Obituary: Douglas Corrigan

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The Independent Online
Douglas Corrigan became an Irish-American folk hero in 1938 when, forbidden by US authorities to attempt a solo flight across the North Atlantic, he left New York bound for California and landed in Ireland, claiming to have misread his compass.

"Wrong Way" Corrigan was born in 1907 in Galveston, Texas, and spent his early childhood in San Antonio, before settling in Los Angeles. It was there, on a Sunday afternoon in 1924, that he went out to the new Glendale Municipal Airport and spent $2.50 of wages earned on building sites on a ride in a war-surplus Curtiss Jenny biplane. "That night I walked home on air," he said.

Thereafter Corrigan spent every Sunday at the airfield, paying $5 for a 15-minute flying lesson, and helping mechanics to repair and refuel aeroplanes. His ambition to become an architect was forgotten when, on 25 March 1926 - "the biggest day in my life" - his instructor sent him off solo after four and a half hours of instruction.

Shortly after his 20th birthday, Corrigan moved to San Diego to work for the B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corporation, which was building monoplanes, and there in the spring of 1927 he helped assemble the Ryan NYP Spirit of St Louis in which Charles Lindbergh made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic, from New York to Paris.

In the early 1930s Corrigan worked as a pilot-mechanic on the US West Coast. With his brother Harry, an aeronautical engineering graduate, he rebuilt an Eaglerock bioplane and barnstormed across the country until a crash during a thunderstorm almost killed them. Soon after, he paid $350 for an old Curtiss Robin monoplane, and spent 18 days, including another crash, flying it from the East Coast to Los Angeles.

Nurturing the idea of flying the Robin, which he named Sunshine, from Newfoundland to his ancestral home in Ireland, Corrigan painstakingly overhauled it, installing a more powerful engine and long-range fuel tanks, and took lessons in "blind flying" on instruments.

In autumn 1936 Corrigan flew the Robin non-stop from New York to his old home at San Antonio. The following summer he made two coast-to-coast flights, but the US Bureau of Air Commerce persistently refused to license the Robin for a transatlantic attempt. So, on 8 July 1938, Corrigan took off from Long Beach, California, at the start of what he claimed was to be a return trip to New York, flying non-stop on each coast-to-coast leg. He reached Roosevelt Field, New York, in a little under 27 hours.

A week later, dressed in just a light shirt and trousers, with two boxes of fig biscuits, two chocolate bars and a quart of water, and seen only by the airport manager, he left Floyd Bennett Field at dawn, ostensibly westward-bound for Los Angeles. The weather was bad, and it was 26 hours before Corrigan had another sight of the surface, not the dry landscape of California, but water. "I shouldn't have come to the Pacific Ocean yet, so I started to figure out just what had happened . . . I had been following the wrong end of the magnetic compass needle on the whole flight," he explained.

Corrigan landed at Baldonnel military aerodrome near Dublin on 18 July, and after customs formalities - he had no passport or identification papers - was received by the American Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, and the Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera, occasions which forced him to buy a tie. Corrigan was feted in Dublin, then in London, returning triumphant to New York aboard the USS Manhattan to a fireboat and ticker-tape parade welcome and an audience with President Franklin Roosevelt. Even sceptical Bureau of Commerce officials warmed to Corrigan's cheeky exploit, administering a mere slap on the wrist for his rule-breaking - a five-day suspension of his airman's certificate, all of which had been served on his return sea-trip across the Atlantic.

Hollywood signed Corrigan to star as himself in a movie of his flight - The Flying Irishman. His 1939 autobiography, That's My Story, drew its title from his explanation to Irish authorities: "That's my story, but I sure am ashamed of that navigation." It was nonsense of course. No pilot of Corrigan's experience could have sustained such a gross navigational error for 28 hours and 3,150 miles, but throughout his life "Wrong Way" Corrigan stuck to it.

During the Second World War Corrigan served in the US Army Air Force Ferry Command, and later ran his own air freight service before settling to farm an orange grove in Santa Ana, California. In 1988 he returned to Ireland on the 50th anniversary of his solo flight, this time as a passenger aboard a commercial jet, and was feted by Dubliners all over again.

Mike Jerram

Douglas Corrigan, aviator: born Galveston, Texas 22 January 1907; died Orange, California 9 December 1995.