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Douglas Corrigan 1907-1995

Country : Galveston, Texas
Profession : Aviator
Date of birth : 1907-01-22
Date of death : 1995-12-09
Cause of Death : Unspecified

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Douglas Corrigan (January 22, 1907December 9, 1995) was an American aviator born in Galveston, Texas, nicknamed "Wrong Way". In 1938, after a transcontinental flight from Long Beach, California, to New York, he flew from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, to Ireland, even though he was supposed to be returning to Long Beach. He claimed that his unauthorized flight was due to a navigational error, caused by heavy cloud cover that obscured landmarks and low-light conditions, causing him to misread his compass. Corrigan, however, was a skilled aircraft mechanic (he was one of the builders of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis) and a habitual risk-taking maverick; he had made several modifications to his own plane, preparing it for transatlantic flight. Between 1935 and 1937, he applied several times, unsuccessfully, for permission to make a nonstop flight from New York to Ireland, and it is likely that his "navigational error" was a protest against government "red tape"; however, he never publicly acknowledged having flown to Ireland intentionally.

Early life

Originally named Clyde Groce Corrigan after his father (he adopted the name Douglas legally as an adult), Corrigan was the older son of a construction engineer and a teacher. He must have been an attractive child; he won first prize in a local baby contest, aged 15 months. The family moved frequently due to his father's work, until his parents divorced and shared custody of their sons and daughter. He finally settled with his mother, his brother Harry, and sister Evelyn in Los Angeles. Upon leaving school, he took work in construction.

Corrigan's first taste of aviation came in October 1925, when he saw passengers being taken for short rides in a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane near his home. A week later he returned and paid the $2.50 for his own ride. A week after that, he took his first flying lesson, returning every Sunday for the next few months, and spending non-flying time watching and learning from the local aircraft mechanics. After some twenty lessons, Corrigan made his first solo flight on 25 March 1926.

Aircraft mechanic

B. F. Mahoney and T. Claude Ryan, the aircraft manufacturers, were operating Ryan Aeronautical Company from the airfield where Corrigan learned to fly. They gave him a job in their San Diego factory. Charles Lindbergh commissioned the design and construction of the Spirit of St. Louis from the firm soon after Corrigan joined. Corrigan was responsible for the wing assembly and the installation of the gas tanks and instrument panel. With his colleague Dan Burnett, he increased the lift of the aircraft by building a wing ten feet (three metres) longer than any previous Ryan design. Corrigan pulled the chocks from the new aircraft when Lindbergh took it from San Diego to New York ready for the historic flight.

With the success of Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, Corrigan decided to emulate the feat and selected his father's ancestral origin, Ireland, as his objective. He discussed the idea with friends and even 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 over 50 students flying each day, Corrigan could only get flight time during his lunch break.

During these short flights Corrigan would perform aerobatic stunts instead of taking the more common and less dangerous round trips made in similar circumstances by most young fliers of the time. His favourite maneuver was the chandelle (a 180-degree turn while climbing steeply), in strings of almost a dozen, spiralling up from close to the ground. The company disapproved of his attitude to risk and although prohibited from performing stunts in the company aircraft, he displayed the attitude to authority that would later gain him fame: he would fly to a small field further south where his stunts could not be seen by company men.

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

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. One result of this trip: he had finally named his plane, Sunshine. The other: federal officials notified Californian airfield officials that Sunshine was not airworthy; it was grounded for six months.

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 that 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 1,400-yard (1,300 m) runway of Floyd Bennett Field and kept going. (Behr later swore publicly that 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 that he was over ocean, it seems likely that 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 Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, 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.

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.

Later life

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 about his life. The $75,000 he earned from his story was the equivalent of 30 years income at his usual 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 US joined World War II, he tested bombers for the Government and flew in the Ferry Command, a division of the Air Transport Command. In 1946, he secured less than 2% of the vote running for the U.S. Senate as a member of the Prohibition Party, which favored a return of the prohibition of alcohol, losing to the Republican William F. Knowland. His personal motivation for joining the party is not clear from the records. For the next four years, he worked as a commercial pilot for a small California airline. He retired from aviation in 1950, bought an 18-acre (73,000 m2) orange grove in Santa Ana, California with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children, and lived there until his death on December 9, 1995. He knew nothing about orange ranching, and claimed to have learned the business by copying his neighbors. Elizabeth died in 1966, and in 1969 he sold most of his grove, keeping the ranch-style house. One of the streets in the 93-house development built on the land is named after him. He became reclusive after one of his three sons died in a private plane crash on Santa Catalina Island, California in 1972, but in 1988, he joined in the golden anniversary celebration of his famous flight, allowing enthusiasts to retrieve the famous Robin from its hanger. It was reassembled and the engine was run successfully. Corrigan found this so exciting that the organizers placed guards at the plane's wings while Corrigan was at the show and considered tethering the tail to a police car. In later years Corrigan was elusive about the location of the plane. It was rumored by local aviation enthusiasts and historians that he had split the plane up, storing it in several locations to avoid theft of the aircraft.

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.

Corrigan's legacy

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

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