The 31-year-old Texan was an aircraft mechanic and had “pulled the chocks” on the Spirit of St. Louis when “his hero” Charles Lindbergh flew from San Diego to New York to become the first person to cross the Atlantic solo. That was 1927; Amelia Earhart would repeat the adventure five years later.
Now it’s 1938.
Douglas Corrigan has rebuilt a trashed 1929 Curtiss Robin single-engine plane. He’s modified it to carry 320 gallons of gas, and he wants permission to fly across the Atlantic.
He flew his plane, Sunshine, nonstop from California to New York. However, “aviation authorities deemed [a trans-Atlantic route] a suicide flight” and denied his request. Instead, they ok’ed a non-stop flight back to California.
On 17 July 1938, Corrigan pumped 320 gallons of gasoline into his plane and took off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, with the nose of the plane pointed east.
He carried two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, a quart of water and a U.S. map with the route from New York to California marked out.
The plane was so weighed down with fuel that it traveled 3,200 feet down the runway before leaving the ground. When it passed the eastern edge of the airfield, it was only 50 feet above the ground. Not long after that, it disappeared into the fog, heading east.
Corrigon took off despite a fuel leak that had plagued his trans-continental flight.
The Irish-American flew for 28 hours, averaging a little more than 100 mph. He landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome in Ireland, “having been given up for lost.”
Corrigan told every official who asked that one compass failed and the other pointed 180 degrees in the wrong direction. He stuck with his claimed of surprise at arriving in Ireland rather than California, wink-wink.
Corrigan had no passport or permit to land but his landing wasn’t a surprise.
The first person Corrigan met was an army officer. Corrigan introduced himself saying, ‘I left New York yesterday morning headed for California.’ He added, ‘I got mixed up in the clouds, and I must have flown the wrong way.’ The officer responded, ‘Yes, we know.’ Corrigan was surprised, ‘Really?’ he said. ‘How did you find out?’ The officer replied: ‘Oh, there was a small piece in the paper saying someone might be flying over this way. Then we got a phone call from Belfast saying a plane with American markings had passed over, headed down the coast.’
… the American minister wanted an explanation as to how Corrigan ended up in Ireland. Corrigan knew this was a key moment. He smiled and explained that he had taken off from Floyd Bennett Field–heading east. ‘It was a very foggy morning,’ he pointed out. ‘I see,’ said [Stephen] Cudahy dryly.
Irish inspectors found more than 60 violations, including those leaky fuel pipes.
As the journalist H. R. Knickerbocker reported after inspecting the plane: “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.”
Back in the States, the Bureau of Air Commerce suspended his pilot’s license for 14 days.
Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan, 88, died 09 December 1995.
The first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight began 14 June 14 1919; British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown flew out of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and landed in Ireland the next day.