Corrigan was born in
Galveston, Texas, on January 22, 1907. His father was a construction
engineer and his mother a teacher. When Douglas was 15 months old, he was
already making a name for himself; he won first prize in a local baby
contest. Corrigan's father moved his family around fairly often during
Douglas's childhood. Eventually, Corrigan's parents divorced and Douglas
bounced from one parent to another before he settled in Los Angeles with
his mother. There, he began working in the construction industry. At the
time, aviation did not seem to be in his future.
Then, on a Sunday
afternoon in October 1925, Douglas decided to visit a local airfield.
Corrigan watched a pilot take passengers for rides in a Curtiss "Jenny"
biplane. Excited at the prospect of taking his own ride, he returned the
next Sunday with $2.50 in hand and persuaded the pilot to take him aloft.
Flying over Los Angeles that afternoon, Corrigan was hooked; he was
determined to learn to fly. The following Sunday, he returned for his
first flying lesson and continued for weeks thereafter. Corrigan also
spent time learning everything he could from the field's aircraft
mechanics. On March 25, 1926, Corrigan made his first solo flight.
Notably, Corrigan took
flight lessons at the airfield where B.P. Mahoney and T.C. Ryan, a team of
well-known aircraft manufacturers, were operating a small airline. It was
not long before Corrigan got a job with the two men and started working in
their San Diego factory.
Shortly after Corrigan
began working for Mahoney and Ryan, a new customer approached them about
making a special aircraft. Charles Lindbergh wanted them to design and
build the Spirit of St. Louis. Corrigan assembled the aircraft's wing and
installed its gas tanks and instrument panel.
When Lindbergh made
his famous transatlantic flight in May 1927, Corrigan and his coworkers
were thrilled, but Corrigan's excitement did not stop there. Inspired by
Lindbergh's trip, he decided that he would make his own transatlantic
flight someday. Being of Irish decent, he selected Ireland as his
Starting in the late
1920s, Corrigan changed jobs several times. In October 1929, he became a
full-fledged pilot when he earned his transport pilot's license. The
following year, he moved to the East Coast and began a small
passenger-carrying service with a friend named Steve Reich. The two men
would land in small towns and convince people to buy airplane rides.
Although the operation did fairly well financially, Corrigan eventually
grew restless and decided to return to the West Coast. In 1933, he bought
a used OX5 Robin monoplane to make the trip home. Back in California,
Corrigan returned to work as an aircraft mechanic. During that period, he
also began to modify his Robin for a transatlantic flight.
In 1935, Corrigan
applied to the federal government for permission to make a non-stop flight
from New York to Ireland. Officials denied his application, however,
because they claimed that his plane was not sound enough to make a
non-stop transatlantic trip. Nevertheless, they did certify it for
cross-country journeys. In an attempt to get full certification, Corrigan
made several modifications to his aircraft over the next two years, but
each time he reapplied for permission, officials turned him down.
By 1937, Corrigan had
grown tired of "red tape" and decided to try the flight without official
sanction (although he never publicly acknowledged such a decision during
his lifetime). His plan was to land in New York late at night, after
airport officials had already left for the day, fill his gas tanks, and
then leave for Ireland. But various mechanical problems while in route to
New York caused him to lose his "safe weather window" over the Atlantic,
and Corrigan decided not to risk the flight just then. He returned to
California to wait for another opportunity the next year.
Which all goes to confirm the proverb: It is easier to obtain
forgiveness than permission.
On July 8, 1938,
Corrigan left California for New York. His official flight plan called for
him to return to California, and on July 17, Corrigan took off from Floyd
Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. He took off in thick fog and headed
east because airport officials had told him to lift off in any direction
except west since there were some buildings at the western edge of the
field. They fully believed Corrigan would turn his plane around and head
west toward California once he cleared the airport's airspace. To
everyone's surprise, he kept flying eastward. Corrigan insisted that his
visibility was so poor that he could only fly by using his compass and
claimed his compass indicated he was heading west.
Approximately 26 hours
into his flight, Corrigan claimed to have finally dropped down out of the
clouds and noticed that he was over a large body of water. Knowing that it
was too early to have reached the Pacific Ocean, Corrigan looked down at
his compass--and because there was now supposedly more light to see
by--suddenly noticed he "had been following the wrong end of the magnetic
needle." Within a short time, Corrigan was over Ireland. He landed at
Baldonnel Airport, in Dublin, after a 28-hour, 13-minute flight.
questioned Corrigan about the incident, he explained that he had left New
York en route to California but had then gotten mixed up in the clouds and
flown the wrong way. He also explained about the fog and his mistake with
the compass, but they did not believe him. As authorities continued to
press him for "the truth," Corrigan finally ended the situation by
replying: "That's my story." After failing to sway him from his
explanation, officials released Corrigan. The only punishment he received
was a brief suspension of his pilot's license, which lasted only until
August 4, the day he returned to New York via steamship.
Corrigan returned to
the United States a hero. People loved his audacity and spirit. They also
had a great deal of fun with the obvious humour of his situation. The New
York Post, for example, printed a front-page headline--"Hail to Wrong Way
Corrigan!"--backwards. Corrigan also received a Broadway ticker-tape
parade with more than a million people lining the street, more people than
had turned out to honour Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight.
Corrigan in later years
Corrigan lived a
fairly simple life after his famous flight. In the 1950s, he bought an
orange grove in Santa Ana, California, and lived there for the remainder
of his life. During the 50th anniversary of his flight, some newspapers
began reporting that he was going to admit to having flown to Ireland
intentionally, but he never publicly acknowledged that fact. Corrigan died
on December 9, 1995.
never admitted that his story was a ruse, most people believe that he
purposely set out to bypass authorities and accomplish his dream of a
transatlantic flight. Despite the humour that his story has provided, it is
worth noting that Corrigan flew across the Atlantic during the early years
of transoceanic flights, something that only the bravest and best aviators
of the day attempted. Corrigan deserves recognition for such a daring
achievement, even though he had to accomplish the task in such an