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Panel Raising Plane

Douglas Corrigan

Early life

The son of a construction engineer and a teacher, he was named Clyde Groce Corrigan after his father, but legally adopted the name Douglas as an adult. The family moved often, until his parents finally divorced and shared custody of their children. Corrigan finally settled with his mother, brother Harry, and sister Evelyn in Los Angeles. Quitting high school, he went to work in construction.

In October 1925, Corrigan saw people paying to be taken for short rides in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane near his home. He paid the $2.50 for his own ride. A week later, he began flying lessons, spending non-flying time watching and learning from local aircraft mechanics. After twenty lessons, he made his first solo flight on March 25, 1926.

Aircraft mechanic

Corrigan beside his jerry-built aircraft

B. F. Mahoney and T. Claude Ryan, aircraft manufacturers, operated Ryan Aeronautical Company from the airfield where Corrigan learned to fly. They hired him for their San Diego factory. Charles Lindbergh commissioned the design and construction of the Spirit of St. Louis from the company shortly after Corrigan joined them. Corrigan was responsible for the wing assembly and the installation of the gas tanks and instrument panel. He and his colleague Dan Burnett increased the lift of the aircraft by extending the wing ten feet (three metres) longer than any previous Ryan design. Corrigan pulled the chocks from the Spirit of St Louis when Lindbergh took off from San Diego to New York prepare for his historic flight.

After Lindbergh’s success, Corrigan decided to duplicate it and selected Ireland as his objective. He discussed the idea with friends and mentioned flying without permission. When Ryan Aeronautical moved to St. Louis in October 1928, Corrigan stayed in San Diego as a mechanic for the newly formed Airtech School. With more than 50 students flying each day, Corrigan could only get flight time during his lunch break.

During his short flights, Corrigan performed aerobatic stunts. His favourite maneuver was the chandelle (a 180-degree turn while climbing steeply) in strings of up to a dozen, spiralling from close to the ground. The company disapproved and prohibited him from performing stunts in the company aircraft. Corrigan simply flew to a field further south where his stunts could not be seen by his employers.

Corrigan moved from job to job as an aircraft mechanic using his employers’ planes to develop his flying skills. He gained his transport pilot’s certificate in October 1929, and in 1930, started a passenger service between small East Coast towns, with his friend Steve Reich. The most lucrative part of the business turned out to be barnstorming displays promoting short recreational plane rides. Despite business success, after a few years, Corrigan decided to return to the West Coast. In 1933, he spent $310 on a used 1929 Curtiss Robin OX-5 monoplane and flew it home, where he returned to work as an aircraft mechanic and began to modify the Robin for a transatlantic flight.

Transatlantic flier

New York Post headline.

Having installed an engine built from two old Wright Whirlwind J6-5 engines (affording 165 hp (123 kW) instead of the 90 hp (67 kW) of the original) and extra fuel tanks, Corrigan applied to the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1935, seeking permission to make a nonstop flight from New York to Ireland. The application was rejected; his plane was deemed unsound for a nonstop transatlantic trip, although it was certified to the lower standard for cross-country journeys.

Over the next two years, Corrigan made repeated modifications and reapplications for full certification, but none succeeded. Indeed, by 1937, after extensive modifications in the face of increasing regulation, his aircraft was refused renewal of its licence because it was deemed to be too unstable for safe flight. His autobiography expresses his exasperation with official resistance and he is widely thought to have responded by deciding that year to make an unofficial crossing.

Although he never admitted it, he apparently planned a late arrival at New York so that he could refill his tanks and leave for Ireland after airport officials had gone home from work. Mechanical problems extended his unapproved inbound flight to nine days, which delayed him beyond the Atlantic “safe weather window”, and he returned to California. As a result of this trip, he named his plane Sunshine, however, federal officials notified Californian airfield officials that Sunshine was not airworthy and it was grounded for six months.

Corrigan fueling his Robin. (National Air & Space Museum permanent collection; Artist: Brian Moose)

On 9 July 1938, Corrigan again left California for Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York. He had repaired the engine (taking his total spent on the aircraft to about $900), gained an experimental licence, and obtained permission for a transcontinental flight with conditional consent for a return trip. With the Robin cruising at 85 miles per hour (137 km/h) for maximum fuel efficiency, the outward journey took him 27 hours. Fuel efficiency became critical towards the end of the flight: a gasoline leak developed, filling the cockpit with fumes.

