'Wrong Way' Corrigan astonished the world Feat: In 1938, a young pilot told his ground crew he was flying to California. Less than 30 hours later, he landed his 'flying jalopy' in Ireland.

Way Back When

August 01, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, a 31-year-old pilot, made aviation history on July 17, 1938, when he filled up his jerry-built, secondhand 1929 Curtiss-Robin monoplane with 320 gallons of gasoline and took off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Despite telling the ground crew that he was flying home to Long Beach, Calif., Corrigan turned the tiny plane eastward, flew into the dawn and disappeared into the clouds out over the Atlantic.

The plane, variously described as a "crate" or "flying jalopy," had cost Corrigan $310. It stayed aloft through more than a little luck and the ingenuity of an aviation mechanic who had worked on constructing Charles A. Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis."

The knob on the cabin door had fallen off and was held tight with baling wire. On board, Corrigan had a turn-and-bank indicator and two compasses -- a Boy Scout model and one that was stuck pointing to 180 degrees. He had no radio. His provisions consisted of a half gallon of water and several chocolate cookies.

Twenty-nine hours and 13 minutes later, Corrigan set his plane down at Baldonnel, near Dublin, only the fourth person to fly solo across the Atlantic.

"It taxied across the field and wheezed to a stop. Flabbergasted Irish airport officials rushing to the machine saw a grinning pilot climb out," reported The Sun.

"I'm Douglas Corrigan. Just got in from New York," he told astonished airport officials.

"Where am I? I intended to fly to California. I guess I flew the wrong way. I flew over the clouds all the time. I couldn't see what was underneath," he explained.

Speechless, they continued looking at the aviator who had simply dropped out of the sky.

Sensing their bewilderment, Corrigan said, "I made a mistake. I set the compass wrong. I must be a bum navigator."

Afraid that the American lunatic might take to the air, the Irish took his plane into custody. The Commerce Department in Washington suspended his license because of the outlaw flight, which they suspected was no accident.

Corrigan slapped the side of the flying wreck and announced, "All it needs is a bit of grease. Then it will take me back to New York."

Arriving in New York aboard the liner Manhattan to a tumultuous welcome, his ticker tape parade was bigger than Lindbergh's. Ex-Mayor James J. Walker said of the spunky flier: "What a new lease on life this fellow has brought to every gag maker."

On Aug. 9, 1938, Corrigan flew to Baltimore aboard commercial airliner as part of a triumphal tour and also to visit his brother, Harry Corrigan, who lived in Dundalk and worked at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Middle River.

At Logan Field, where his plane landed, he was greeted by aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin and some 5,000 hysterical Baltimoreans.

"The imperturbable Corrigan, chewing an enormous wad of gum, just grinned, waved at all the newsboys and pretty girls, and made mock grabs at foaming beer steins held high at the doors of the saloons," wrote G.H. Pouder in The Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1953 article.

After shaking the hand of Mayor Howard W. Jackson and being given a key to the city in a ceremony at War Memorial Plaza, Corrigan headed for the Baltimore Country Club in Roland Park for the official reception.

Taking off his shoes, Corrigan submitted to a brief press conference with reporters. "My feet get tired when I wear shoes. I never wear 'em indoors," he said.

Presented with a plate of crabs, he declined saying, "I ate one of those once and it made me sick." The chef quickly rounded up some cold, sliced chicken.

He also proved to be an entertaining storyteller. He told his rapt listeners than after taking off from New York and climbing for several hours he looked down and saw some water.

"I saw an airport with some water nearby, I thought it was Baltimore," he said.

He played himself in the 1939 movie titled "Flying Irishman." He was given awards, medals and a lifetime membership in the Burlington Liars Club of Burlington, Wis. Products were named after him, including a clock that ran backward.

In 1988, at the time his plane was displayed at a California airport, Corrigan told the Los Angeles Times, "I was never really too honest, you know."

Corrigan explained that he had his name legally changed to Douglas because he admired film actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

His real name? "Clyde," he said.

He died in Orange, Calif., in 1995.

Pub Date: 8/01/98

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