Corrigan was born in Galveston,
Texas, on January 22, 1907. His father was a construction
engineer and his mother a teacher. When Douglas was 15
months old, he was already making a name for himself; he won
first prize in a local baby contest. Corrigan's father moved
his family around fairly often during Douglas's childhood.
Eventually, Corrigan's parents divorced and Douglas bounced
from one parent to another before he settled in Los Angeles
with his mother. There, he began working in the construction
industry. At the time, aviation did not seem to be in his
Then, on a Sunday afternoon in
October 1925, Douglas decided to visit a local airfield.
Corrigan watched a pilot take passengers for rides in a
Curtiss "Jenny" biplane. Excited at the prospect of taking
his own ride, he returned the next Sunday with $2.50 in hand
and persuaded the pilot to take him aloft. Flying over Los
Angeles that afternoon, Corrigan was hooked; he was
determined to learn to fly. The following Sunday, he
returned for his first flying lesson and continued for weeks
thereafter. Corrigan also spent time learning everything he
could from the field's aircraft mechanics. On March 25,
1926, Corrigan made his first solo flight.
Notably, Corrigan took flight
lessons at the airfield where B.P. Mahoney and T.C. Ryan, a
team of well-known aircraft manufacturers, were operating a
small airline. It was not long before Corrigan got a job
with the two men and started working in their San Diego
Shortly after Corrigan began
working for Mahoney and Ryan, a new customer approached them
about making a special aircraft. Charles Lindbergh wanted
them to design and build the Spirit of St. Louis. Corrigan
assembled the aircraft's wing and installed its gas tanks
and instrument panel.
When Lindbergh made his famous
transatlantic flight in May 1927, Corrigan and his
co-workers were thrilled, but Corrigan's excitement did not
stop there. Inspired by Lindbergh's trip, he decided that he
would make his own transatlantic flight someday. Being of
Irish decent, he selected Ireland as his destination.
Starting in the late 1920s,
Corrigan changed jobs several times. In October 1929, he
became a full-fledged pilot when he earned his transport
pilot's license. The following year, he moved to the East
Coast and began a small passenger-carrying service with a
friend named Steve Reich. The two men would land in small
towns and convince people to buy airplane rides. Although
the operation did fairly well financially, Corrigan
eventually grew restless and decided to return to the West
Coast. In 1933, he bought a used OX5 Robin monoplane to make
the trip home. Back in California, Corrigan returned to work
as an aircraft mechanic. During that period, he also began
to modify his Robin for a transatlantic flight.
In 1935, Corrigan applied to
the federal government for permission to make a non-stop
flight from New York to Ireland. Officials denied his
application, however, because they claimed that his plane
was not sound enough to make a non-stop transatlantic trip.
Nevertheless, they did certify it for cross-country
journeys. In an attempt to get full certification, Corrigan
made several modifications to his aircraft over the next two
years, but each time he reapplied for permission, officials
turned him down.
By 1937, Corrigan had grown
tired of "red tape" and decided to try the flight without
official sanction (although he never publicly acknowledged
such a decision during his lifetime). His plan was to land
in New York late at night, after airport officials had
already left for the day, fill his gas tanks, and then leave
for Ireland. But various mechanical problems while in route
to New York caused him to lose his "safe weather window"
over the Atlantic, and Corrigan decided not to risk the
flight just then. He returned to California to wait for
another opportunity the next year.
On July 8, 1938, Corrigan left
California for New York. His official flight plan called for
him to return to California, and on July 17, Corrigan took
off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. He took
off in thick fog and headed east because airport officials
had told him to lift off in any direction except west since
there were some buildings at the western edge of the field.
They fully believed Corrigan would turn his plane around and
head west toward California once he cleared the airport's
airspace. To everyone's surprise, he kept flying eastward.
Corrigan insisted that his visibility was so poor that he
could only fly by using his compass and claimed his compass
indicated he was heading west.
Approximately 26 hours into his
flight, Corrigan claimed to have finally dropped down out of
the clouds and noticed that he was over a large body of
water. Knowing that it was too early to have reached the
Pacific Ocean, Corrigan looked down at his compass--and
because there was now supposedly more light to see
by--suddenly noticed he "had been following the wrong end of
the magnetic needle." Within a short time, Corrigan was over
Ireland. He landed at Baldonnel Airport, in Dublin, after a
28-hour, 13-minute flight.
When officials questioned
Corrigan about the incident, he explained that he had left
New York en route to California but had then gotten mixed up
in the clouds and flown the wrong way. He also explained
about the fog and his mistake with the compass, but they did
not believe him. As authorities continued to press him for
"the truth," Corrigan finally ended the situation by
replying: "That's my story." After failing to sway him from
his explanation, officials released Corrigan. The only
punishment he received was a brief suspension of his pilot's
license, which lasted only until August 4, the day he
returned to New York via steamship.
Corrigan returned to the United
States a hero. People loved his audacity and spirit. They
also had a great deal of fun with the obvious humour of his
situation. The New York Post, for example, printed a
front-page headline--"Hail to Wrong Way
Corrigan!"--backwards. Corrigan also received a Broadway
ticker-tape parade with more than a million people lining
the street, more people than had turned out to honour
Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight.
Corrigan lived a fairly simple
life after his famous flight. In the 1950s, he bought an
orange grove in Santa Ana, California, and lived there for
the remainder of his life. During the 50th anniversary of
his flight, some newspapers began reporting that he was
going to admit to having flown to Ireland intentionally, but
he never publicly acknowledged that fact. Corrigan died on
December 9, 1995.
Although Corrigan never
admitted that his story was a ruse, most people believe that
he purposely set out to bypass authorities and accomplish
his dream of a transatlantic flight. Despite the humor that
his story has provided, it is worth noting that Corrigan
flew across the Atlantic during the early years of
transoceanic flights, something that only the bravest and
best aviators of the day attempted. Corrigan deserves
recognition for such a daring achievement, even though he
had to accomplish the task in such an unorthodox manner.