Douglas Corrigan was either the most hilariously hapless pilot to ever leave the landing strip or the most dickishly stubborn. A skilled mechanic who helped assemble Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis, by the 1930s Corrigan was much too late to claim any of the big-ticket firsts of early aviation. Not one to be relegated to the trash bin of history, Corrigan bought a flimsy 1929 Curtiss Robin from a scrap yard and decided to fly across the country and back.
Officials from California to New York took one look at his plane and grounded it. Repeatedly.
Corrigan’s craft was so badly behind regulations that he was grounded for more time than he was able to fly. Mechanical problems and what I imagine to be a fuselage held together with bubble gum and a drunken prayer kept Corrigan from his dream of transatlantic flight. Or, at least, legal transatlantic flight.
Tightening regulations on airplane safety drove Corrigan to maddening levels of frustration. In all fairness, his plane probably would have been grounded by a five-year-old on Bring Your Daughter To Work Day, but the pilot wasn’t having it. In 1938, he decided to prove his prowess by flying from Long Beach, California, to Floyd Bennett Field in New York and back again.
At least, that’s what his flight log said.
You don’t get a name like “Wrong Way” Corrigan without a backstory more bizarre than Donald Trump pissing himself at a Skrillex show. Corrigan made it to New York just fine – surprising everyone including, most likely, himself. From New York it was just a simple trip back the way he’d come, landing without friends or fanfare in California.
28 hours later Corrigan was in Dublin. As in Ireland.
Douglas Corrigan’s plane wasn’t supposed to fly to the corner deli, much less Europe. But the brilliant mechanic made it across the ocean with nothing but a few chocolate bars and the steely determination of a man who’d spent his life in Lindbergh’s shadow. Also he was probably insane, but you know.
The official story was that Corrigan had gotten lost shortly after taking off, pulling a total 180 and only realizing his mistake shortly before reaching Dublin. He maintained this as the truth until his death in 1995. Tell that to the small crowd gathered at the New York airfield as they watched Corrigan speed off across the ocean, his derelict aircraft spewing middle fingers instead of exhaust.
Predictably, officials had barred Wrong Way from making the transatlantic crossing, a goal he’d been trying to achieve for years. To say they were justified is putting it lightly – Corrigan could have thrown his plane to Ireland as easily as flown it. So instead of making the requisite modifications or delaying his flight, he did 5,000 miles worth of fudging on his flight log. Though he never admitted to lying, his story is rife with inconsistencies, his plane had been recently modified for transatlantic flight, and his Wikipedia page is just a bunch of stories about him doing the exact opposite of what he was told. “Wrong Way” was not an entirely undeserved nickname.
Those 28 hours over water were fraught with mechanical failures, leakages, and other horrors that would make weaker or less insane men bail out before passing Lady Liberty. But Corrigan pressed on and somehow made it across with zero cases of sudden fiery death. Of course no one believed his getting-lost-in-the-clouds story, and his license was suspended. He took the suspension pretty well, chilling in Dublin until it was lifted. His return to New York drew a bigger crowd than even Lindbergh had managed.
Aviation officials needed 600 words to list every regulation broken by Corrigan’s little stunt – on a pay-by-word telegram.
Lindbergh may have beaten Corrigan to the transatlantic punch by a good eleven years, but in many ways the latter man’s flight was more remarkable. Lindy had heavy financial backing and a state-of-the-art plane. Corrigan had no money and a rust farm salvaged from a trash heap. His fame lasted well after the Dublin landing, netting him a movie deal and line of “wrong way” novelty products. The nickname itself entered the common vocabulary, appearing everywhere from the Three Stooges to Gilligan’s Island.
Wrong Way’s Curtiss Robin was rebuilt for his flight’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, where festival organizers had to station guards at the wings to prevent the 81-year-old from taking off again. Afterwards, Corrigan reclaimed the plane and took its location to the grave.
Douglas Corrigan took off from New York 76 years ago today. Happy anniversary, you magnificent bastard.