There are many famous Irish men and women in the field of the arts; there are world-renowned academics and politicians, but ask someone to name a famous Irish aviator, and they might struggle. Some might remember the commemorative plaque in Dublin, listing the first Irishman to fly, Richard Crosbie, who ascended in a hydrogen balloon in 1785, or the famous 'Ghost of Montrose', Desmond Arthur, who was killed in a flying accident in 1913 and whose 'ghost aeroplane', a B.E.2c, has been seen flying across the sky and crashing, or maybe the incredibly successful WW2 ace Wing Commander Brendan Eamonn Fergus 'Paddy' Finucane, DSO, DFC and two bars (28 victories, killed in action, 1942). However, at this time of year, I always spare a thought for Douglas 'Wrong Way' Corrigan!
Born Clyde Groce Corrigan in January, 1907, his parents soon divorced, and his mother took his sister, his brother and 'Clyde' to live in California (he was later to discard his father's name, and legally become 'Douglas'). Taking whatever construction jobs he could, he became fascinated with aviation when he brought a 'joy-ride' from one of the many itinerant pilots who who were travelling around, offering rides in war-surplus Curtiss JN-4 'Jennies'. Saving up all the money he could, he took flying lessons, and went solo after his 20th flight on 26th March, 1926. Like Amy Johnson, and many other fine flyers, he spent a great deal of time talking with the mechanics on the airfield where he flew, picking up all the knowledge he could. This paid off when he was given a job with the Ryan Aeronautical Company Ltd. This was at a time when the West Coast aviation scene was full of Irish; not just T. Claude Ryan and Benjamin Franklin 'Frank' Mahoney - the partners who had founded the Ryan Aeronautical Company, but Allan and Malcolm Loughead who were establishing their famous aircraft company (yes, they changed the spelling because many people couldn't pronounce it correctly).
Douglas Corrigan worked on a special aircraft ordered by the already-famous flyer Charles Lindberg. This was a modification of the Ryan M-2 mailplane, and became known as the Ryan NYP (for 'New York Paris'). According to reports Corrigan worked on fitting the instrument panel and also the large overload tanks, designed to keep the Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine of 225 hp purring all the way across the Atlantic to Paris. Needless, to say, when 'Lucky Lindie' landed at Le Bourget, Paris, the world went wild - and lots of orders for Ryan aircraft flooded in. The company decided to move to St Louis, but Corrigan stayed behind in California. The idea of flying the Atlantic was firmly planted in Douglas Corrigan's mind, however, and whatever he did for the next few years - barnstorming, test flying, instruction - that idea was uppermost.
Despite having a mechanic's licence, and an Air Transport Pilot's licence, Corrigan's color-blindness and other factors meant that the airliners wouldn't hire him. This seemed only to drive him onward towards his goal. He bought a nine-year old Curtiss Robin OX-5 high-wing monoplane in 1933, for $325 and completely rebuilt it, fitting a Wright J6-5 radial engine of 165 hp, adding extra fuel tanks and many other modifications. Flight testing revealled that 85 mph appeared to be the most economical cruising speed, and in 1936 he applied for permission to make the trans-Atlantic flight - the Federal authorities refused; they also insisited he obtain a radio licence, despite the fact that the aircraft was not fitted with a radio! Gritting his teeth, he obtained the necessary papers, and re-applied in 1937. Amelia Earhart had just disappeared over the Pacific, so the last thing that was needed was another missing aviator - the answer was no, again! This epitomised the battles Corrigan had with the Federal authorities over his plane and his plans. Eventually, he was given permission for a long-distance flight, to New York, and a return flight. He made it to New York, but the weather over the Atlantic was deteriorating, so he decided to abandon the attempt on his real, final, destination of Dublin. The return to California was made with a number of intermediate stops - due to a series of defects and weather - and the Bureau of Air Commerce advised the Californian authorities to pull the Robin's licence as being unsafe, and it was grounded for 6 months. Obtaining an 'Experimental' rating for the 'plane, Corrigan took off east - again - on 9th July, 1938 and landed at Floyd Bennett Field, despite a fuel leak from one of the tanks. His flight plan gave a date of 17th for the return trip to California. He loaded up a total of 320 gallons of gasoline, and waiting until first light, because of foggy conditions, took off - east, not west!
Amazingly, he decided to make the Transatlantic crossing despite that leaking fuel tank, and during the flight, when fuel began to accumulate on the floor of the aircraft, he punched a hole in the cockpit floor, on the opposite side from the exhaust pipe, and allowed the gasoline to drain out! He then made a conscious decision to fly faster and use the fuel up in that tank so as to gain as many miles as possible from his dwindling supply of gas. Corrigan was a highly-skilled aviator, and no-one should have been surprised when he appeared over Baldonnel Aerodrome, Dublin, 28 hours and 13 minutes after taking off from New York.
Despite having no passport, and no permission, the Transatlantic flight made Corrigan an instant hero, and he stuck to his story about his compasses (he carried two) being defective, so that he flew in fog and over cloud all the way and thought he was travelling west! He met the then-President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, and other prominent figures, before returning to New York (along with his aircraft, which he had named 'Sunshine') aboard the liner 'Manhattan'. He had broken numerous Federal regulations, but received only a token suspension of his flying licence - indeed, he received a huge ticker tape welcome in New York, on his return. Quick exploitation of his new status (an autobiography out in time for Christmas, and a film, in which he played himself) allowed him to make the kind of money he had only dreamed of; it is reported that he made $75,000 for his role in the RKO picture, 'The Flying Irishman'.
When WW2 broke out, Corrigan, now with his nickname 'Wrong Way' firmly attached, tested aircraft for Douglas and made ferry flights. He retired from aviation in 1950, bought an orange grove, and became more and more reclusive. He even stored the disassembled Curtiss Robin in various hangars, so it would not be recognized. He died in 1995, and is buried in Santa Ana, California.
This plucky airman was nobody's fool, despite the nickname, and showed what sheer guts coupled with sound engineering expertise and flying skills of a high order could do. When you land in Ireland, spare a thought for Douglas Corrigan - and know that, like him, you have NOT gone the 'wrong way'!