David Nightingale: Wrong Way Corrigan (1907-1995)

Jul 16, 2017

Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan's plane returning to the US via ship
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Douglas Corrigan, son of a school teacher and an engineer involved in bridge construction, submitted his flight plan to the NY authorities in July 1938, and this plan was to fly non-stop from Brooklyn back to California, which he'd left ten days earlier. That prior 27-hour cross-country trip was amongst the longest non-stop flights he had ever made, and he had fitted special extra fuel tanks to his plane.

Corrigan's plane was an unpretentious single-engine Curtiss monoplane that he had bought a few years earlier for $310, with no radio, but with altimeter and compass. As a skilled -- we should say very skilled -- aircraft mechanic (he had worked earlier on Lindbergh's famous "Spirit of St Louis") -- Corrigan had replaced his 9 year old engine with a larger (165 HP)Wright one, getting parts from two older Wright engines.

It is well-known that he arrived in Ireland rather than California, 28 hours after leaving Brooklyn.

In those times wonderful things were happening in aviation. Lindbergh had made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan had vanished (during their round-the-world attempt) in their twin-engined plane in 1937.

In his book "That's My Story", Corrigan writes that he had first left California and (quote) "... headed for New York...  and in the special tanks of my [old] Curtiss were 252 gallons of gasoline ... when I landed [in Brooklyn] there were four gallons left ... but the papers didn't make much about my 27 hour non-stop flight [from California] ... for that day Mr Hughes was getting ready for his round-the-world flight..."  [Ref.1, Ch VIII.]

But a week later Corrigan had repaired the fabric that had begun to tear loose around his filler cap, and had replaced a rocker arm on one of the cylinders, and was ready for his return flight to California. He had with him some boxes of fig bars and a quart of water. The field manager at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field said that Corrigan could take off at dawn. There wasn't much wind blowing so he asked the manager which way he should take off, and was told 'any direction you want' [p.189], so he took off east. He writes "... at 500 ft there was fog below the plane, and as I started the turn west I noticed the compass was not working right due to liquid having leaked out... there was another compass on the floor, so I turned the plane until the parallel lines matched, and flew on over the fog."

Later in the day he got cold feet, because a slight leak in his main gasoline tank had worsened and fuel was dripping onto his shoes. He was then at 6000 feet, and it was getting dark. With clouds above and below he couldn't see his horizon line, and when he pointed his flashlight down he could see the gasoline was an inch deep on the floor. Because he feared it might fall onto the hot exhaust pipe he took a screwdriver and punched a hole in the floor so that it would leak away from the exhaust pipe. When morning came he was at 8000 feet, with the clouds just below the wheels [p.192] but piling up ahead.

It was colder, and rain was running off his plane in a constant stream, and to prevent icing he kept going down lower, expecting to see mountains poking up through the clouds any time. Then, at 3500 feet on the altimeter all he saw was water. He writes: ... I'd only been out 26 hours and shouldn't have come to the Pacific yet...there was more light, and I noticed I'd been following the wrong end of the magnetic needle...

He said he next saw a small fishing boat, and after opening up one of his boxes of fig bars saw some (quote) 'nice green hills' ahead. After forty-five minutes he noticed another coast, so figured he must be in Ireland.

Although his pilot's license was suspended, by the time he got back by ship to the US, he was feted everywhere, and there were ticker-tape parades and motorcycle escorts in New York, Washington, Chicago and other cities.

Wrong Way Corrigan returned to California, worked on WW2 bombers and after the war as a commercial pilot, dying in 1995 at age 88.


"That's My Story", by Douglas Corrigan; E.P.Dutton, NY, 1938.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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