Upon his unannounced arrival at Floyd Bennett Field, in the midst of Howard Hughes’ preparations for takeoff on a world tour, Corrigan decided repairing the leak would take too long if he was to meet his schedule. His logged flight plan had him returning to California on July 17. He wanted to take off from Floyd Bennett that same night, but the manager of Floyd Bennett Field, Kenneth P. Behr, persuaded Corrigan to wait until first light. Before take off, Corrigan asked Behr which runway to use, and Behr told him to use any runway as long as he didn’t take off to the west, in the direction of the administration building where Behr had his office. As recorded in Corrigan’s autobiography, Behr wished him “Bon Voyage” prior to take-off, perhaps in a nod to Corrigan’s intentions to fly the Atlantic. Upon take off at 5:15 in the morning with 320 gallons of gasoline and 16 gallons of oil, Corrigan headed east from the 4,200-foot (1,300 m) runway of Floyd Bennett Field and kept going. (Behr later swore publicly he had no pre-knowledge of Corrigan’s intentions.)

Corrigan claimed to have noticed his “error” after flying for about 26 hours. This is not entirely consistent with his claim that after 10 hours, he felt his feet go cold; the cockpit floor was awash with gasoline leaking from the unrepaired tank. He used a screwdriver to punch a hole through the cockpit floor so that the fuel would drain away on the opposite side to the hot exhaust pipe, reducing the risk of a midair explosion. Had he been truly unaware he was over ocean, it seems likely he would have descended at this point; instead, he claimed to have increased the engine speed by almost 20% in the hope of decreasing his flight time.

He landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome, County Dublin, on July 18, after a 28-hour, 13-minute flight. His provisions had been just two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, and a quart of water.

Corrigan’s plane had fuel tanks mounted on the front, allowing him to see only out of the sides. He had no radio and his compass was 20 years old. As the journalist H. R. Knickerbocker reported:

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.

Despite this he arrived in good shape.

Aviation officials took 600 words to list the regulations broken by his flight in a telegram (a medium that encourages brevity by charging at a rate per word). Despite the extent of Corrigan’s illegality, he received only a mild punishment; his pilot’s certificate was suspended for fourteen days.

He and his plane returned to New York on the steamship Manhattan and arrived on August 4, the last day of his suspension. His return was marked with great celebration. More people attended his Broadway ticker-tape parade than had honored Lindbergh after his triumph, but Corrigan was disappointed that his hero never acknowledged his achievement. He was also given a ticker tape parade in Chicago.

Later life

Retailer sample of Corrigan’s autobiography That’s My Story consisting of only the first chapter and all the illustrations followed by blank pages. The sales blurb pasted to the front cover explains it all.

Corrigan wrote his autobiography, That’s My Story, within months of the flight; it was published for the Christmas market on 15 December 1938. He also endorsed ‘wrong-way’ products including a watch that ran backwards. The following year, he starred as himself in RKO Radio Picture’s The Flying Irishman (1939), a movie biography. The $75,000 he earned was the equivalent of 30 years income at his airfield jobs.

According to a letter written to a fan in 1940, Corrigan claimed to have “no hobbies except working on airplanes or machinery”. When the United States entered World War II, he tested bombers and flew in the Ferry Command, a division of the Air Transport Command. In 1946, he gained less than 2% of the vote running for the U.S. Senate as a member of the Prohibition Party, running against Republican William F. Knowland. He then worked as a commercial pilot for a small California airline.

Corrigan retired from aviation in 1950 and bought an 18-acre (73,000 m2) orange grove in Santa Ana, California. He lived there with his wife and three sons until his death on December 9, 1995. He knew nothing about raising oranges, and said he learned by copying his neighbors. His wife died in 1966, and Corrigan sold most of his grove for development, keeping only the ranch-style house. One of the streets in the 93-house estate is named after him. He became reclusive after one of his sons died in a private plane crash on Santa Catalina Island, California in 1972, In 1988, however, he joined in the golden anniversary celebration of his famous “wrong way” flight, allowing enthusiasts to retrieve the Robin from its hanger. The plane was reassembled and the engine was run successfully. Corrigan was so excited that the organizers placed guards at the plane’s wings while he was at the show and considered tethering the tail to a police car to prevent him from taking off in it. Later, Corrigan became elusive about the plane’s location. It was rumored he had dismantled the plane, storing it in several locations to prevent its theft.

