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The eccentric engineer: the truly heroic story of Wrong-Way Corrigan

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Douglas Corrigan, the persistent engineer who beat the bureaucrats and crossed the Atlantic in ‘a wretched jalopy’, a heroic achievement for the right man in the right place – at the wrong time.

Douglas Corrigan was the right man in the right place at the wrong time when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly across the Atlantic solo. The son of an engineer with a troubled upbringing, he had fallen in love with flying in 1925 when he took a pleasure flight in a Curtiss JN-4 biplane. Within a week he was taking flying lessons and six months later he was flying solo.

To be a flyer in the 1920s was to be an engineer, as the aeroplanes of the day required extensive maintenance just to keep flying. Corrigan soon got a job as an aeronautical engineer with the Ryan Aeronautical company, where he was charged with fitting the fuel tanks and instrument panels on a new, bespoke plane for Charles Lindbergh – the Spirit of St Louis. Lindbergh had everything going for him, including a $15,000 line of credit from two St Louis businessmen to pay for the new plane. A year later, Lindbergh was in the history books. Corrigan, meanwhile, was very much stuck in the USA.

Yet Corrigan was not a man to be put off. With his Irish roots, he told his friends he would fly from New York to Ireland, but there were some significant obstacles in the way. Working at a flying school he had little time for his own flights but used lunchtimes to improve his skills, particularly his aerobatic skill – much to the distress of the Flying School owners. Shortly after he left the school, he took up commercial flying and barnstorming (putting on travelling shows), which was becoming the great outdoor spectator sport of the era.

With the money from barnstorming, he was able to buy a second-hand 1929 Curtiss Robin OX-5 monoplane, and turned his engineering skills to modifying for his great transatlantic flight. Corrigan managed to modify the original engine to nearly double its horsepower and welded extra fuel tanks onto the plane. With, in his mind at least, a fully modified plane, he applied to the Bureau of Air Commerce for permission for the flight in 1935.

Here, Corrigan hit a wall far harder than any engineering challenge – bureaucracy. To be fair to the bureaucrats, while Corrigan was a brilliant engineer, he hadn’t put much thought into the aesthetics of his plane or his own safety. The additional forward fuel tanks meant he had to look out of the side windows to see, the door was held on with baling wire and the welded patchwork on panels on the engine cowling looked more like an expressionist painting. Permission was refused, although the plane was granted an airworthiness certificate for inland flight.

For two years Corrigan played the bureau game, modifying and improving the plane. But he had reached that terrible point in the history of any engineering advance when regulators catch up with the innovators. With each improvement, he found that another regulation had come into effect which he couldn’t comply with. When he applied again in 1937, not only was he refused permission to cross the Atlantic – he was refused permission to fly his plane at all.

Corrigan was not put off. It was his life he was risking, and no bureaucrat was going to stop him. If they wouldn’t grant permission, he’d go without it.

This is not what Corrigan ever said in later life. His story was very simple. Having flown to New York, he set off for California but made a navigational error, caused by heavy cloud and poor light. Having misread his compass, he flew on for 26 hours until he realised something was wrong. When he landed at the nearest aerodrome, he told the staff he had just left New York and was heading for California. Where was he? He was told he was in Ireland.

Few people then or now believed that he had flown the Atlantic by accident. When he left New York, the manager of the airfield wished him ‘Bon Voyage!’ and in a 160hp monoplane it seems unlikely he would fly for 26 hours in the wrong direction before noticing.
It was a heroic achievement. Sitting in a pool of aviation fuel from his leaking tanks, with only two packets of fig rolls, two chocolate bars and two pints of water, he had crossed the Atlantic in what one journalist described as “a wretched jalopy”. It took the Bureau of Air Commerce 600 words to list the regulations he’d broken, but even they recognised his heroism, and his flying ban lasted no longer that the time it took him to return home.

When he returned to New York (by boat) he arrived a hero, receiving a larger ticker-tape parade than Lindbergh himself. He also gained a nickname – ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’, the New York Post even publishing its headline backwards to announce his arrival. And Corrigan always maintained that it was a well-earned epithet. He had simply gone the ‘wrong way’.

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