After Douglas Corrigan got a taste of fame serving as a mechanic for Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Texas aviator knew he would have to do something even more audacious to win himself a dedicated page in the history books. And he did it with a trash plane and one of the world’s biggest lies.
See, Corrigan wanted to take his own nonstop flight across the Atlantic after he installed the fuel tanks and instrument panel and assembled the wings in Lindbergh’s iconic aircraft. He served as a mechanic and nabbed flight time in between students at a flight school, where he performed stunts that his employers definitely did not approve of. If you can believe it, he never stayed on one job for very long.
Corrigan had set his sights on Ireland, but it took him almost ten years to even begin making his dream a reality. In 1933, he bought a 1929 Curtiss Robin aircraft for $310 ($6,271.87 today), which was well-used and essentially trashed by that point. He spent about five years getting the thing ready for a long-distance flight.
But in 1937, he ran into a problem. He made tons of modifications, but by the time he’d done so, federal regulations had increased so dramatically that he was denied the renewal of his aircraft license. He had previously been allowed to take long-distance flights over land but not water; later, he was completely disallowed from flying.
He responded by making a long-distance flight from California to New York after repairing his engine. Once he reached New York, aviation authorities reminded him that he was absolutely not allowed to attempt a transatlantic flight, but that he could turn west and fly home.
So, what did Corrigan do? He “accidentally” flew east, where he vanished into a cloudbank. When he landed in Dublin, Ireland, Corrigan climbed off the plane exclaiming, “Just got in from New York. Where am I?”
He’d come up with a genius excuse: he said he lost his direction in the clouds and that his compass had stopped working. It was just an absolute coincidence that he had somehow not noticed that he spent twenty-eight hours flying over an ocean only to land in exactly the place he’d been telling folks he intended to fly to for years.
There could theoretically be some truth to Corrigan’s claims. He’d mounted his spare fuel tanks to the front of the plane, which meant he could only see out the side windows. He had no radio. His compass was 20 years old. The door was held together with a piece of baling wire. His gas tanks were leaking. The Curtiss Dublin had basically been Corrigan’s pet project for years, something he pieced together a bit at a time. There was a slight chance he could have been telling the truth.
But at the same time, Corrigan claimed that, about 10 hours into the flight, he felt his feet go cold because the cockpit floor had flooded with gasoline from a tank that had broken on his flight from California to New York and that he hadn’t had time to fix. If he thought he was on land, it would have made sense for Corrigan to try landing. Instead, he punched a hole in the floor of the cockpit with a screwdriver so that it would drain away from the exhaust pipes and not burst into flame.
The authorities, if you can imagine, didn’t buy the story, and they revoked his license and sent him and his crated plane back over to New York by ship. Corrigan, though, stuck to his story for years. He adopted the nickname Wrong Way Corrigan with gusto and returned from his ocean trip to great fanfare. Later, he met with President Roosevelt at the White House and endorsed tons of “wrong way” products. But he never changed his story.
In some ways, Corrigan’s flight was an accomplishment of a lifetime, one that journalist H. R. Knickerbocker praised as being more impressive than Charles Lindbergh’s flight because “Lindbergh had a plane specially constructed, the finest money could buy. He had lavish financial backing, friends to help him at every turn.” Corrigan, on the other hand, had a trashed, nine-year-old, jury-rigged plane, the ire of aviation officials around the world, and his own ambition.