “flying jalopy,” with its shy, smiling pilot who was told he could not fly the Atlantic but did anyway greatly appealed to Depression-weary Americans. Upon Corrigan’s return to the United States via steamship (as “punishment” his pilot’s license was suspended for the exact length of the sea journey), he was feted in New York City with a ticker-tape parade up Broadway (the “Canyon of Heroes”), from Battery Park to City Hall. As Corrigan and his plane, which he had dubbed Sunshine, toured the country, they were greeted with laughter and great affection. Medals, awards, and products named after him, including a watch that ran backward, came in the wake of his famous “wrong-way” flight. He even starred in a 1939 motion picture of his life, The Flying Irishman.
Corrigan resumed a private life after his moment of fame. On 17 July 1939, the first anniversary of the flight, Douglas Corrigan married Elizabeth Marvin, a schoolteacher. They had three sons. During World War II Corrigan joined the Army Air Corps Ferry Command where he was a transport and test pilot, and after the war he operated an air freight service. In the 1950s he bought a citrus grove in Santa Ana, California, but the farm failed and he sold most of the property to developers, with the exception of the house and garage where the Robin was stored. He was devastated by the deaths of his wife on 9 May 1966 and later his son in the crash of a light plane on Catalina Island in 1972.
In 1988 Corrigan briefly returned to the limelight and appeared in ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of his flight. He reassembled the Robin for an air show at Hawthorne, California, but his plan to fly it once again was never realized. Corrigan died of prostate cancer at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Orange. His remains are buried in Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, California.
Douglas Corrigan was a uniquely American-style hero. The diffident loner who defies authority to triumph over adversity has always been a popular figure in American folklore. Corrigan never wavered from his story that he had intended to fly to California but made a mistake and wound up in Ireland. Somehow no one ever really believed him, but they loved him all the more for it.
Corrigan’s autobiography, That’s My Story (1938), provides a detailed account of his early life and the famous flight. There is relatively little information about his subsequent life except a few newspaper feature articles, notably in the Los Angeles Times. These include: Paul Dean, “Return of ‘Wrong Way’: Fifty Years Later, Douglas Corrigan Talks About His Famous ’Mistake’ and, at 81, His Plans to Fly Again,” (16 Aug. 1988), and Joseph N. Bell, “Sure, He Flew the Wrong Way, But Everyone Loved It,” (10 July 1990). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (13 Dec. 1995), New York Times (14 Dec. 1995), (London) Independent (15 Dec. 1995), and Washington Post (18 Dec. 1995).
Kenneth R. Cobb