Pop cultural references and legacy

“Wrong Way” in popular culture

Corrigan’s “error” caught the imagination of the depressed American public and inspired many jokes. The nickname “Wrong Way’ Corrigan” passed into common use and is still mentioned (or used as satire) when someone has the reputation for taking the wrong direction. For example:

Corrigan was directly referenced in the 1938 Three Stooges short Flat Foot Stooges. Curly states, “Hey, we’re doing a Corrigan!” after realizing they are heading in the wrong direction of the fire they need to extinguish.

Corrigan was indirectly referenced in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show; “Wrong Way” was the name used for Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz, the world’s worst sailor.

Corrigan was indirectly referenced in the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, in first-season episodes titled “Wrong Way Feldman” and “The Return of Wrongway Feldman”. He was portrayed by character actor Hans Conried.

Jean Shepherd discussed him and his book in a radio broadcast originally aired August 4, 1969. He says James Thurber based one of his short stories on Corrigan’s adventure.

Charles Hammer authored the book “Wrong-Way Ragsdale” about a child who accidentally steals an airplane. In the fourth chapter, the child narrator mentions that he liked to think of himself as sneaky as Wrong-Way Corrigan and so called himself Wrong-Way Ragsdale.

Corrigan appeared as himself in the long-running television game show, To Tell The Truth, one day shy of 19 years to the day after his famous takeoff: on July 16, 1957. During that show, he said that “I had my pilot’s license suspended for 5 days while I was on the boat coming back home… That’s all.” As noted above, however, his license was actually suspended for 14 days, much longer than a transatlantic boat trip ordinarily took. He also said that his only cargo was water, cookies, and gum.

He is directly referenced in the Gobots toy line and animated series Challenge of the Gobots in the heroic, if navigationally challenged Guardian Gobot named Wrong Way, who himself turns into a helicopter that often has to be told which way to head by his companions.

Corrigan’s legacy

Among aviation historians, Douglas Corrigan is remembered as one of the brave few who made early transoceanic flights. On his death in 1995, he was buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. His memorial is a small horizontal plaque bearing a facsimile of the signature that he gave to enthusiastic autograph hunters.

References

‘Corrigan Off On Mystery Hop’, Allentown Morning Call (Allentown, PA, USA), July 18, 1938. p. 1

‘Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan’, Find A Grave Cemetery Records, (2000). Retrieved December 22 2005.

‘The Flying Irishman (1939)’, Internet Movie Database (2004). Retrieved August 25 2005.

Important Autographs with Fine Antiques & Decorative Arts Auction Catalogue, (Falls Church, VA: Quinn’s Auction Galleries, February 16 2004).

Corrigan, Douglas. That’s My Story (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1938)

Fadiman, Clifton. The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (New York: Little, Brown, 1985) ISBN 0-316-27301-5

Fasolino, Chris. ‘The Adventures of Wrong-Way Corrigan’, The History Net (2001). Retrieved August 24 2005.

Fraser, Chelsea Curtis. Famous American Flyers, (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1941)

Fyn, Chip. ‘The Story of Wrong Way Corrigan’, Fiddler’s Green (April 2003). Retrieved August 24 2005.

Knickerbocker, H. R. Is Tomorrow Hitler?, (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941)].

Marsh, Diann. ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’, Santa Ana History. Retrieved August 24 2005.

Onkst, David H. ‘Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan’, US Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved August 24 2005.

Sears, Stan. ‘Corrigan Way: Right or Wrong, He Made His Mark on History’, Airport Journals (March 2005)]. Retrieved August 24 2005.

Thomas Jr., Robert McG. “Douglas Corrigan, 88, Dies: Wrong-Way Trip Was the Right Way to Celebrity as an Aviator”, New York Times, December 14 1995.

Wallechinsky, David & Wallace, Irving ‘Where Are They Now? Flying Irishman Douglas Corrigan’. Trivia-Library.com (1981). Retrieved November 22 2005.

External links

Douglas Corrigan at Find a Grave

[Photographs of Wrong Way Corrigan's plane at Baldonnel Aerodrome, Dublin Ireland]

Categories: 1907 births | 1995 deaths | American aviators | People from Galveston, Texas | American autobiographers

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